Cheb Hasni

Born : 01/02/1968 in Oran (Algeria)
Dead : 29/09/1994 in Oran (Algeria)
Country : Algeria
Language : Arabic
Category : Male Artist
Style of music : Raï

29 September 1994 was a sad day in Algeria, for it marked the death of a king. Cheb Hasni, inventor of "Raï love," an idol worshipped by an entire generation of Algerian teenagers, was gunned down outside his parents' home in Oran. Few years after Hasni's tragic death at the age of 26, we look back on the life of a popular hero, cut down at the height of his fame.

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    29 September 1994 was a sad day in Algeria, for it marked the death of a king. Cheb Hasni, inventor of "Raï love," an idol worshipped by an entire generation of Algerian teenagers, was gunned down outside his parents' home in Oran. Few years after Hasni's tragic death at the age of 26, we look back on the life of a popular hero, cut down at the height of his fame.

    Cheb Hasni's cold-blooded murder had been preceded a few days earlier by the kidnapping of Kabylian singing star, Lounès Matoub. Matoub was abducted by a commando from the GIA (the "Groupe islamique armé.") The singer was released on 18 October 1994, only to be gunned down by terrorists in June 1998. Up until this point, despite the chaos gripping Algeria and the number of victims rising on a daily basis, people believed their music heroes were untouchable. It was as if their popularity acted as "a sort of invisible shield," wrote journalist Rabah Mezouane in the wake of Cheb Hasni's death. Nevertheless, this shield failed to protect Hasni from his fate. He was the first singer to be murdered on Algerian soil since fighting broke out between government forces and armed Islamic groups.

    Several thousand people from across the Oran region turned out to join the funeral procession which accompanied Hasni's coffin to its final resting-place in the Aïn-el-Beida cemetery. Meanwhile, hundreds of young Raï fans took to the streets, angrily chanting slogans and calling for "a free and democratic Algeria." Khaled, the best-known Raï star on the international scene, admitted he was "completely traumatised" by the crime, which remained all the more inexplicable for him as Cheb Hasni had "never been mixed up in politics. He was just a kid from my neighbourhood. We grew up together and ended up singing together in Oran eight or nine years ago and in Paris just six months ago."

    Like many other Raï artists based in Algeria, Cheb Hasni spent more of his time performing abroad (giving concerts everywhere from Paris, Marseilles and Boston to Tunis, Casablanca and Tokyo) than at home. But this was hardly surprising given the curfew restrictions in force in Algeria at that time. Hasni’s last concert on his home soil dated back to 5 July 1993, when he performed to an audience of over 150,000 fans in Algiers at an event organised to celebrate Algerian Independence. Hasni was a prolific artist, far and away the most prolific on the Raï scene, in fact. He recorded some 100 cassettes in his lifetime and there was a longstanding joke in Barbès (a multi-ethnic neighbourhood of Paris). When anyone went into a Barbès record store, asking for Hasni's latest cassette, the salesman would quip, "Which one? The one he put out this morning or this afternoon?" Hasni's abundant production was on a level with his popularity and, needless to say, his distinctive "Raï love" style soon provoked a wave of imitators, notably Cheb Nasro who launched his career in 1988 with the hit "Pour te faire plaisir."

    Hasni Chekroun was born on 1 February 1968 in Gambetta, a working-class suburb in the north-east of Oran. Son of a welder, he grew up in a modest family where he was one of seven children. The future Raï star began singing at an early age. In an interview published in French newspaper Libération in 1992 (and used in the book "L’aventure du raï – Musique et société", co-written by Bouziane Daoudi and Hadj Miliani and published by Les Editions du Seuil), Hasni recounted how "everyone knew me in our neighbourhood when I was a kid. I was always walking up the road with my school bag thrown off my shoulder, singing my head off." Hasni proved to be a talented young football player, too, but his motivating passion in life was neither school nor football, it was Raï. Hasni got his first big break as a singer when he attended a local wedding party where the group led by the famous Naoui brothers was playing. Impressed by the young prodigy's voice, they immediately invited him to perform on stage at a well-known cabaret, La Guinguette.

    Hasni's second lucky break came shortly afterwards when a producer asked him into the studio to record with Chaba Zahouania. The pair recorded a song that was so risqué it sent shockwaves coursing through Algerian society for months to come. The lyrics to "Beraka" (The Shack) went beyond the bounds of the daring, Hasni singing about "making love in a dirty old shack. I had her ... because when you're drunk that's the sort of idea that runs through your head!" The song caused a veritable scandal – and proved an instant hit with Algerian teenagers! In fact, it went on to become the big summer hit of 1987, catapulting young Hasni to overnight fame. Needless to say, the arrogance and insolence of the song had critics up in arms. "After all, they had already found enough cause for concern in the "outrageous" Raï songs recorded by the likes of Khaled, Fadela, Saharaoui and Benchenet which dealt with taboo subjects such as divorcées, young widows and adultery). Islamic fundamentalists went so far as to force record store owners to turn down the volume when they played "Beraka", so that the outrageous lyrics would not be heard in the street.

    Unofficial estimates put the sales of "Beraka" at a million. Whether these figures are correct or not, there's no doubt that Hasni launched his career on the back of the song, establishing himself as the leader of a new style which fans dubbed "Raï love". Despite its name, Raï love was not just a genre which revolved around erotic love songs. Hasni's work also dealt with the frustrations and preoccupations of an entire generation, tackling taboo subjects such as sex and alcohol. In "El Visa", for instance, Hasni sang, "I was going to go and see my baby / But you’ve taken my visa / You want to kill me! / I'm gonna drink myself stupid and smash everything." The cassette copy of "El Visa" proved a huge hit in 1992, selling over 250,000 copies within a few days of its release.

    Back in those days, Hasni even found favour with the fundamentalists who complimented him on his voice and suggested he should become a muezzinsaying, "People love you. If they see you praying, then they'll come to the mosque, too." Hasni turned a deaf ear to these proposals, just as he later ignored the death threats.

    And even though his manager urged him to leave Oran (and he possessed a residence permit for France, where he had a wife and child), Hasni refused to leave his hometown. He met his death there on 29 September 1994. The following year, on 15 February 1995, producer Rachid Baba-Ahmed, another leading figure in the Raï world, was assassinated in Oran.

    October 2004

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