“I took Tony Wilson dancing to rai music in a Paris nightclub.” Now that is a tale that has appealed enormously down the years. For a long, long time I had this mental image of the Factory patron unwinding after a day of business meetings, and ending up in a club where the DJ was playing a selection of rai releases from Algeria and from Paris itself. I imagine Tony a little the worse for wear, getting carried away on the dancefloor, suit jacket swirling, then pestering the DJ about a particular track he’d played, quoting Baudelaire in his ear, explaining he was a subversive media mogul and had to release that track as a 12” on his label, while taking details down in his Filofax. I like the story that the DJ took Tony at his word, and made him keep his word in the cold sober light of day, and so Factory came to release a 12” of Fadela’s N'Sel Fik in 1987.
Now, however, we know it wasn’t really like that at all. James Nice’s notes accompanying LTM’s 1987 instalment of Auteur: the Factory years series explain how Mike Pickering, who was doing a lot of Factory’s A&R work at the time, heard the track played by Mark Kamins in a New York club, thus starting the chain of events that ended up with Factory releasing the track on a 12”, remixed by Pickering. James’ account perhaps raises more questions along the way (like why Pickering needed to remix it?) than my imaginary scenario, but that’s the trouble with truth.
If, as James explains, Mike Pickering was doing some A&R for Factory at the time (1987), it seems even more bizarre that the label did not tap into what was happening, then and shortly afterwards, on its doorstep in terms of house music: T-Coy, A Guy Called Gerald, 808 State, etc. Surely he could have persuaded Tony Wilson to put out T-Coy’s Carino? Or was Pickering busy with plans of his own, with the advent of Deconstruction? What about Voodoo Ray? How did Gerald end up on the Liverpool label Rham! given the rivalry between Manchester and Merseyside? 808 State’s Graham Massey was already involved with Factory through Biting Tongues, so that should have been a natural progression. And what about the licensing of some of the early house stuff from Chicago? Why didn’t that happen? It would have been easier than doing the Fadela 12” surely? You see what I mean?
N'Sel Fik was the only rai related record Factory released, which is a bit of a shame really. I won’t pretend to be an authority on rai, then or now, but I do remember a moment when it seemed quite the done thing to like the music, and there was a sense that it could become as big as reggae around the world. Rai got plenty of coverage in the more fashionable publications, and with the likes of David Toop writing in The Face, Neville Brody designing sleeves for Charlie Gillett’s Oval Records, Earthworks releasing the high profile Rai Rebels compilation, things looked very positive. Well, rai music thrived of course, but it didn’t take over the world. Maybe the UK becoming a house nation wasn’t such a good thing if more diverse musics were marginalised or compartmentalised, and the dreaded and damaging curse of the specialist took hold. As Charlie Gillett himself said about the African sounds he was releasing: “In those optimisitic, pioneering days, I still believed that such music was bound for the mainstream, if it were pushed with the right combination of enthusiasm and initiative, and this seemed to be the record that might make a breakthrough.”
N'Sel Fik is I guess the ‘crossover’ rai track. Credited to Faleda it is actually by Chaba Fadela & Cheb Sahraoui, a very successful duo, who were for a while husband and wife as well. The track was originally produced by Rachid & Fethi Baba Ahmed, who are credited with modernising Algerian music, which I’m sure is as oversimplistic a statement as it seems, but ... They have been (and will be again) featured as part of the Algerian sequence over at Anywhere Else But Here Today performing some heartbreakingly beautiful ballads in TV footage from the ‘70s. In the ‘80s they are said to have introduced synths and drum machines to Algerian pop music and rai, transforming the sound by mixing more traditional rhythms and instrumentation with their use of electronics and samples, making them rai’s equivalent to Jam & Lewis, though perhaps not everyone would thank them for making the music more sleek and sophisticated.
In 1990 Fidel Castro-lookalike Rachid’s '80s productions were the subject of a second essential volume in Earthworks’ Rai Rebels series, the splendidly titled Pop-Rai & Rachid Style. Both volumes of Rai Rebels are well worth seeking out, and shouldn't be too hard to come by. The sleevenotes capture something of the optimism and excitement of the time. And there're some fascinating facts that show how the times have changed, like the way much of the rai music was issued on cassette only. And given the life expectancy of a cassette perhaps that goes some way to explaining how vintage pop-rai can be hard to come by. There are also some intriguing insights into how Rachid worked, recording the vocals first and then adding on his own mix of sounds. He was sadly shot dead in 1995.
Talking of cassettes and the dear departed, Malcolm McLaren spoke of taking Eric Satie to an Algerian rai club on the track Club Le Narcisse on his wonderful Paris 1993 collection. That line is preceded by these ones: “A secret history of a time to come. The free explosion. Everyone must search for what he loves and for what attracts him”. I wonder if Malcolm danced to this one by Chaba Fadela and Cheb Sahraoui ...