It may be one of those barely appreciated blessings, but you don’t often come across real fame when you’re in the cosy corrida of world music. I don’t 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. 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 wouldn’t mind saying hi to his friend who would remember it for the rest of his days and die of shock and so on. I mean the kind of fame that makes legions of fans discuss this person’s state of mental, musical and marital well-being in internet chat-rooms, agonising ad nauseam over whether he’s still the King, and rebuking him for bizarre misdemeanours like not acknowledging the fact that one of his ‘greatest’ 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 they’re 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. After the release of his second to last album ‘Kenza’ in 2000, it seemed that fame was beginning to take its toll. There had been stories in the papers about bouts of alcohol-fuelled mayhem, violence towards his wife, niggling paternity suits, drink driving. There was the very public sparring with his record company Barclay / Universal and its charismatic boss Pascale Nègre, who had signed Khaled was back in ’91 when he was still little more than a North African ghetto hero and then engineered his worldwide success. There were some atrocious concerts with a bored looking backing band, which registered frighteningly high levels of schlock. 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. 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 Khaled’s own dissatisfaction with ‘Kenza’, and the way in which it had been manufactured piece meal by a gamut of hired-hand producers. 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. 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. “When you’re well known you attract that kind of rubbish,” he says with that 24-carat grin. “It’s very very very hard. It’s not even hard, it’s hellish. It’s hellish when I open a paper or my wife opens a paper and reads stuff. And sometimes she falls into the trap of believing what she reads, even though I’ve been married…legitimately!…to her for ten years now and she’s my one and only wife. People think I’ve been married to loads of women. That kills me too. As for the drink, I’ve been teetotal for eight years now. When you’re 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. You just fall into a vicious circle. And as I always say…the caravan passes and the dogs bark.” That last little epithet is one of Khaled’s 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 won’t 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. What is the secret of his survival? After all, it hasn’t been easy. Back in Oran in the early 1970s, Khaled’s police mechanic father took a dim view of his burgeoning flirtations with music. 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 ‘a career in music’ to be an oxymoron. His young tearaway son saw things differently. 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. Khaled always loved to party, still does, so a career in music held a certain unassailable logic for him. What’s more, being a musician at a wedding conferred a certain ‘useful’ status…people would procure alcohol for you, and treat you well. 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. 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. Critics and commentators often omit to mention this crucial component of rai music. “Oran is an Andalusian town,” confirms Khaled. “We’re opposite Almeria and back in the day, rai had more to do with flamenco than anything else. I was born in La Calera, which is the name for the old port. It’s Spanish. Everyone speaks Spanish, all the older people at least…except me ha ha ha. And the old people used to say, including my father, that flamenco is a ‘cry of love’. There were taboos in our society and only flamenco said those words of love. There was even the dance of the Toreador…it was an erotic dance. Well that’s rai.”
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. 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. 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. “Oran was full of Moroccans. I grew up Moroccan. Although I was only small, I remember the shame and the hatred of those times,” says Khaled. “It still upsets me today. I can’t get it out of my head. I’ve even said as much to the King of Morocco, who’s a friend.” With his newly formed group, Noujoum El Khams (‘The Five Stars’), Khaled would play Nass El Ghiwane songs at weddings, even though Moroccan music was frowned on for a time. “With Nass El Ghiwane, for once, we had a group that were committed to singing about the reality of what was going on,” remembers Khaled. “They weren’t scared. 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. And that’s how I was discovered by this cassette producer who invited me to make a record. 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. And I recorded ‘Trig Lycée’, which means ‘The road to the Lycée’. It goes ‘The road to the Lycée bores me’. And on the b-side I sang, ‘We’re watching the girls climbing up into the mountains, so that we can look at their bums from behind’ …hahaha…and we would shout out “Come on wind! Lift up their skirts! Come on wind!””
I’m bored with school. Wind, lift up the girl’s skirts. It’s 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. But Khaled was doing nothing more than vocalising the appetites and frustrations of a generation; his own generation. He was born on the cusp of independence when the whole nation still had the lustre of hope and expectation in its eyes. He came of age at a time when that hope was turning sour and rancid. “Rai music back home was about breaking taboos and talking about everyday things,” Khaled remembers, “talking about life that’s lived back home by a teenager who says, “I’m fed up. I’m pissed off. I’m here. I’m propping the wall. I do fuck all. I haven’t got any pastimes. The government shuts me in. If I want my passport I have to do two years of military service.” I talked about all of that, me. I talked about it all.” By the time Khaled left for France in 1989, he was already a big star in Algeria, crowned ‘King Of Rai’ at the 1985 Rai Festival in Oran. And fame was already forging irons for his feet. Bitter jealousies were biting at his heels. Stack’em’high and sell’em’cheap cassette producers were throttling any real musical talent he had. The army wanted him to do his military service to set an example to the rest of the youth. Unlike his hero Elvis, he refused, and his musical career was saved. Instead he left for France, signed a deal with a subsidiary of Polygram, the biggest record label in the world, recorded ‘Didi’ with Don Was and sold a million copies. With ‘Aisha’ and the album ‘Sahra’ he sold a million more. The 90s were his decade. 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. But the irony never killed him, although fellow countrymen were being murdered in their thousands.
Four years ago, after the release of ‘Kenza’, the second album named after one of his daughters, Khaled hit turbulence. He had just turned 40, a difficult age for an erstwhile pied piper of youth. His father died in August 2001. 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. He played his first concerts in Algiers and Oran. His third daughter Röhsen was born. 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. The French producer Philippe Eidel, who had worked with Khaled on and off since the beginning, coaxed Khaled back into this central role. 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 cut’n’paste and trickery. “We get eaten up by electronics and we forget,” says Khaled. “We forget the old sound, like some really well arranged rock’n’roll from the sixties. Or in France, it’s musette, it’s the accordion, and now they’re beginning to lose all of that. The youth are forgetting it. Machines are good for creating and working fast on a demo. But when you finalise your work you have to bring along real musicians.” Thus a new heartbeat was reintroduced into Khaled’s 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 ‘Ya Rayi’ was taking shape. Its opening track ‘Mani Rani’, 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. Something in Khaled’s state of mind was impelling him to revisit old fires, old loves, old longings. Maybe it was that inevitably painful entry into middle age. Maybe it was the death of his father. Maybe it was need to rekindle the flickering warmth of family, friendship, community and ‘bled’ or home-country that had succoured him as a child in the bright hopeful days of the 1960s. Maybe he wanted to reaffirm the lifeblood of rai music: fun, partying, good times and hope. Like other journeys back to the roots, to the source, by Buena Vista Social Club, Salif Keita, The Gypsy Kings and others, Khaled’s 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. 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. 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. “I wanted to come back to 100% rai songs,” explains Khaled, “that’s to say, the style of the old timers, in order to hope, to talk about the same things that they talked about. That’s to say, we still don’t have that rosy life that they had, or that they were expecting to have soon. It was also to show that there wasn’t any racism in Algeria. That’s a Jew and an Arab who knew each other in Algeria even before I was born. What’s more, they were mates back then. I still love that old music today. There was a purity there. There’s stuff we can learn from that time. “
Khaled paints a picture of this epic meeting with child-like wonder and enthusiasm. “You should have seen it. I created this surprise. They didn’t know that they were going to meet each other again after a space of forty years. I invited them both to this studio in Paris to play on ‘H’mama’, an old Blaoui song, which means ‘Dove’. Blaoui almost had a cardiac arrest, the poor guy. He’s an old bloke and he brought along this guitar that he’s been playing for more than fifty years. There’s was Medioni on the piano, Blaoui on the guitar, and I was in between, the little boy, with my little percussion. I asked them to play an intro and I just improvised some singing and we recorded it on tape.”
A short film about the recording that comes packaged with initial copies of the new album ‘Ya Rayi’ 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. His smile is constant, beaming, switched on, like the red recording light by the studio door. He looks like he’s having the kind of ball that he hasn’t had in a long time. He looks like he has rediscovered something important that had been missing in his art. And this conviviality, this party atmosphere has soaked into the music.
Houari, Medioni and Khaled are all names that are synonymous with Oran. So is ‘Ya Rayi’, the title of the new album. It’s the age old holler of rai music, its equivalent of “check one, check two” or “let’s rock” or “ain’t it funky now”, 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 cafés of the Medina Jdida, or old Arabic quarter of Oran. Rai is the child of Oran, and it was born with the same characteristics, the same soul as its hedonistic parent. “You know, when there was the terrorism in Algeria, Oran was a town that wasn’t touched,” Khaled explains. “In other parts of Algeria, especially the triangle of death near Blida, people would refer to Oran as ‘Geneva’. Because it’s neutral. There’s no war. Since even before independence, Oran was known as being a port city and a city for music. You can never change that mentality…the showing-off, the youth, the flirtation, the cabarets and that desire to show you’re the most beautiful things on earth. That’s Oran. They don’t give a fuck about the government, as long as they live well. That’s why Oran is a special place.”
Khaled is also a child of Oran, unmistakably so. “My politics is making music, making people happy, giving them joy, and doing beautiful things,” he says emphatically. In conversation, it slowly dawns that his core values are actually quite conservative, with a very small ‘c’, and tied to respect of family, of religion, of country and community. 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. “That man had guts and I take my hat off to him,” says Khaled. “We were like mates together, but when I saw some of the things he was doing I said, “Stop. Stay as you are. You’re the symbol of the Kabyle people. You’re fighting for a cause which is real. Those people have made the whole world tremble. Don’t touch that.” You don’t muck around with the national anthem. He became the man to strike down. One mustn’t antagonise those people. One mustn’t publicise their cause. You have to know how to fight them with kindness.”
Fighting with kindness. That’s Khaled all over. When he talks about his ‘enemies’, his words are always wrapped in smiles, punctuated by chuckles or spiced with loud guffaws. He has the knack of making confrontation look like partying. You just don’t feel like being aggressive towards him. It’s easy to interpret his stubbornly a-political musical approach as a cop-out, a piece of cowardice. 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. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s Khaled spearheaded an a-political youthful rebellion, anchored in sex, alcohol, fun and good times. Middle Algeria reacted to him just like the good folks of Mississippi and Arkansas reacted to Elvis in the 1950s. But politics wasn’t part of the mix. “One mustn’t fall into the trap of politics,” he says firmly. “Politics is for politicians. Each has their role to play.”
Fame is dangerous in Algeria. Music is dangerous in Algeria. Partying in dangerous in Algeria. Khaled has epitomised all three, and yet managed to survive. Those who have dismissed him as an intellectual lightweight have completely missed the point. The game of brinkmanship he has been playing since the age of 14 is truly wondrous. It’s one that declares, “I am a Muslim and I party. I am an Algerian and I love good times. I respect my family and my country and I’m a musician. I’m a man of the people and I’m famous.” The new album ‘Ya Rayi’ proves that Khaled is still up there on the high wire, and still smiling like there’s no tomorrow.
Andy Morgan. (c) 2004
First published in fRoots – May 2004