His smile is his armour, his voice is his treasure. (First published in fRoots - May 2004)
It may be one of those barely appreciated blessings, but you donât often come across real fame when youâre in the cosy corrida of world music.Â I donât mean the kind of fame that might have a few cognoscenti queuing up for interviews and photographs at WOMAD, or generate a large feature with photo in The Guardian and concert footage on BBC 4 or even BBC 2.Â No, I mean the kind of fame that compels a complete stranger to accost the famed individual in the streets of Paris offering him his mobile and asking him if he wouldnât mind saying hi to his friend who would remember it for the rest of his days and die of shock and so on.Â I mean the kind of fame that makes legions of fans discuss this personâs state of mental, musical and marital well-being in internet chat-rooms, agonising ad nauseam over whether heâs still the King, and rebuking him for bizarre misdemeanours like not acknowledging the fact that one of his âgreatestâ fans was holding the Algerian flag aloft in the audience at his recent show in Barcelona; the kind of fame that gets wine vintages named after him and his picture on the wine label; the kind of fame that solicits invitations to smile sweetly on primetime TV chat shows and perform in front of world leaders at the Coliseum in Rome; the kind of fame that turns the famous one into a potentially juicy hit for nutters, kidnappers and religious fanatics; the kind of fame that makes people around him laugh nervously with mock gusto at his jokes, even if at times theyâre not that funny; the kind of fame that just seems way to heavy for a pair of very human shoulders to bear.
Khaled knows that kind of fame, not only in France, but also throughout North Africa, its diaspora and strange unlikely places like India, Brazil and Japan.Â After the release of his second to last album âKenzaâ in 2000, it seemed that fame was beginning to take its toll.Â There had been stories in the papers about bouts of alcohol-fuelled mayhem, violence towards his wife, niggling paternity suits, drink driving.Â There was the very public sparring with his record company Barclay / Universal and its charismatic boss Pascale NĂšgre, who had signed Khaled was back in â91 when he was still little more than a North African ghetto hero and then engineered his worldwide success.Â There were some atrocious concerts with a bored looking backing band, which registered frighteningly high levels of schlock.Â There was the fall-out of 9/11, which made life harder for all Arab singers and musicians, however disarming their smile and virulent their laughter.Â There was the very public Internet debate amongst North Africans about whether Khaled had grown old, fat, lost his touch and fallen out of favour with his core constituency. There was Khaledâs own dissatisfaction with âKenzaâ, and the way in which it had been manufactured piece meal by a gamut of hired-hand producers.Â All in all, it was a troubled time; a dark hiatus in what had been an unrelenting hi-gradient climb to stardom over the past decade.Â It was a severe test of that seemingly indestructible mischievous smile.
Khaled does a good job of persuading you that he can brave out the pressure, and eyeball the furies of fame, especially the media attention. âWhen youâre well known you attract that kind of rubbish,â he says with that 24-carat grin.Â âItâs very very very hard.Â Itâs not even hard, itâs hellish.Â Itâs hellish when I open a paper or my wife opens a paper and reads stuff.Â And sometimes she falls into the trap of believing what she reads, even though Iâve been marriedâŠlegitimately!âŠto her for ten years now and sheâs my one and only wife.Â People think Iâve been married to loads of women.Â That kills me too.Â As for the drink, Iâve been teetotal for eight years now.Â When youâre a good artist, you have to have the courage to stand up to all the criticism, because if you answer back, if you react, it will never end.Â You just fall into a vicious circle.Â And as I always sayâŠthe caravan passes and the dogs bark.âÂ That last little epithet is one of Khaledâs favourites, and he throws it in several times during our long interview, as if to underline the fact that people can talk if they want to, but their words wonât penetrate his defence systems, which are armour plated and impregnable.
In fact, if you consider the long pot-holed road that Khaled has travelled to reach his present state of grace, and tax exile in Luxembourg, where he currently lives, you start wondering what exactly these defence systems are made of.Â What is the secret of his survival? Â After all, it hasnât been easy.Â Back in Oran in the early 1970s, Khaledâs police mechanic father took a dim view of his burgeoning flirtations with music.Â Music was emphatically not a family concern, not even on an amateur level, and like all solid self-respecting Algerians, Mr Hadj Brahim considered the phrase âa career in musicâ to be an oxymoron.Â His young tearaway son saw things differently.Â For starters, the only time and place where unbridled hedonism and good times were officially sanctioned by Algerian society, outside of cabarets and brothels, was at weddings, and if you were a musician, you tended to do a lot of weddings.Â Khaled always loved to party, still does, so a career in music held a certain unassailable logic for him.Â Whatâs more, being a musician at a wedding conferred a certain âusefulâ statusâŠpeople would procure alcohol for you, and treat you well.Â In any case, Khaled was already hooked to music and musicians, and was working at emulating, even surpassing his heroes: Johnny Halliday, Elvis, The Beatles, The Stones, Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Oum Kalthoum, Abdel Halim Hafez, Blaoui Houari, Ahmed Wahby and Bellemou Messaoud.Â The pure raucous innocence of the Spanish boy idol Joselito also stirred his innards, together with the raw emotional power of Spanish pop and flamenco in general.Â Critics and commentators often omit to mention this crucial component of rai music.Â âOran is an Andalusian town,â confirms Khaled.Â âWeâre opposite Almeria and back in the day, rai had more to do with flamenco than anything else.Â I was born in La Calera, which is the name for the old port.Â Itâs Spanish.Â Everyone speaks Spanish, all the older people at leastâŠexcept me ha ha ha.Â Â And the old people used to say, including my father, that flamenco is a âcry of loveâ.Â There were taboos in our society and only flamenco said those words of love.Â There was even the dance of the ToreadorâŠit was an erotic dance.Â Well thatâs rai.â
So flamenco was the only means in town to say things straight, at least until the blunt plain speaking sounds of Nass El Ghiwane crossed over the border from Morocco and hit the youth of Algeria, including Khaled, like a tornado.Â This epoch making invasion occurred in the early 1970s just before the conflict in the Western Sahara brought Moroccan-Algerian relations to a bitter low.Â Khaled remembers the authorities rounding up truckloads of Moroccans living in Oran, including some of his close school friends, stripping them of their goods and property, and shipping them back over the border.Â âOran was full of Moroccans. I grew up Moroccan. Although I was only small, I remember the shame and the hatred of those times,â says Khaled.Â âIt still upsets me today.Â I canât get it out of my head.Â Iâve even said as much to the King of Morocco, whoâs a friend.âÂ With his newly formed group, Noujoum El Khams (âThe Five Starsâ), Khaled would play Nass El Ghiwane songs at weddings, even though Moroccan music was frowned on for a time.Â âWith Nass El Ghiwane, for once, we had a group that were committed to singing about the reality of what was going on,â remembers Khaled.Â âThey werenât scared.Â They were the business as far as I was concerned. I had this small accordion, and when I played at weddings I would play with Noujoum El Khams, but after midnight I would take my accordion and sing rai.Â And thatâs how I was discovered by this cassette producer who invited me to make a record.Â My challenge, when I went into the studio, was to bring together three cultures: the rai of Cheikha Remitti, the reality lyrics of Nass El Ghiwane that broke the taboos and the sax and trumpet of Bellemou Messaoud.Â And I recorded âTrig LycĂ©eâ, which means âThe road to the LycĂ©eâ.Â It goes âThe road to the LycĂ©e bores meâ.Â And on the b-side I sang, âWeâre watching the girls climbing up into the mountains, so that we can look at their bums from behindâ âŠhahahaâŠand we would shout out âCome on wind!Â Lift up their skirts!Â Come on wind!ââ
Iâm bored with school.Â Wind, lift up the girlâs skirts.Â Itâs hard for us, living in our carefree havens of western liberalism to appreciate how utterly shocking such sentiments were in the Algeria of the mid 1970s.Â But Khaled was doing nothing more than vocalising the appetites and frustrations of a generation; his own generation.Â He was born on the cusp of independence when the whole nation still had the lustre of hope and expectation in its eyes.Â He came of age at a time when that hope was turning sour and rancid.Â âRai music back home was about breaking taboos and talking about everyday things,â Khaled remembers, âtalking about life thatâs lived back home by a teenager who says, âIâm fed up.Â Iâm pissed off.Â Iâm here.Â Iâm propping the wall. I do fuck all.Â I havenât got any pastimes.Â The government shuts me in.Â If I want my passport I have to do two years of military service.âÂ Â I talked about all of that, me.Â Â I talked about it all.âÂ By the time Khaled left for France in 1989, he was already a big star in Algeria, crowned âKing Of Raiâ at the 1985 Rai Festival in Oran. Â And fame was already forging irons for his feet.Â Bitter jealousies were biting at his heels.Â Stackâemâhigh and sellâemâcheap cassette producers were throttling any real musical talent he had.Â The army wanted him to do his military service to set an example to the rest of the youth.Â Unlike his hero Elvis, he refused, and his musical career was saved.Â Instead he left for France, signed a deal with a subsidiary of Polygram, the biggest record label in the world, recorded âDidiâ with Don Was and sold a million copies.Â With âAishaâ and the album âSahraâ he sold a million more.Â The 90s were his decade.Â And just when Algeria was plunging itself into a civil conflict of barely imaginable bitterness and horror, his own songs of love, life and good times were becoming the internationally recognised musical emblem of his homeland.Â But the irony never killed him, although fellow countrymen were being murdered in their thousands.
Four years ago, after the release ofÂ âKenzaâ, the second album named after one of his daughters, Khaled hit turbulence.Â He had just turned 40, a difficult age for an erstwhile pied piper of youth.Â His father died in August 2001.Â He was forced to go back to Algeria to answer charges brought by a cassette company called Zeid El Youm, who claimed that he had broken a contract signed way back in the 1980s.Â He played his first concerts in Algiers and Oran.Â His third daughter RĂ¶hsen was born.Â He argued with his label.
Somehow during all those years in France, working with the best producers in the best studios, Khaled had never had the opportunity to really indulge his instrumental talents in the studio, and prove to the world that he was a musician as well as a singer without equal.Â The French producer Philippe Eidel, who had worked with Khaled on and off since the beginning, coaxed Khaled back into this central role.Â After Khaled had worked out a few very simple ideas on his Apple Mac at home, he brought them to Eidel and they then went into the studio with a few choice musicians, with the aim of turning these ideas into the songs in situ, live and direct, with a minimum of cutânâpaste and trickery.Â âWe get eaten up by electronics and we forget,â says Khaled. âWe forget the old sound, like some really well arranged rockânâroll from the sixties.Â Or in France, itâs musette, itâs the accordion, and now theyâre beginning to lose all of that.Â The youth are forgetting it.Â Machines are good for creating and working fast on a demo.Â But when you finalise your work you have to bring along real musicians.âÂ Thus a new heartbeat was reintroduced into Khaledâs music, stripped bare of the anxieties of infinite choice that synths, sequences, midi et al can bring, featuring the convivial warmth and groove of a tight coterie of musicians and a faithful posse of producers; Eidel, Don Was, the young Algerian talent Farid Aouameur and ex-member and founder of Caribbean zouk giants Kassav, Jacob Desvarieux. The new album âYa Rayiâ was taking shape.Â Â Its opening track âMani Raniâ, a languid tale of despondency and heartbreak, set the tone beautifully with it loose sepia shuffle and dreamy piano intro.
But there was a deeper tale unfolding.Â Something in Khaledâs state of mind was impelling him to revisit old fires, old loves, old longings.Â Maybe it was that inevitably painful entry into middle age.Â Maybe it was the death of his father.Â Maybe it was need to rekindle the flickering warmth of family, friendship, community and âbledâ or home-country that had succoured him as a child in the bright hopeful days of the 1960s.Â Maybe he wanted to reaffirm the lifeblood of rai music: fun, partying, good times and hope.Â Like other journeys back to the roots, to the source, by Buena Vista Social Club, Salif Keita, The Gypsy Kings and others, Khaledâs was motivated by a desire to revisit a golden age so that some of its glow could light up an otherwise grey present and even bleaker future.
Khaled reunited two childhood heroes to help him travel back into the past.Â The first was Blaoui Houari, le papa du rai, a singer and songwriter from Oran who had cradled the hopes and dreams of his parents and grandparents back in the 1940s and 50s.Â The second was Jewish pianist Maurice El Medioni, the keel of the cabaret style of 1950s Oran which blended US boogie, Latino syncopations, Arabic inflections and the sentimentality of French chanson. âI wanted to come back to 100% rai songs,â explains Khaled, âthatâs to say, the style of the old timers, in order to hope, to talk about the same things that they talked about.Â Thatâs to say, we still donât have that rosy life that they had, or that they were expecting to have soon.Â It was also to show that there wasnât any racism in Algeria.Â Thatâs a Jew and an Arab who knew each other in Algeria even before I was born.Â Whatâs more, they were mates back then.Â I still love that old music today.Â There was a purity there.Â Thereâs stuff we can learn from that time. â
Khaled paints a picture of this epic meeting with child-like wonder and enthusiasm.Â âYou should have seen it.Â I created this surprise.Â They didnât know that they were going to meet each other again after a space of forty years.Â I invited them both to this studio in Paris to play on âHâmamaâ, an old Blaoui song, which means âDoveâ.Â Blaoui almost had a cardiac arrest, the poor guy.Â Heâs an old bloke and he brought along this guitar that heâs been playing for more than fifty years.Â Thereâs was Medioni on the piano, Blaoui on the guitar, and I was in between, the little boy, with my little percussion.Â I asked them to play an intro and I just improvised some singing and we recorded it on tape.â
A short film about the recording that comes packaged with initial copies of the new album âYa Rayiâ shows Khaled buzzing around in the studio, orchestrating the individual parts of the musicians, banging out rhythms on a derbouka, or sparring on his favourite instrument, the accordion.Â His smile is constant, beaming, switched on, like the red recording light by the studio door.Â He looks like heâs having the kind of ball that he hasnât had in a long time. He looks like he has rediscovered something important that had been missing in his art.Â And this conviviality, this party atmosphere has soaked into the music.
Houari, Medioni and Khaled are all names that are synonymous with Oran.Â So is âYa Rayiâ, the title of the new album.Â Itâs the age old holler of rai music, its equivalent of âcheck one, check twoâ or âletâs rockâ or âainât it funky nowâ, and it could be heard over a century ago in the guttural cries of rural rai cheikhs who would entertain the masses in the squares and cafĂ©s of the Medina Jdida, or old Arabic quarter of Oran.Â Rai is the child of Oran, and it was born with the same characteristics, the same soul as its hedonistic parent.Â âYou know, when there was the terrorism in Algeria, Oran was a town that wasnât touched,â Khaled explains.Â âIn other parts of Algeria, especially the triangle of death near Blida, people would refer to Oran as âGenevaâ.Â Because itâs neutral.Â Thereâs no war.Â Since even before independence, Oran was known as being a port city and a city for music.Â You can never change that mentalityâŠthe showing-off, the youth, the flirtation, the cabarets and that desire to show youâre the most beautiful things on earth.Â Thatâs Oran.Â They donât give a fuck about the government, as long as they live well.Â Thatâs why Oran is a special place.â
Khaled is also a child of Oran, unmistakably so.Â âMy politics is making music, making people happy, giving them joy, and doing beautiful things,â he says emphatically.Â In conversation, it slowly dawns that his core values are actually quite conservative, with a very small âcâ, and tied to respect of family, of religion, of country and community.Â He admonishes the famous Kabyle singer Matoub Lounes, who was murdered by the GIA in 1998, for having worn a T-shirt proclaiming his atheism and recorded a protest song based on the Algerian national anthem.Â âThat man had guts and I take my hat off to him,â says Khaled.Â âWe were like mates together, but when I saw some of the things he was doing I said, âStop.Â Stay as you are.Â Youâre the symbol of the Kabyle people.Â Youâre fighting for a cause which is real.Â Those people have made the whole world tremble.Â Donât touch that.âÂ You donât muck around with the national anthem.Â He became the man to strike down.Â One mustnât antagonise those people.Â One mustnât publicise their cause.Â You have to know how to fight them with kindness.â
Fighting with kindness.Â Thatâs Khaled all over.Â When he talks about his âenemiesâ, his words are always wrapped in smiles, punctuated by chuckles or spiced with loud guffaws.Â He has the knack of making confrontation look like partying.Â You just donât feel like being aggressive towards him.Â Â Itâs easy to interpret his stubbornly a-political musical approach as a cop-out, a piece of cowardice.Â But if you consider that his name has no doubt been high up on the hit list of the GIA or the radical Salafist militias that still exist in Algeria for more than a decade, then this worldview seems smarter and craftier on reflection, like one belonging to a man who is determined to have the last laugh.Â Back in the â70s and â80s Khaled spearheaded an a-political youthful rebellion, anchored in sex, alcohol, fun and good times.Â Â Middle Algeria reacted to him just like the good folks of Mississippi and Arkansas reacted to Elvis in the 1950s.Â Â But politics wasnât part of the mix. âOne mustnât fall into the trap of politics,â he says firmly.Â âPolitics is for politicians.Â Each has their role to play.â
Fame is dangerous in Algeria.Â Music is dangerous in Algeria.Â Partying in dangerous in Algeria.Â Khaled has epitomised all three, and yet managed to survive.Â Those who have dismissed him as an intellectual lightweight have completely missed the point.Â The game of brinkmanship he has been playing since the age of 14 is truly wondrous.Â Itâs one that declares, âI am a Muslim and I party.Â I am an Algerian and I love good times.Â I respect my family and my country and Iâm a musician.Â Iâm a man of the people and Iâm famous.âÂ Â The new album âYa Rayiâ proves that Khaled is still up there on the high wire, and still smiling like thereâs no tomorrow.
Andy Morgan.Â (c) 2004
First published in fRoots – May 2004