The statement, “if you have to buy one Khaled album, make it 1984’s Hada Raykoum” is surely incontestable. It may well be that the same can now be said for the next best thing to that North African classic.
Hada Raykoum — by the-then Cheb Khaled — was one of the early internationally released African albums that hit an unsuspecting western listening world between the eyes, upturning its preconceptions about Arabic pop music for good. No respecter of traditions, the self-styled Rai King of Algeria couched his raunchy urban Oran style in swirling keyboards and electric guitar as well as the more usual sweeping string arrangements, poly-rhythms and accordion used in this gritty, thrusting genre from the busiest and most eclectic port in Algeria.
Since then, Khaled’s output has been regular and consistent and usually contains fine moments, although often (especially in the ’90s) getting bogged down in ‘modern’ production values such as soulless studio pre-programmed drums, an accent on keyboards at the expense of other instrumentation, and over-production of Khaled’s magnificent, soaring voice. Recent albums have seen a welcome move back to a more organic approach, and in Liberté at last we have a release to compete with that early ground-breaking Triple Earth release. Produced by long-standing colleague Martin Meissonnier, this album shivers and it snaps in funky, organic arrangements, with a real-live sweeping and stabbing string section (recorded in Cairo) that infuses the album with drama and depth. With it comes the return of melodramatic intro tracks in which Khaled unwinds a prelude to the song proper in undulating, pleading vocal tones, with keyboards, accordion, oud twisting and turning higher, ever higher around his voice, before breaking into dense and funky grooves. The Egyptian orchestra strings are the ever-present backdrop, alongside a mixed melange comprising elements of blasting horns, high-voiced backing, chattering percussion, violin, oud, electric guitar, ney flute and electric bass, all of it applied in judicious style in the clear and spacious arrangements.
Uptempo pop-rai is the core, but interest is also maintained by a handful of ballads (all of which avoid tipping over into cheesy bombast for a change) and a few old favourites — including a loose, poppy update on Raikoum itself, which features Rita Marley and friends on backing vocals — and one or two delves into the hypnotic gnawa grooves of Morocco. This ia an album that can be recommended without reservation.