Cheb Mimo and the UK's Maghreb Raï-naissance
“People, even in Tunisia and Algeria, don’t listen to our old gems anymore,” Cheb Mimo, a DJ with roots in both countries, explains. He’s trying to change that.
Otherwise known as Mohamed Belhadj Aissa, the selector looks for music in forgotten places; vinyls and tapes that contain what has become a ‘secret’ or neglected part of North Africa’s musical heritage. The music he finds ranges widely, from disco to funk, and Gnawa to Stembali.
Now based in London, he hosts a monthly show on NTS Radio and has played live in the UK, Germany and around the Mediterranean in Beirut and Tunis, his hometown.
"Musically, I think that people’s ears are much more curious in the UK than anywhere else... if you play in Paris, it would be mainly North African people. Here in London, people from all around the world would come. Both are nice, but it’s a difference"
“Growing up in Tunisia you tend to reject the Arabic music and instead try to be edgy and listen to things like French and English rap – you reject the music heritage that we have,” he explains.
It was a way of trying to communicate cultural values or aspirations through music.
He wasn’t immune either. Even as he began to develop an intrigue towards North African music, he admits that he “wouldn't go with friends, it was always with family or alone.” Still, he began digging privately.
Digging in this context has two meanings. The act of researching and seeking out knowledge, as well as physically seeking out music on cassettes and vinyl.
Starting, Cheb Mimo would ask family members if they had anything that they weren’t listening to anymore.
This was during the 2010s and a new wave of selectors was emerging, especially in Europe, with an interest in underappreciated music from across the world – Africa, Latin America, Japan and beyond. Moving to France to study, this new musical world was a significant discovery.
During these years he travelled widely, including a year in Mexico, which vastly expanded his record collection. But then came a moment of reckoning: “Why am I going so far? Why am I trying to find music in Japan where I don't speak the language?”
The questions were enough to propel him back to a deeper exploration of the music closer to home. Now he often puts North African music in conversation with world music.
Many local genres, such as Raï, Chaabi or Gnawa, embody the region’s history as a cultural crossroads, and so this approach can uncover connections between different music traditions.
Accessing North African tracks from the 1980s-2000s can be a tough ask as very little is available online. So Cheb Mimo goes back to the source.
“I ask if anyone had any vintage stuff, tapes or records,” he recounts, “and they say, what for? Like for decoration? What do you want to do with that?
“They’ll even say you don't have Spotify? Even in Southern, or Central Algeria – they know Spotify, they have an account and I don’t.”
Music consumption has well and truly moved on – but moving on risks leaving behind.
Losing the music only released on analogue formats would be devastating to North African music history — especially when it comes to tapes which were the epicentre of music distribution from Egypt to Morocco for decades.
In the places left that sell them, shopkeepers are vital repositories of knowledge. “The human interaction that you get in these kinds of places is always inspiring, it makes you want to keep doing more.”
But increasingly there’s a digital element to discovery – searching in Arabic on Facebook, for instance, to find information about obscure tracks. A modern approach, but one that preserves the human element: asking questions and sharing people’s knowledge.
As a selector, Cheb Mimo has become a conduit through which rare or forgotten records are shared with broader audiences once more.
“I try to share the music I find through different media,” he explains, from club nights and radio shows and beyond.
When I find things that I think would be interesting to Tunisian ears... the goal of sharing it is reconciling people with their musical heritage, that was kind of neglected for a while"
Online radio stations like NTS Radio or Worldwide FM have provided a space for many artists and selectors to raise awareness of global music. This is especially true for music that was never digitised – radio or live shows are the only way to share much of it.
“It’s played a really big role,” Cheb Mimo elaborates, “to give a rough percentage, I would say 50% of the music produced in North Africa between mid 80s to mid-2000s, is on tapes and no other format: not CDs, not records, and not online.”
A recent attempt he made to contact a label in Southern Tunisia that reportedly had a stock of over 100,000 tapes resulted in nothing: they couldn’t be found.
“So we asked the guy where did they go and he said they were sold to a plastic company to be recycled. It’s crazy to think about because it was probably the biggest stock of tapes in Tunisia.”
Selectors play a role in preventing such losses. Habibi Funk in Berlin, re-masters music and releases it digitally, while others such as Retro Cassetta in Casablanca focus on distributing analogue finds.
Cheb Mimo is joining their ranks, bringing North African sounds to the UK and Europe where they are still unfamiliar. There are exceptions: Raï was once reasonably well known in France where some of the most famed artists such as Cheikha Remitti lived and performed.
“But,” Cheb Mimo adds, “musically, I think that people’s ears are much more curious in the UK than anywhere else.”
It’s a different context, though, as “if you play in Paris, it would be mainly North African people. Here in London, people from all around the world would come. Both are nice, but it’s a difference.”
While numerous producers are working on Arabic language music in the UK, it isn’t broadly popular. In Europe, by contrast, contemporary styles that mix languages and cultures, such as Maghreb pop, have achieved a far greater reach than the UK with artists such as Mahmood, Dystinct and Marwa Loud bridging this gap.
But preserving and reviving the old forgotten musical heritage is critical for Cheb Mimo, both for the music’s sake and for the culture that thrived around it.
This is particularly significant when playing in his home country. Arabic disco, for instance, can shock audiences because the underground disco scene in Tunis has long since become a forgotten past.
“When I find things that I think would be interesting to Tunisian ears,” he explains “the goal of sharing it is reconciling people with their musical heritage, that was kind of neglected for a while.”
“And if people danced in the past to this music, then we can also enjoy it now.”
Ella Benson Easton is a British writer and researcher based between the UK and North Africa. She focused on socio-cultural movements and change, working particularly closely on women’s rights