Friday, November 28, 2014

My MESA paper: "The New Social Media Archive of Maghrebi Popular Music (in Particular, Pop-Raï)"

   Below is the paper I gave at MESA on Sunday, November 23, at the session, “Social Media, the Digital Archive, and Scholarly Futures,” I co-organized with Rebecca Stein. The other papers, which were really fabulous, were: Negar Mottahedeh's "Tweeting Judgment Day, Rebecca Stein's "The Perpetrator's Archive: Israel's Occupation on YouTube", and Amahl Bishara, "A Popular Digital Archive of Resistance: Facebook Posts of Protests and Arrest Raids." Our terrific discussant was Elliott Colla of Georgetown University, the author of Baghdad Central. Below is the paper, pretty much as given, along with the images I showed, plus added hyperlinks and some asides.


      This paper has its origins in my efforts, beginning in spring 2012, to learn more about the development of pop-rai in Algeria, about that transitional period in the seventies and early eighties when rai was transformed from a genre of music that was rooted in the rural, sung chiefly to the backing of the gasba (reed flute) and guellal (hand-held frame drum), into the very contemporary and urban-sounding music that eventually blew up in the West's world music scene during the late eighties, sung to the accompaniment of electric guitar, synthesizers, drum machines, and trumpets. The written sources I have consulted cited a handful of specific songs considered to be seminal in the development of this new musical form, but these recordings, released on 45” vinyl or, by the late seventies, on cassette, were rare and out of print. Only a very small portion of rai music from this period has ever been released on rai compilations (which started to appear in the late eighties) for the commercial market, and none of the songs in question appear there. When I began my quest in 2012, however, I was able to find the recordings in question, as well many others from the period, posted on YouTube.1

      Here's one of the key recordings I located, “Zarga ou Masrara,” by the group of trumpeter Messaoud Bellemou, from the town of Aïn Témouchent in northwestern Algeria. Let's listen to a bit. [L’ensemble de Belemou, “Zarga ou Masrara” (Brown and Radiant). Vocals: Hamani Hadjoum Tmouchenti, Sax: Messaoud Bellemou, Trumpet: Mouafaq (“Mimi”) Bellemou.]

 [Here I played a bit of the opening of the song.]

       At the beginning my chief interest in such YouTube videos was for the data they contained: the recordings themselves, plus the photos and the details about the artists that the contributors and commenters posted. I used a great deal of that material in a long piece ["In search of the origins of "pop-rai": Bellemou, Bouteldja, Boutaiba...and Cheb Khaled"] I posted on my blog, hawgblawg, in January 2013, and you can read my account of the emergence of pop-raï there. (But I will not be discussing those findings today.)

      As I was gathering and analyzing the data, however, I quickly came to realize that I was dealing with a rather novel sort of archive, one that I had on occasion consulted in other research, but not nearly to such a degree as I did for my investigation of the origins of pop-rai. And I had not previously given much thought to the nature of the archive. This paper represents my preliminary efforts to try to make some sense of the specificities of this data and this archive, what motivates those who produce it, how it is consumed, the discussions and affects it inspires, and so on.

      The early pop-rai YouTube archive I consulted is part of a much larger array of online sources that have proliferated over the last several years (YouTube was officially launched in November 2005; the earliest YouTube contributor upon whom I've relied, lunakhod, started posting in October 2006.)2 There are also a number of music blogs and other websites that variously offer webcasts, mixes, singles and entire albums of rai music either for downloading or online listening, usually via SoundCloud. The rai archive in turn is part of a much, much larger array of online sources that are making available recordings from many other Maghrebi music genres (I've paid attention mostly to music from Morocco and Algeria). The sources I've relied on, moreover, do not limit their postings to rai music. (As an aside: two very noteworthy blogs in this universe are curated by MESA members: ethnomusicologist Tim Abdellah Fuson's Moroccan Tape Stash and historian Chris Silver's Jewish Morocco. Both are notable for the rare quality of the Maghrebi music they post as well as their scrupulous documentation and commentary.) I focus here on the YouTube component of the online rai phenomenon, in part because, of all the online sources for this genre, YouTube one perhaps the most “social” of all the relevant “social media.”

      The flurry of online rai music postings by afficionados, fans and collectors can be considered in part a response to the fact that the Algerian state has done virtually nothing to preserve, archive and make available this vast and important musical resource. This despite the fact that at least since the early nineties, rai music has been regarded as an important part of Algeria's national patrimony as well as very critical to the tolerant image of the nation that the state has promoted, especially since the early nineties. Beginning in the mid-eighties, and especially over the last decade, the Algerian regime has invested substantial sums of money to put on annual rai festivals, which were at first held in Oran, and since 2006, in Sidi Bel Abbès. But it seems not to have devoted any serious resources to archiving, preserving, documenting or distributing music from the vast rai tradition, and so only a few songs from the period I'm concerned with have been circulated commercially.

      The online explosion of rai music also seems connected to the recent rage in the West for collecting and curating “vintage” or “retro” recordings, what music critic Simon Reynolds (2011) dubs “retromania.”3 It is appropriate to link the rai collectors/curators and fans to the retromania phenomenon, as many of them are Arabs resident in France, and all use the same online technologies deployed by other music retromaniacs.

      In part, then, the rai phenomenon I am examining is about obsessive music collecting, a phenomenon that, as Reynolds observes, was once a minority pursuit in the West but has become, since the 2000s, very mainstream, in part due to the availability of new distribution and storage technologies (2011: 95). The new breed of music collectors is typically not just concerned with acquiring vintage music but also with “documentation” of that music (Reynolds, 99). Fortunately for us, this concern for documentation is true of many rai collectors as well. (And like in the West's music retro scene, the rai collection field is strongly dominated by males [Reynolds, 101].)

      The developments in distribution and storage have also enabled a shift in the nature of collecting, traditionally thought of as the effort to acquire what no one else has got. The recent trend in online collecting is to try to get one's hands on a rare/vintage recording but then to make it available to everyone (online), a collecting tendency known as “sharity.” In the sharity realm a person accrues cultural capital not so much due to his/her ownership of a scarce and valuable item but due to his/her possession of special knowledge about the item (Reynolds, 106). Collectors who share music in this way are typically quite scrupulous, and generous, about passing along whatever information they've got, including providing reproductions of the record or cassette jackets, and so on (Reynolds, 109).

      Through sharity, the act of obsessive collecting also becomes available to the avid fan, who may not have the cash or inclination to pay for rare recordings, but who can now track down such music through constant Google searches, by endlessly scanning relevant websites, and through subscriptions to YouTube contributors and music bloggers and so on. For this new breed of collector, “collecting” in large part involves the act of indulging in excessive, extensive, binge downloading.

      Some argue that the value of music has depreciated as a result of the shift from analog to digital recording. At first, and for many decades afterwards, when music was recorded (analog), it was reified, turned into a thing (a vinyl record, a cassette tape) that you could purchase, store, and keep under your personal control. When music was rendered digital, turned into MP3s and the like, it was liquified, in order that it might be transferable anywhere (Reynolds, 122). Even if users do still speak of digital music files as things, in the sense that they own them and make use of them, the materiality, the “thing-ness,” of the digital is not readily perceptible to the senses in the way that vinyl records, cassette tapes, or even CDs are (Sterne 214: 194, 214). It has also been suggested that liquefaction/digitalization has resulted in a shift in views towards recorded music. The fact that dizzying quantities of music are now massively available has, some argue, resulted in feelings of information overload as well as a growing indifference to recorded music and a sense that it is somehow now valuelessness, because it is “free” and easily acquired (Reynolds 2011: 127-128).

      In some ways one might think of the rai posts on YouTube as efforts to resist the liquefaction, the dematerialization, the devaluation, of recorded music. The YouTube posts in question hearken back to a day when music seemed to have a tangible materiality, and they seem to prompt affects associated with the reified objects that existed in the past. YouTube rai videos could be seen as efforts to re-enchant recorded music, in response to the liquefied state of the recorded music of today.

      YouTube enables contributors and commenters to attempt re-enchantment and re-valuation in a number of ways. First, there is the matter of the music itself. Most of the recordings from the early, transitional pop-rai period are 45” vinyl records. What we notice immediately when we listen to the YouTube rai recordings is the crackle of the needle on the record (or, sometimes, but less remarkably, the hiss of the tape playing on a cassette recorder). According to critic Mark Fisher such crepitation (or hiss) reminds us of the materiality of the vinyl (or cassette), and it seems to mark a return of materiality in a world where musical sound has otherwise dematerialized into the MP3 ether. It also reminds us of a loss that is at the same time a recovery. The recovery of a forty year-old pop-rai recording is a collector's “find” that we can participate in, at second hand (Fisher 2014: 144). (And we can download it.)

      YouTube is a technology that allows, invites in fact, contributors to post images (static or moving) of their choosing, which are displayed onscreen as the music plays. The sense that the rai track we are listening to is material, not liquid, is enhanced by the fact that in some videos the contributor places the phonograph playing arm on the record, and so as we listen to the song we also see the record rotating, the needle moving in the grooves of the vinyl.4 Alternatively, we see the contributor punch the play button on the tape player and then, the revolutions of the cassette. This of course is the very opposite of the experience of playing songs on the computer, smartphone, or iPod, where we see no moving parts. Alternatively, the video simply shows us a still photo of a record jacket and the 45” record placed atop a turntable, as in this photo posted on a YouTube vid of a 1973 recording by Cheikh (or Cheb) Younes Benfissa. 
Or a cassette jacket in front of a tape player, as in this YouTube video photo of a 1979 recording ["Ana Ma Halai Ennoum"] by Fadela (soon to shoot to national fame in Algeria as Chaba Fadela) backed by the Bellemou ensemble, a recording said by some (but I think incorrectly) to have launched the pop-rai era.

     The photos of the pop-rai cassette or 45" record jackets likewise also serve to emphasize the music's materiality, especially as these almost never look new. The fact that these jackets are worn and aged in fact seems to be part of the point (and no effort has been made to spiff the images up with photo-editing software like Photoshop). 
L'ensemble Belemou & Hamani Tmouchenti “Mani M'heni” 1974-75 (source)

Ensemble Bellemou and Remitti (later: known as Cheikha Rimitti) (source)
Sometimes the contributor posts photos of the pop-rai musicians, and these too often serve to create a sense that the music in question is a material thing, as the photos are often faded, torn, marked with creases and stains. 
 Troupe Bellemou (Messaoud, upper right) while still amateurs, wedding procession, late sixties (source)
L’Ensemble Bellemou (source)
L to R: Kerbiche, kerakeb: Messaoud and Mimi Bellemou, trumpets;
Hocine (with soft drink), accordion and organ; Hamdane, tbal
(L to R): Messaoud Bellemou, Hamani Tmouchenti, Kerbiche (source)
Groupe El-Azhar (source)
(As an aside, it should be noted that the photos that produce this sense of musical materiality are in fact digital photos or scans of the originals, that is, simulations of a real, just as the scratchy, seemingly “thing-y” pop-rai music we listen to is digital as well.) 
      YouTube also provides space for written comments by contributors, who frequently provide details about the song and the artist(s). Viewers who sign up (free) for YouTube accounts can also post comments. The early pop-rai songs I was particularly interested in, however, did not typically inspire a large number of comments. Usually comments are put up soon after the video is uploaded, and are posted by a small number of comments posters, most of whom seem to know each other, at least online, and in some cases personally. Often no further comments appear after those posted a couple weeks or months after the video is uploaded. Discussions are typically geeky, the remarks of music enthusiasts, who add information, for instance, about when a song was recorded and the artists who played on it. Some contributors and discussants know the artists in question personally. Many comments assert that hearing the song on YouTube evokes a time or a mood in the past, when one first listened to the song at the time of its release. Here's a somewhat typical comment – written by attafi, himself a contributor of rai videos on YouTube, in a mixture of Algerian dialect and French, in response to a post by YouTube contributor maghrebunion
Attafi addresses maghrebunion by his (I think) nickname, Mutanabbi, and he writes that he remembers where he was when he first he heard the song. He adds that if someone had told him back then he'd be listening to the song again, forty years later, in Germany, he'd have considered that person crazy. Comments on the whole are mostly informational or nostalgic, and very rarely political. In one set of comments, a person who is presumably Moroccan comments on a discussion about Algerian pop-rai artists, and asserts that rai's true origins are in Oujda, Morocco, and not in Algeria – the commonly accepted origin. Other commenters, all of them – I think – Algerians, simply ignore or dismiss the Moroccan's claims out of hand, but they do not engage with him.5 (Perhaps this is because he writes in Arabic script, whereas the ususal discussion on such spaces, whether in Arabic or French or both, uses Latin script.) The character of YouTube comments about pop-rai therefore in no way resembles the sort that one often encounters on YouTube posts of music by Palestinian, Israeli or Jewish-Arab artists, where remarks are often political, have nothing at all to do with the music in question, and are unproductive, vituperative, ad hominem, and endless.

      YouTube contributors who post pop-rai music tracks also often resort to other visual strategies. Some post images of Oran (Arabic: Wahran), considered in standard accounts of rai to be the cradle of the music (whereas most YouTube posts I consulted point to Aïn Témouchent as the chief incubator of pop-raï). The images of Oran are typically historic scenes, often from the colonial period, and designed, it would seem, to induce nostalgia. Other YouTube posts feature images or video footage that is imagined to fit the mood of the song, such as a belly dance scene from an old Egyptian movie. Other relevant material I found posted on Youtube was footage of rai performers in concert, sometimes filmed by amateurs, sometimes taped from a television broadcast, in both cases “rare” and vintage. Other useful posts included interviews with a rai artist, taped from an Algerian or a French television show, and in one case, an important documentary film about rai.6 Finally, one contributor posted clips of a television interview with pop-rai pioneer Boutaïba Sghir and spliced them with clips from Boutaïba's major songs of the period. All these are also postings of rare, otherwise unavailable material, and examples of the practice of “sharity.”

Some Conclusions

      1. The portion of the Maghrebi archive I've discussed here is a somewhat marginal one. Some of the YouTube videos I consulted have attracted a decent number of views, and a few as many as 40,000.7 Only a rather small number of devotees, however, are involved in the discussions that occur in the comments section, and as noted above, many of them appear to have personal contacts with the artists whose vintage work they are posting. This then is social media, but it is of nowhere near the massive social scale or intensity that my co-panelists are discussing/have discussed. I don't know why more people who view the videos don't participate in discussions. Perhaps because the knowledge on already display is rather specialized and they feel they have nothing to add; perhaps it is that one has to be a truly devoted geek to put in the time it takes to comment. Perhaps it is because of the glut of available music postings on Youtube and other online sources.8 Despite the fact that the artists in question are respected, and some continue to perform at the annual state-sponsored raï festivals in Algeria, their contributions to the development of the genre have not really been well-promoted, nor are they well-documented in mainstream histories and studies of rai. The sources I've consulted are an essential source of documentation.

      2. I worry about this archive and its longevity. Is anyone archiving the archive, preserving the recordings and comments and images, all invaluable for the cultural history of Algeria, in some other form, in some other place/space, more permanent than YouTube? I personally convert the videos I'm concerned with to MP3s, I download and save the useful interviews and documentaries, and I screensave many images. But this is very haphazard archiving, and only available to me. I hope some of our Middle East librarians are at least thinking about these archiving issues, for when it comes to North African and Middle Eastern music more generally, extremely valuable sources for research are now available – but in a very haphazard and perhaps even ephemeral form.

      3. Contributors are adding to this archive constantly. While working on this paper over the last two weeks I discovered that the YouTube contributors I follow had posted a good deal of new pop-rai material since last I checked (some of which I incorporated into the slides I've shown). So even when working with 35-40 year old material, it's difficult to keep up with additions to the archive, and I now feel the need to post an update to my 2013 conclusions about pop-rai. Among other things, I'd want to emphasize the important contributions of Younes Benfissa, who I only discuss briefly in my 2013 post. [This song from 1973 is particularly intriguing.]
And perhaps also Boussouar Maghnaoui (who may or may not be Moroccan or Algerian). [Check out these two songs, courtesy Phocéephone.]

      4. I've had no luck engaging the rai YouTube contributors I follow and whose material I've used, with one exception. I did, however, at least attempt to make my own contribution to the discussion, by using the online archive (and other material) in writing my analysis of pop-rai published on hawblawg, referred to earlier. The piece, at 7,000 words the length of a short article, has to date had over 2,600 views, but unfortunately received no substantive comments. Perhaps in order to receive such comments I need to translate the post into French.

     5. I am not aware of many studies of YouTube and its effects in our (Middle East) field, but I believe this a topic very worth of pursuit. Martin Stokes in a forthcoming article discusses the web of commentary, emotionality, and construciton of community that has occrred via the posting of YouTube Islamic videos by Turkish Islamists. On the other hand, in the case I've studied, it seems that if we can talk about any "community" constructed around these videos, it is a very small and somewhat exclusive community of geeks and afficionados. These two examples suggest that we should not expect that the YouTube technology and social medium will have the same impact and political effects in all cases, and that we should expect to encounter a range of uses and social significances. I hope others who investigate such phenomena will be willing to look at segments of the social media universe that are not necessarily caught up in political movements, but are nonetheless worthy of attention, even if only for the sake of very nerdy scholarship.


Fisher, Mark. 2014. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Zero Books. 
Reynolds, Simon. 2011. Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to its Own Past. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc. 
Sterne, Jonathan. 2012. MP3: The Meaning of a Format. Durham: Duke University Press.
Stokes, Martin. Forthcoming. “Islamic Popular Music Aesthetics in Turkey,” In Islam and Popular Culture. Karin van Nieuwkerk, Mark LeVine and Martin Stokes, eds. Austin: University of Texas Press.


1 More recently some recordings from this period, chiefly by Bellemou, perhaps with Boutaïba Sghir on vocals, as well as Benfissa and Boussouar El Maghnaoui, have been released on the Brahim Ounassar label—but with no information on date of release, personnel, etc. Also important is the collection, 1970's Algerian Proto-Rai Underground, released by the Seattle label Sublime Frequencies in 2009.

2 My other chief YouTube sources: Nado Coeur, who began posting in April 2007, Kromagnon1999 in February 2008, maghrebunion in December 2008, nostalgerie in March 2009, rabnass ARCHIVES ALGERIE in March 2011, and toukadime in June 2011.

3 2009 was the first year that Soundscape separately tracked current and back catalogue sales of digital sales, and its skurvey revealed that 64.5% of digital-track sales were catalogue, versus 35.7% for current (Reynolds 2011: 65).

4 Presenting vintage music in this way on YouTube is not, of course, unique to Algerian rai music. I've come across the same phenomenon in YouTube vids of vintage Latin American music, for instance.

6  Algérie: Mémoire du Raï, directed by Djamel Kelfaoui et Michel Vuillermet, 2001. (Here is part one, the other 3 parts can be searched on YouTube.)

7 Here is a range of total views on YouTube of the main songs from the period that I consulted in my blog post, as of November 19, 2014. All songs were recorded during the 1970s with the exception of one; where information is available, I provide the date. Missoum Bensmir, “Ya El Gomri‬” (1,138); Bouteldja Belkacem, “Serbili Baoui‬,” 1965 (45,477); ‪L'Ensemble Belemou, “Zerga Oua Mesrara” (41,610); T‪roupe Belemou et Bouteldja Belkacem, “Ândi Mesrera” ‬(4,505); Ensemble Bellemou and Bouteldja Belkacem, “Inta Âkli, ”1976‬ (16,043); ‪L'ensemble Belemou et Hamani Tmouchenti, “Mani M'heni,” 1974-75 (7,209); ‪Boutaïba Sghir, “Dayha Oulabes‬” (21,501); Boutaïba Sghir and Ensemble Bellemou, “Ki Kounti” (24,181); ‪Chaba Fadela, “Mahlali Noum‬” (7,300); ‪Boutaïba Sghir and Jaouk el Azhar, “Nar Ghuedate,” 1976-77‬ (15,355); ‪Boutaiba Sghir and Chaba Fadela, “Ya Khali,” 1977-78‬ (27,544).

8 Some of the YouTube contributors I follow, like maghrebunion have posted hundreds of videos.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Bogus National Parks

courtesy B'Tselem:

"Visit the parks to see how East Jerusalem is being made Jewish and the lives of its Palestinian residents made miserable."

For more on ethnic cleansing via national parks, here.

The source for B'Tselem's excellent, thorough account is Bimkom -- Planners for Planning Rights, an Israeli non-profit organization formed in 1999 by a group of planners and architects, "in order to strengthen democracy and human rights in the field of planning."

 "City of David" (Ted Swedenburg) more on this here

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

a mesmerising film about Damascus

by Waref Abu Quba. it will only take 4 minutes of your time.

a four-minute short that merely shows a slice of life in the city. It captures people walking, façades of old buildings, iron doors, shadows of trees, clouds kissing steeples, city lights and calligraphy carved into walls. Filmmaker Waref Abu Quba’s style captures the aesthetics of nostalgia itself due to the way in which images filter and flit across the screen – languorous, soft, full of flux and a kind of bittersweet joy. It is a particularly touching reminder of a city that, due to the ongoing war, has become lost to the world as a place of vibrant vitality, beauty, history and quite simply, humanity. This choreography of images is set to the sound of legendary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s poem, “The Damascene Collar of the Dove” -- from here. and there's more.

The translation of the Darwish poem doesn't quite follow (although perhaps uses) Fady Joudah's brilliant translation, which is here. And here is a randomly chosen verse:

In Damascus:
the stranger sleeps
on his shadow standing
like a minaret in eternity’s bed
not longing for a land
or anyone . . .