Beloved in his native Algeria, and famous across Europe, musician Khaled’s latest album offers an array of sounds and tastes to satisfy both ardent, long-time fans, as well as pique the curiosity of new listeners. Along with the North African style of pop he made famous are generous portions of sacred music, Arab rhythms, and a pop-rock sensibility that fuses cultures even as it calls to dance. Liberte, as it’s appropriately named, is both a liberation of Khaled from the shackles of the Rai genre to which he’s widely credited with popularizing, and a call for listeners to open their minds and hearts to sounds that are at once traditional and modern.
Khaled Hadj Brahim was born in 1960 in the Oran Province of Algeria. He formed a band in his teens and started off singing at weddings and in cabarets. Islamic fundamentalists weren’t too pleased about his embrace of social themes, nor his blending of various cultural styles. Incorporating both Western-style pop-rock sound and Eastern melodies and rhythms, Khaled forged a new path that resonated with many younger fans, and made him an icon to a generation of young Algerians. However, he was forced to relocate to Paris in 1986 after fundamentalists made death threats against him and other rai artists. After being known for years as “Cheb” (or young man) Khaled, his first self-titled (non-young-man) album was released in 1992 and it catapulted him to superstar status among the North African, Arab and Eastern communities across Europe. He’s since collaborated with a number of artists, including American super-producer Don Was, guitarist Carlos Santana, and fellow Algerian Rachid Taha.
Rai, a peppy mix of North African folk, European dance and American rhythm and blues, truly became a worldwide phenomenon owing to Khaled’s ear for blending styles. That ear –and the adventurousness behind it –is still very much in evidence, even if much of Liberte is characterized by more acoustic mixes and folk sounds. Utilizing a range of traditional instruments, including the gumbri, the ney flute, and the guellal, Liberte is by no means an obtuse album filled with sacred, had-to-follow music. Quite the opposite. The work is a joyous, light-filled celebration of East-West culture filtered through the unique sensibility of a rebel simultaneously at odds and enraptured with the sounds of his native land.
Producer Martin Meissonnier has had a hand in at least part of this accessibility. A former journalist and writer, the prolific Frenchman brought blues and jazz musicians like John Lee Hooker and Dizzy Gillespie to France in the 1970s, before working with some of Africa’s biggest names in the 1980s, including Fela Kuti and Salif Keita. In 1986 he organized a massive Rai concert in France that featured, among others, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, and of course, a young Khaled. Meissonnier has also worked in film, directing a number of documentaries and composing and collaborating on a myriad of film scores, including the 1991 Emir Kursturica film Arizona Dream, during which he worked with Balkan superstar Goran Bregovic. Meissonnier brings just the right amount of subtlety and drive to Liberte, balancing the wild zeal of the Arab sound with the stable backbeat of Western rock. In achieving such a remarkable mix, the producer assists in shaping what is easily the Algerian star’s best album in over a decade.
Stripping much of the synthesizer and fabricated effects that have marked many past Khaled albums, Meissonnier goes for a more organic feel. He gives full range to simple, elegant instrumentation and lush arrangements. Many of the tracks on Liberte are preceded by instrumental introductions, which, the liner notes tell us, provide “a scene-setting prelude on which the singer's carefully modulated voice extrapolates on the theme of each song.” The introductions are particularly helpful for those unfamiliar with Khaled, his style of singing, or North African music in general, because they provide a solid instrumentally stripped-down version of what’s to come –a kind of tasting to whet our appetites for the main course. The first track, “Hiya Ansadou (Intro),” features interplay between orchestra and oud in the classical Arabic style of master Hossam Ramzy; slow, sinewy, and theatrical in intent, full of pregnant pauses and singular held notes. The main track itself, “Hiya Ansadou,” launches with a repeated guitar licks a mid-tempo fusion of pop and classic Arab sounds, with a call-and-response chorus, and a myriad of instrumental solos, including violin and oud.
The second –rather, make that third –track, “Raikoum,” also features an introduction this one even more sinuous than the first, and filled with swirling accordions. Even if it didn’t have any Rai/pop-rock leanings whatsoever, the track would still retain every ounce of its buoyant joy, helped along by traditional Arab instruments, percussion, horns and a chorus of male and female backup singers. As it is here, the tune is a perfect east-meets-west sonic fusion, and a perfect example of why Khaled has earned Khaled the title “King of Rai” in Europe and North Africa.
“Ya Bouya Kirani,” is reminiscent of the kind of music used by belly-dancers to do more complex abdominal moves; any dancers will be inspired to do figure eights and undulations in listening to the track. In fact, there's so much sensuous sonic undulation in this piece, it’s difficult not to imagine a slithery-swaying torso wafting through a candlelit room, the smell of myrrh and tagine spices wafting through the air. Khaled’s voice stands out like a clarion call amidst the staccato oud as it is twinned with the matching one-two-one beat, and a dreamy piano line weaves its way in and out of the song’s rich tapestry. The track is a perfect example of the smooth sounds for which he’s famous; listening to the tracks like this, one has to admit that Khaled is a master of making Arabic sound like the next great romance language. Midway through “Ya Bouya Kirani,” a break comes for a small oud solo, followed by orchestra, then sax, and finally, Khaled’s voice one again climbs octaves in a seemingly-effortless skimming in and around a gently meandering melody line. The result makes for a sensuous, dreamy piece of music recalling both the sacred pieces of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the breathy moans of world beat artist Natacha Atlas.
“Gnaoui” is a stand-out for its rock-meets-sacred sensibility. At home in Fez or the Festival in the Desert, the track is catchy, upbeat… and rocks. It features a simple melody line and classy, vibrant orchestration, along with strong percussion and growling guitar sounds recalling Malian rock and roll band Tinariwen. The tune fearlessly ventures away from Khaled’s well-worn pop palaces and straight into hard, barren rock and roll territory, with its call/response structure, repetitive rhythms, and dramatic violin part and handclaps. The piece is a wonderful fusion of North African sounds, with the traditional Algerian Gnawa music fusing with Western styles while retaining its spicy flavour.
The album’s title track receives its own introduction, with a winding accordion passage leading into a long, dreamy vocalized sequence that segues between the sacred and the secular in its gorgeous sonic landscape, filled with electronic bloops and blips intermingling with dramatic Arab violins. It’s as if Khaled is standing on the edge of a huge cavern, calling to the Gods, surrounded by swirling lights and whirling sufi avatars. “Liberte” proper is welcomed with gentle acoustic guitars and drums accompanied by snappy percussion and more electronic fusion. It’s a pleasing mid-tempo piece with traces of Caribbean sunniness in its soaring keyboards and a discernible Euro-DJ influence in its danceable beats.
“Sbabi Ntya” appears near the album’s end, gorgeous, simply-arranged fusion of deeply-traditional Arab sounds and Western beats, with nods to Spanish rhythms. There are plenty of heavy Ramzy-style violins and a swaying mid-range beat that is highlighted with instrumental solos and acoustic guitar lines. “Ya Mimoune,” which closes the album, also features its own introduction, and is a hypnotic, traditional Diwan-influenced tune that beautifully showcases the album’s seamless integration between old worlds and new worlds. Khaled’s magical voice is like a thread pulling them together, as the tempo of the song increases and reaches its climactic, joyous end.
If anyone needed convincing of the power of music in crossing barriers, this is it. Liberte offers Western ears the chance to experience something exhilaratingly new, while simultaneously scintillatingly familiar. The tracks, though rooted in tradition, all come swirling to us in different guises: dance, pop, ballad, R&B, and rock and roll. These elements are masterfully filtered through the expert, subtle touch of producer Missoniere, who obviously trusts his vocalist utterly –and vice-versa.
Indeed, there is a discernible trust between artist and producer on Liberte, as well as, not ironically, a freedom that comes from a deep-seated mutual respect. As well as being a beautiful showcase of Algerian music –and indeed, of world music at a pivotal crossroads, Liberte is a best showcase of Khaled’s soaring, transcendent vocal powers. It sounds at times like a muezzin, at others like a balladeer, he floats between styles, genres, time periods and cultures, at ease with all of them, but never for a moment leaving the place his heart has roots. Oran province rings through each of these 17 tracks (12 if you don’t count introductions) like a bell. Khaled hasn’t just liberated himself from his pop-music past; he’s liberated his countrymen from their own tormented history, and in the process, lifted Algerian culture out of the sands of time and onto the world stage, which is indeed, truly where it belongs. Yallah, Khaled. Chokran. 08/26/09
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by Adam A. Donaldson