The Phantom TollBooth,
In his native Algeria, and even across North Africa, Khaled is a star, and has been since 1985, when he was crowned “King of Rai” in his late teens at the Rai Festival in Oran, the city which is home to the musical style. Eleven years later, his “Aicha,” with its French lyrics, became the biggest hit of the year in France and brought both Khaled and rai music into the mainstream. After making France his home, he scaled heights of fame that no other Arabic singer had reached. This led to working with western producers from Don Was to Steve Hillage, which some say gradually over-westernised him and ended up with his voice buried in layers of keyboards.
Commercial success has enabled Khaled a level of independence that has led to a reputation for hedonism in his home country. Neither has a prolonged absence from his homeland during politically stressed times gone down well there either. However, the appeal of this album to western ears, on which the politics and cultural values of Algeria will be lost, comes mainly from both his distinctive, classic North African vocal style – now set free from layers of technology to soar – and the gorgeous Egyptian strings that punctuate the spacious sound.
On the title track we get a slow taster of the song to come, but instead of its swirling keyboard accents, beats and punchy horns, there is just a sparse synth accompanying meandering accordion and slow voice. This is a feature of the disc; several tracks have these slow previews. “Yamina” has a similar one, with brooding strings, ney flute and a slow vocal that works like a sonic elastic band being pulled back, ready to spring the main track into life. Once unleashed, it updates a traditional sound with Euro-pop beats, interspersed with Khaled’s own accordion playing and a few stabs of brass.
Strongest highlights include the reprise of his earlier hit “Raikoum,” with its infectious dance beats and insistent horns, but coming very close is “Ya Bouya Kirani,” where sensuous exotic strings and some occasional sinewy woodwind augment slower, sultry rhythms. “Soghri” enjoys similar features.
The very twangy “Gnaoui” – a tribute to the Gnawas, whose ancestors came to North Africa as slaves – also stands out with its strong acoustic, bluesy feel and prominent percussive beats.
It’s hard to make my mind up about “Sidi Rabbi,” which has a strange burst of reggae and a short guitar solo in the middle. While they intrude, they do add some variety. “Papa” also has some diversity, but more in keeping with the rest of the disc. It is a slow ballad, the backing track more western in style, down to the slow build and key change as it reaches for its climax. Not only is it sung in French (which makes it easier to understand), but the whole musical style sounds like it is aimed squarely at the French MOR market.
Produced again by Martin Meissonnier, known for his work with Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade, this is Khaled at his purest. It sets his voice free to soar, swoop, play with hypnotic rhythms and engage with a mix of moods… and those strings, well it wouldn’t be the same without them.
Derek Walker 11/03/09
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