Shortly before heading to the Olympia Theatre in Paris in May, 2009, Khaled, the “king of rai music,” was relaxing in his suite at the George V Hotel. Banning Eyre was among those who got a chance to have a short, pre-show chat. Khaled had driven from his home in Luxembourg, and was preparing to take the stage in Paris for the first time in a decade. He spoke a little about his new album, “Liberté,” and also about his upcoming November 2009 concert in Las Vegas, Sahra. The Sahra event will also feature Assala of Syria, Rida Al-Abdulla of Iraq, and many others. [Click here for more on Sahra at the MGM Grand, November 21.] Here’s a transcript of the conversation that day.
Banning Eyre: Khaled, what brings you to Paris today?
Khaled: Shopping. [LAUGHS] No way, no way! When you ask that question to an artist, when you ask them what are they doing in Paris, I can't answer shopping. I'm an artist. I'm here to do a concert.
B.E.: And not just any concert, right?
Khaled: I'm giving a concert, and this concert is really very, very special. Because it’s been a long time that I have not lived in France. And it's been a long time since I played a concert in Paris. This is my first concert since 1 2 3 Soleil, which it did in 1998. In all that time, I haven't done a concert in Paris. So this is my big return.
B.E.: The Olympia is quite a special theater in history. Many great African stars have played their first European breakthrough concert at this theater. What does the Olympia mean to you?
Khaled: The Olympia in France is a very big room. It's a great venue in Paris. I don't think there are many people from North Africa who have performed at the Olympia. It's a big room that has received for a long time very, very big artists from France, from America, from the world. This is a room that was important for the Middle East, because Umm Kulthum sang here. I had the chance to play here before it was transformed. And it’s not all the stars who can say that. For me, this is the first time I have sung in the new room. The new Olympia. Because it has been rebuilt now.
There's a story about the old Olympia that one hears in France. Back when the Beatles were not really all that well known yet, they were playing the first part of the show for Shayla, a very famous French singer. They were eventually very, very well-known in the 60s, but at this time, the French threw tomatoes at them. And since that day, they never played in the hall again. In fact I'm not even sure they ever played in France. And now, just two months ago, we had Paul McCartney here to play his first show. There’s been Santana, there's been Stevie Wonder. Everybody knows this hall. All world stars know the Olympia.
B.E.: So this concert is to launch your new album, am I right?
Khaled: Yes. I have just released an album that I have called Liberté. Why did I call this album Liberté? Because I was free to do what I wanted in the studio. This is an album that I recorded live in the studio. There's no click track, no metronome. In one shot. There's no set structure. The songs were not set out in advance. There were a few songs we did this because the song called for that—the hits and so on. There is an homage to my father, who is dead. And also there is an homage to an Algerian martyr who is named Zabana, who was the first person to be guillotined in Algeria. He was one of those people who fought to bring us freedom.
And also I have the song itself that is called “Liberté.” This is a song I sang when I was young, so people are really glad to hear it. It is a reprise. Because we in Algeria, the one thing that really bothered us was that we had to do military service, two years of military service. I suffered for 20 years because of that, and I didn't go. It's a dream for a young person from North Africa to go to France as a young man. For me this was another dream. They used to say, “Two years of suffering, and the rest in France.” Because the Eiffel Tower represented freedom. Every teenager was dreaming of the day that he is released and he's going to be able to go away.
B.E.: I want to ask you about this concert that's going to be happening in Las Vegas, at the MGM Grand Hotel. What does this concert mean to you?
Khaled: Well, I have always been considered an artist who is free, even when I lived in a country where there was dictatorship. I was free to sing what I wanted to sing. I know nothing about dictatorship. I'm the bad child, the rocker. So for me to go in November (2009) to Las Vegas… This is a part of the United States that I would love to play. It's a big country, a big world. You have all the races of the world. So to arrive there, and to play a concert, to travel, I've always said that I am the ambassador of Algerian culture. And I have always said that a country without culture, that's not a country. It's with music, especially the music I play, I sing about good things, I sing about love, beauty, sing about joy of life. I'm a good person, and I was wanted to bring my message outside. But I'd like also to gamble a little bit. [LAUGHS]
And also, I'm one of those artists who took part in a tour after September 11. I did a tour that was called Khaled and Friends. That is to say that I brought some musicians from Paris and also United States to show that music has no racism. Music is only about friendship. There are no borders. And it gave me great pleasure to be joined on the stage in San Francisco by Carlos Santana, and in Detroit by Don Was. I also had the chance to be heard, and enjoyed by a public that was not just Muslims. And beyond that, when I had the chance to present my group at the end of the concert, there were Muslims, Christians, Jews, Bahai, and even people who believe in nothing. It was a party. La fi-es-ta!
One of my policies, and what Islam has taught me, is that when I die, I am going to go into my grave. I will be alone. Nobody will come with me. And I will have to answer for my actions alone. No one will be there to defend me. And no one will be there to defend whether I did evil or good. And so that's my policy. I believe that people were made on this earth to know each other, and to live together, beyond color, beyond race. That's my message. And that's how I believe that people should be together in this world. Once they are out of this world, then it's a matter between them and God alone. And I cannot interfere.
I respect that there are artists who have a harder messages. I respect other things. Maybe it doesn't please me, but I respect it. I live in democracy. My God loves me because he gave me this music that speaks of how good things can be. It speaks of love, and above all of liberty. That is to say in my Algeria, when I was young, a man was only supposed to go with a woman to procreate. Otherwise it's diabolical. Something of the devil. But I mixed the rai with the rock 'n roll. It's the same history. Rai and rock 'n roll. It's the same story. Rock 'n roll—that came out of the blues and jazz. Black music. Out of the suffering and misery of that history. It’s to say we want to live. It's beautiful. There was a little white guy called Elvis. He made a little salsa (mixture) out of rock 'n roll and brought it out of the sidelines. As if to say, “We are in a world where there is a little space, a little opening. We are advancing. We are not going backwards.” And he was attacked, because these are the people who upset everything, when you start talking about love. That bothers them. So people said, "Don't listen to this rock 'n roll music because people dance with their haunches." They marginalized it. With us in Algeria, this music also bothered people. Because I danced a little bit like Elvis. Normally. Rai had belonged to the cheikhs, that is to say the peasants. It was a little bit like the blacks, Africans, and jazz and blues. With us, it was the flute, the gasba. A guy will make a flute from bamboo, put in six holes, and play it. And he sings with his sheep. Shepherds. And then people suffered through colonialism. There is that too. And then there was the forced military service to go fight the war of strangers.
All that went into rai. After rai, in my generation, the 50s and 60s, people who had been singing in bordellas were now singing in public places. And what is beautiful, and what I remarked upon often, is that the older poets had been colonized. But they sang both languages. They were colonized. But they were not racists. There is a song. It says, "I am sick. And I have a fever. I think about love a lot. I cry." That is to say, this poet wants to share with the people who live around him. He wants to share music with you.
We used to live in a very hypocritical society. In fact, rai was not broadcast either on official radio or television. It was sung in whore houses or various places, but you could not listen to it and family reunions. Why? Because people believe that rai praised women and praised love, and that is something that we should not listen to. And then there came a time around 1977, or 78 when James Brown put out "Sex Machine.” That song was played on radio and television in Algeria. [LAUGHS] And the next day, people were singing, "Sex machine!" Because they did not understand English. A journalist came to me and said, "Khaled, you can profit from this now." I told him that I sing about love, without taboo. And beyond that, I do not denude women. But if “Sex Machine” can be played on the radio, why not rai? They don't even talk about a woman. They talk about a gazelle, about nature. I was the only one to sing directly.
B.E.: That's great history, Khaled. Thanks so much for that. Then I’ll ask you one more question about this concert coming up in Las Vegas. Because I know it's being organized to coincide with international Children's Day. It's going to benefit children in the Middle East and North Africa. You are a father yourself, with three daughters.
Khaled: Well, the good God adores me, because he gave me three children. Three girls. My first girl is named Sarah. The man who gave me this name is dead now. He was a religious man from Algeria whom I met in Washington. He said, "Give your child the first name Sarah.” I asked why. And he said, “Because my prophet, your prophet, loved Sarah. And Sarah was Jewish. With that, you will upset the whole world. You'll drive them crazy!” So I released this song called “Sahra.” I could not give it the name of my daughter directly. And Sahra with an H is also the desert. So now, in November, we're going to do a great thing. They're going to have a big concert in Las Vegas called Sahra. Sahra is the desert. And the concert is called Sahra. So that's what we are going to do, animate the desert.
And I was a child once myself too. Don't forget that. [LAUGHS] For me, everyone who concerns themselves with the humanity of children, that touches me. Because I passed a terrible childhood actually. I created nothing but misery at home. I was known in all the police commissariats. Everywhere. It's true. [LAUGHS] So, for me, this concert, I hope that it attracts lots of people, and raises lots and lots of money to try to make one or two or three children happy in their lives. We're not asking for millions. We're just trying to do something good. I have a politic. When the good God gives you something, you must give something back as well. When you give, he gives you more. You must share. I always think this way.
A few years ago, we wanted to do this thing with Quincy Jones. I was very happy. It was going to be a follow-up to "We Are the World." It was "We Are the Future." But unfortunately, there were political problems and there was not enough cooperation to make it happen. Politicians involved themselves and it never saw the light of day. It was a big, big, big idea on the part of Mr. Quincy Jones. He actually staged it in Rome, Italy, and I was present. The position that he was taking was that there are children in suffering in black Africa. They are being armed and used as soldiers. This is a big, big, big problem. The world has to think about this. People have to know. To think about this a little. They don't think much about fundamentalism. [Integrism] Fundamentalism is big man who has no brains. The reason I see no brains because these people end up gorging the lives of children. That is not human. That is not human. When they talk about the rights of their religion, I am in agreement. There are many people in the world who demand their rights. My god. Their goal is good. People want to support them. But the fact of talking about children, as you've asked me this question, hides many things.
We hide many things. We are hypocrites in many ways. I am not Jesus. I am not Mohamed. I'm not a person with a magic wand. But I can pass on my little words, and I can make people laugh. I think this is the way. We must talk. We must laugh. The message passes better that way. It doesn't pass through brutality. No way. If you have lots of money, well, there's no problem. It's better.
The cameraman: You came of age in a political situation in Algeria that was very different than today. Is that part of what motivated you?
Khaled: Excuse me. Really, there are many things. I was born like that. I was born to a good man who made me do my studies. It's true. I smile because I was not for school. I was made to go to school, but I studied. It was required, because my father required it. Otherwise, he wouldn't let me leave the house. But at the same time, I saw things outside. I slept outside. I knew what that meant to sleep outside. To smoke in hiding. To drink in hiding. And when you smoked a cigarette, you had to rub your arms with an orange, or with shit, or what ever. Just to hide the smell of the cigarette. My god! It's incredible. For me, it was thanks to the school of the street that I learned many things. The school of the street. Because we were lied to a lot in our studies. And also the fact that we were marginalized, but in a good sense. This profession I have now, I learned in the cabarets. I went out, and I hid myself, because I was a minor. Or I would borrow the driving permit of my brother. My brother might have been thrown in prison because of me. [LAUGHS]
But the point is, my childhood was all bad. But at the same time, what was bad is that I lost a lot. I lost many friends. I lost many friends. I don’t even know how many people in my family refused to do their military service. They were in the desert. They were starting to play with their guns, like that. Because they couldn't go out at night. They were afraid of the night. I refused to do my military service. And I saw this. I grew up. I saw people who threw away all their money and spent their life in prison. But these were rules I could not obey. Because I saw that I would win nothing. I would end up drinking alcohol, a lot a lot a lot. I saw people who became alcoholics and died, without doing anything with their lives. It was not good. And I saw this. I learned. I started smoking when I was young. I lived right next to the Moroccan border. I grew up with drugs, cannabis. I could smoke in tranquility.
Human nature cannot be forbidden. When you forbid something, human nature is going to do it. You have to look at the spirit of people. There are these religious people who are good people. They've made their hadj to Mecca. They are wise. They can speak the koran in French. But there is not a person, not even grand Mufti, who can forbid alcohol among Muslims. There is not. They say avoid it, but they can never forbid it. Because they know that men cannot forbid these things. Look at Holland. Cannabis is legal. You can buy it in the coffee shops. You can buy it freely. But statistically, they have not seen that there any more problems with AIDS, with anything… Because look at the world. The big dealers, they sell drugs and no one touches them. This is something I learned when I was young. So these are some of lessons that I did get from the street, not from school.
To summarize, we are all Adam's children. And God created Adam in His image, and He made he beautiful and intelligent, and He had all the angels kneel before him, and they gave him intelligence, and when Adam was bored, then He gave him a woman, Eve. Adam had everything you could hope for. But he was told not to touch one single Apple. And when he was told not to do that, then that's when he did it. So this is basically the lesson I'm trying to give you. We were betrayed for a $.10 apple. It’s crazy, man.
B.E.: Khaled, you are going to perform in Las Vegas with other great artists from the Arab world, Assala of Syria and Rida Al Abdulla of Iraq. Tell us what it means for you to share the stage with these artists.
Khaled: I am happy. I am very happy. I'm also happy that for once the Arabs have not forgotten the woman. That is beautiful. [LAUGHS] And there is also Karina Pasian, whom I have watched from a very young age. She has a beautiful voice. Assala, Abdulla—there are so many artists with whom I'm going to share the stage. I love to share. I'm not a person who is superstitious or such things. I love to do duets, to share a song. I love to marry different kinds of music. I love to break through borders. I love to raise people's spirits. I love people. I love humanity. I love to live!
B.E.: Thanks so much, Khaled. Have a great show.
Martin Meissonnier is a legendary producer of African music in Paris. In the past, he has worked with King Sunny Ade, Amina, Fela Kuti, Seun Kuti and Egypt 80, and many others. Meissonnier produced Khaled’s first international release, Kutchie, in 1986. Two decades later, he returned to the studio with Khaled and his band to record the beautifully organic, live and immediate Liberté. Banning Eyre met Meissonnier backstage at the Olympia concert in May, 2009. Here’s their conversation.
B.E.: Martin, you made your first album with Khaled in 1986, right? A long time back.
M.M.: Yeah, the first one. That's right.
B.E.: And you haven't worked with him since?
M.M.: Well, we've done one track for the Rai Reggae album, which was not really released in America, but it's going to be re-introduced soon. It's an album of 12 reggae singers and 12 rai singers. Basically, that album was released the week of September 11, which was a bad week to release an Arabic album.
B.E.: I remember. That was also the week when Khaled was about to start a US tour.
M.M.: That was just the wrong week. So, basically, I pulled the record, and now I'm going to rerelease it. But I have been friends with Khaled, for a long, long time. It was great doing the first album. That was the first real produced rai record. We were programming the drums to make them sound really big and fat. Now, 25 years later, I thought the best idea was to do a very simple and direct album, to go straight to the point. Record everybody live. Catch the power of Khaled and the band. If you hear the album, you have to realize that almost 90% of the vocals are done in one take with the rhythm section. No overdubs. There were very few overdubs, just to make it pretty. But it's mostly one take.
B.E: That's unusual. Nobody does that anymore.
M.M.: Nobody. No. And that's why I really like this record. I think this record is going to last because it's really organic. It's like live.
B.E.: I just listened to the beginning of the record this morning. I notice that there are these instrumental introductions to some of the songs. What was the idea that? How did that come about?
M.M.: You know something? This first track was a jam session in my studio. Basically, I got Khaled, Koulder [Mohamed Berkane Krachai] the violin player, Abdou [Abdelhoued Zaim] the oud player and the derbouka player to come and jam at the studio so we could listen to old tracks that we were re-recording. At the same time we were recording, recording. And that stuck. You know, it's funny, because the violin and the oud were all mixed on the same track, because it was just supposed to be a demo with one mic in the middle, and one mic for the vocal, and one mic for the derbouka. It was a completely live thing, and then what we did after that was to add on the other percussion and violins and things like that, the string section, in order to make it sound bigger. But the root of the track is completely live.
B.E.: And improvised as well.
M.M.: Yes completely improvised. Well, it's an old song they created 25 years ago. But they were just having fun with it. I think on this album you can feel Khaled is having fun and enjoying himself. He's with his band and they're just going for it.
B.E.: So tell me a little more about the songs on the album. Are these new compositions he brought to the studio? Or are there things that were created in the studio?
M.M.: There's not that many new creations. I asked Khaled about the two Moroccan tunes. Those are new ones definitely. There's one recorded with Gnaoui, Gnawa musicians. We wanted to do something in honor of Nass el Ghiwane, because Khaled and I have always been big fans of Nass el Ghiwane. So it's really in the mood of Ghiwane with Berber feeling, and Sahraoui guitar. And on the song “Ya Mimun,” which he played tonight, it's a Gnawa song. Because Khaled learned music with these people when he was 10 years old, so it's incredible the way he plays it. It's really authentic. I have known so many bands that try to play Gnawa music and it sounds fake. But with Khaled, it sounds like that's his roots. So the text is a sacred text. Khaled came up with the bass line. And then I arranged it with a Led Zeppelin "Ramble On" type of guitar to make it a bit more modern, but we really kept the Moroccan feeling.
B.E.: You talk about capturing the live feeling of this band. I recognize some of these guys. The core of this band goes way back, doesn't it?
M.M.: The violin player used to play with Khaled when he was 14. So you make the count. And the lute player has been there for 10 years.
B.E.: I recognize the bass player too.
M.M.: The bass player [Maurice Zenmour] has been there for 19 years. And he had never recorded with Khaled.
B.E.: Really? Somehow he was just never there when the recording happened?
M.M.: Well, he was always fired. Because, you know, the producers... Most of those albums were done in America, with Don Was and others. So basically, they used session players. But I thought it was interesting to capture the feel of the band, because you've seen the band. The band is hot. They have been playing that music for years. They know how to play it. Why do you have to look for someone else that is flavor of the month to make the band sound brighter?
B.E.: I think you are right. The feeling of that band is excellent. They are slamming.
M.M.: That's what you'll hear on the album. It's much more sophisticated, because these are very good musicians. I mean in the album, it is very sophisticated. In a way, sometimes it's almost jazzy compared to some of the old songs. The old songs are very punchy, so I had to tell them in the live show to bring more punch to it.
B.E.: But that sophistication is not coming from some outside producer giving them ideas. It's just in the character of the music, right?
M.M.: Right. I think it's also the way the rhythms are. What I try to do is to use the original, traditional rhythms. And obviously this is not the bass drum on every beat—four/four. It's much lighter. So you will hear. And also, what you can do with a record can be extremely sophisticated. You can use a lot of bendirs (frame drums), and make them sound very subtle. Whereas live, you sometimes have to rework the song in a different way. What I try to do is get Khaled back to his own rhythms. Because I used to know him in Algeria before he came here. The rhythms are absolutely fascinating, and nobody has really heard them yet. It's too bad we don't hear these rhythms.
B.E.: How long have you known Khaled?
M.M.: When I met him it was 1985, or 84, in Algeria. Basically, I heard a cassette. An Algerian friend played that for me, and I said, "Wow, this is as deep as Jimi Hendrix." So I just picked a flight and went to meet the guy. Because at that time, there was no picture really available of him. It was just pirated cassettes. And this guy told me that everybody was listening to him in the Arabic community. And in Algeria, he was a wedding singer, but weddings are big events there. So I followed him in the weddings at the time, and it was absolutely fascinating. He was playing sitting down like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. There were no drums. There was bass, guitar, derbouka, and the tar, or tambourine.
M.M.: Violin came in sometimes. It depended on the budget.
B.E.: I remember him telling us about how he became interested in technology and some of his musicians were angry at him because he was using machines instead of hiring them.
M.M.: For sure. Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's for sure. So it was fascinating. He was playing all night of these rooftops of Oran.
B.E.: I imagine that things were more open then in Algeria than what they have been since, right?
M.M.: No, no, no. It was terrifying. You could feel it coming. You could feel it coming up. The band was drinking. They had lots of teapots and also coffee pots. But the tea was whiskey and the coffee was red wine. And basically, the songs were banned on the radio. Banned. You couldn't hear Khaled on the radio.
B.E.: He left Algeria soon after that, didn't he?
M.M.: It was when he came for this festival I organized this Festival in Bobigny. We got him his passport for him to come out. And when he got to France, then he didn't go back. For awhile.
B.E.: And that was when you made Kutchie? 07/24/09
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M.M.: Kutchie was made two years later. And it was funny. At first, my dream was to do an album with Khaled. But I only did the Festival, because he had two exclusive recording contracts with two different recording companies. It was a nightmare. And those guys were not ready to put a penny into the recording anyway. And one day I got a phone call from Safy Boutella, and he said, "We are looking for a producer to do a Khaled album. And I was told that you know about African music. So why don't we meet?” And I said, "Well, I'm your man." I was extremely glad. I was paid by the Algerian government to actually produce this album. My record company executive was a colonel in uniform