CHEB MAMI sways back and forth on the stage, pulling the microphone closer to his mouth. The cords in his neck are visibly vibrating as he sings long, intricately modulated phrases against a band playing rhythms that float somewhere between rock-and- roll and the Casbah. A group of Algerian men, dressed in white, pin stripe shirts, are dancing wildly, waving their arms in the air. Their joy permeates the atmosphere. Cheb Mami is an Algerian singer, and this is his debut in the United States here at Sounds of Brazil. He is the first Algerian ``rai'' singer to come to the US - ``rai'' meaning ``opinion'' in Arabic. Rai is the latest and most exotic trend in the ever-increasing influx of ``world beat'' or ``ethno- pop'' music into the US. Singers adopt the titles Cheb (for men) and Chaba for women, which mean ``young kid'' and expresses an attitude of rebellion.
Prominent on the rai scene in Algeria, Mami has been nicknamed the ``Prince of Rai.'' At age 23, he has a huge following among Algerian youth, both at home and in Paris. Albums of other famous rai singers - Cheb Khaled (``The King of Rai''), Chaba Zahouania, Chaba Fadela, and others - are now available in US record stores.
The roots of rai go back a half a century to the Algerian port of Oran. Many of the early rai singers were rural women called cheikhates, who adapted the Bedouin chants of the nomadic herders, adding their own lyrics. To traditional Islamic society, the songs of rai were considered rebellious, racy, and forbidden - sung by criminals, alcoholics, and worse! But today, rai is a life style that has merged into the mainstream of Algerian pop music, much in the same way that rock-and-roll did here.
``A lot of people were against rai, but now things are changing - people are getting used to it,'' says Cheb Mami through an interpreter, in his dressing room after the show.
In fact, after a recent campaign by the Algerian government to clean up rai lyrics - boosted by rai's unprecedented popularity - there is little in today's rai that would unsettle even the most traditional attitudes.
``We sing about immigration, social problems, problems of living in the cities, personal problems - about everything,'' says Mami in a mixture of French and Arabic. ``We can put in everything but politics. Basically, we're are dealing with the problems of youth through rai. There are no songs against the government.''
Early rai consisted of vocals and drums, flutes and hand claps, with trumpets, violins, and accordions added later. In the 1970s, rai bands started to incorporate synthesizers, drum machines, and electric guitars, and the music began to reflect a strong rock influence.
Cheb Mami's music successfully bridges the gap between the old and new. His band, which consists of electric guitar and bass, violin, keyboards, western-style drums, and the traditional darbuka (a hand drum), relies on a strong, repetitive beat to drive Mami's Islamic-influenced vocals.
To American ears, the music may seem monotonous at first, but the hypnotic feel of the groove soon carries you away from that western need for constant change and variety into another realm. Does Mami believe that rai will be acceptable to foreign ears?
``I think that if we present this music with good arrangements, it could become a world music.''
Now that he's finished a stint in the Algerian army, Cheb Mami has started touring to broaden his audience base and support his album, ``Prince of Rai.'' He'll play in Japan and then return to the US in March for an extensive tour.
The following is a list of rai recordings: Cheb Mami - ``Prince of Rai'' (Shanachie). Chaba Zahouania - ``Nights Without Sleeping'' (Mango/Island). Chaba Fadela - ``You Are Mine'' (Mango/Island). Various artists (including Cheb Khaled, husband and wife team Chaba Fadela and Cheb Sahraoui, Cheb Hamid, and Chaba Zahouania) - ``Rai Rebels'' (Virgin/Earthworks). Cheb Khaled and Safy Boutella - ``Kutche'' (Intuition Records).