There’s a babel-gum pop trend that’s bombarding the French charts at the moment. This is the recipe: Take a four-to-the-floor disco beat with a deep beef-shank thud to it, add a vocal group of West African origin, a few mouthy French rappers who’ve mastered the lexicon of b-boy stances, an Arabic wailer of no definable origin and a rainbow-mêlée of Francophone party animals. Mix well, don’t stint on the spice or the melody, shoot a video in a French suburb with plenty of curvaceous ghetto-fab demoiselles and beefed up dudes in Technicolor football shirts, stick it on You Tube and …viola!.
The Merlins of this particular hit machine are Magic System from the Ivory Coast. Their ability to glamorize and internationalise hip-to-the-minute afro-disco styles like zouglou or coupé décalé, has made them just about the most popular African band in the world…for the time being at least. Back in 2007 they teamed up with top North African rap combo 113 to record the massive hit “Un Gaou Oran.” A few months ago Magic System returned with “Même Pas Fatigué,” which topped the French charts over the summer. But this time their partner from the Maghreb was no ‘junior’ rap crew with milk teeth. Rather they bagged (or was it vice versa) the most famous North African pop singer of all time, the King of Algerian rai music himself; Khaled, sporting a sober but stylish ‘gangster’ suit, a louche tache and that legendary smile.
A few cold winter months short of his 50th birthday, Khaled, who was once revered as an icon of youth and teen rebellion, albeit the a-political and carelessly hedonistic North African brand championed by rai music, is no doubt overjoyed to be the voice of choice in the French banlieues once again. The last time he found himself in such a state of showbiz grace was in the mid 1990s, when his tearful love song ‘Aisha’ was the biggest thing since croissants au beurre, and Khaled the most beloved and popular Algerian in French history. Considering the loveless, well-nigh psychopathic relationship between France and it’s former colony, this was quite an achievement. His fame then spread to the unlikeliest places, like Brazil, Turkey and India, where it still reportedly rivals that of any US girl or boy wonder you’d care to mention.
After dizzying peaks of success came a series of falls however. Khaled was harassed by well-publicised matrimonial bust-ups, alcoholic misdemeanours, wrangles with his record label, taunts for being a fat irrelevant tax exile…in short, the usual snarling furies that harass rich and famous pop stars as they stumble gracelessly into middle age.
Not only did Khaled survive this extended slide into hell, but he came out of it smiling and smelling of some very expensive eau de cologne. For whilst “Même Pas Fatigué” has hoisted his banner amongst French ‘ghetto’ kids who probably weren’t even born when the young Khaled, or Cheb Khaled as he was then known, first came to France from his native Oran in Western Algeria back in 1986, his new album ‘Liberté’ has spruced up his reputation amongst fans and cognoscenti of rai. Produced by the veteran Frenchman Martin Meissonier, who last worked with Khaled on his landmark album ‘Kutché’ back in 1989, ‘Liberté’ is a back to basics exercise aimed at proving to all and sundry that Khaled’s voice need fear no rival in contemporary Arabic music as it soars like an eagle on a thermal joyride, and that his rai-stew of raw trancey Maghrebi roots and French, Spanish and Middle-eastern pop is best served as simply as possible, with little or no studio frippery and electronic garnitures.
Khaled, who is one of the easiest interviews ever to have blessed the anxious music journalist thanks to a conversational engine that just sparks ups and motors in all weathers, emitting generous expletives and guffaws as it races along, tells me over the phone that ‘Liberté’ encompasses many different definitions of the world ‘freedom’.
“Martin Meissonier knows me too well. Twenty years after ‘Kutché’, he made me an offer I didn’t dare refuse. He said, “Listen, Khaled, I’d really like you to sing the way you sing on stage. I’ll let you be free and I won’t give you a click,”” he says, referring to the computer-generated metronome that some producers use to tie their wayward musicians to the beat. In effect, ‘Liberté’ relies solely and courageously on good microphones and great musicianship to achieve its epic power.
However, the album’s honesty doesn’t merely reside in its production values. As he nears his half-century, Khaled has clearly spent some time looking at the man in the mirror; mulling over his rebellious past, the apocalyptic sufferings of his Algerian homeland during the 1990s, his relationship to God and Islam and his tussles with his father, a stern car-mechanic who considered the phrase “a career in music” to be an impossible absurdity.
“I also called the album ‘Liberté, because of the freedom which my father provoked in me. I wanted to prove something to him, because he always used to say that being a musician means getting involved in drugs, drowning in alcohol, being a tramp, never marrying, never having kids…all that kind of stuff. Maybe it’s thanks to him that I became Khaled who is known the world over. I wanted to prove to him that with music you can go far, do great things, and treat it as a profession.”
Khaled has also been busy contemplating the tragedy of Algerian history. Like most of his contemporaries, born in the euphoria of the early 1960s, when the young Algerian state had only just emerged victorious from its dark and bitter struggle with France, Khaled can’t help looking back with dumbfounded bewilderment and ask, “What the hell went so wrong?” A deep-seated need to find heroes and mentors untainted by the murky horrors of the civil war of the 1990s has led him to the avuncular embrace of the rai legend Blaoui Houari, who was singing in the bars and cabaret’s of his native Oran when Khaled’s parents were courting back in the 1940s. During the independence struggle Houari shared a prison cell with a young freedom fighter by the name of Ahmed Zahana, aka Zabana, to whom Khaled dedicates a song on ‘Liberté’. “He was the first martyr to be guillotined by the French during the war of independence,” Khaled explains. “Zabana means freedom to me. He sacrificed his life for freedom, so that’s why I wanted to pay homage to him.”
A national treasure, who has always taken the trouble to stay out of big ‘P’ politics, Khaled has no problem flirting with power. He’s a good friend of the current Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, and defends his friend’s decision to play loose with the constitution and seek a third term. “People like him because he bought security,” says Khaled. “He’s a real politician, not a mere soldier like our other presidents. And no one talks about Moubarak in Egypt or that guy in Tunisia, who have decided to be Presidents for life, after all!”
But there’s one specifically north African interpretation of the word freedom that Khaled can really claim to be his own, his offspring, his life’s work, his greatest pride. It’s the freedom that has always been the cause célèbre of rai music, ever since the original pop-rai revolution of the late 1970s, when Khaled was just a youth with bum fluff and monster flares, burning bridges all over the fizzier parts of Oran, singing his heart out at weddings and baptism parties whilst drowning his sexual, social, and spiritual frustrations in free alcohol.
“The history of rock’n’roll with Elvis Presley and the history of rai are one and the same thing,” Khaled explains with explosive enthusiasm. “ Rai was banned from television and radio because they said it was misogynistic music which couldn’t be listened to by the family. It’s also a music that men dance to with their hips, which for a Muslim country, was outrageous. Only women are allowed to dance with their hips. Rai was a music that upset people who were a little bit stuck up in the way they lived, or I could also use the word ‘fascists’.”
In truth, the fact that Khaled has survived with his two primary weapons, his voice and his smile, sharp and potent, for so long, is quite extraordinary, illogical even. Hedonistic, outspoken, devil-may-care, a North African rock’n’roller par excellence, Khaled has walked a tightrope for decades, with angry imams, po-faced politicians and lethal fundamentalist emirs baying for his blood. This is no exaggeration. In the darkest days of the civil year, fellow rai-singers and musicians were assassinated fairly regularly, and Khaled himself received numerous death threats.
It’s the smile, the impregnable bonhomie, the voice that transports every North African to some essential and indefinable place where myths and ancestors lurk, that have been his sword and shield from his earliest days. Khaled was right never to play real Politics. It’s a strategy that has allowed him never to appear like a real threat, whilst he shook, rattled and rolled his homeland to its moral core.
“I was brought up in a country that was very closed,” Khaled remembers. “But I was always free thanks to music, because I was communicating the message of love and I’ve always fought for freedom. The problem is that in a place like Algeria, when you sing about love or about the beautiful things in love, it almost makes you a protest singer. But you mustn’t fall into the trap of Politics. Politics is for politicians. Each has their role to play.”
Andy Morgan. (c) 2009
First published in The Independent – Sept 2009