WINNER – BEST MIDDLE EAST ACT – KHALED
SOUTH BANK SHOW SPECIAL RAN ON ITV - MARCH 13
Don’t look back. It’s easy to say, but in a country like Algeria, the future can seem so dim and dark at times that looking forward is like being blind. Sometimes looking back has a purpose. Sometimes you have to ask questions like “What did we have back then that was so good? How did we loose it? What can we do to get it back again?”
“In my head I wanted to come back to 100% rai,” is Khaled’s succinct summary of the master plan behind his new album ‘Ya Rayi’. The title itself is laden with significance. “Ya Rayi!”, meaning “here’s my opinion!”, is the age old signature whoop of rai music. It could already be heard at the dawn of the twentieth century in the public squares and cafés of the Medina Jdida, or Arabic quarter of Oran in western Algeria, before the term rai music even existed. By choosing this title, Khaled is in effect aknowledging the umbilical cord that attaches him to the source of rai and to the streets, cafés, cabarets, brothels, beaches and squares of western Algeria from whence it came.
Two very special guests make this journey into the past all the more potent and significant. Blaoui Houari, le papa du rai, is a singer who cradled the hopes and dreams of Khaled’s parents and grandparents back in the 1940s and 50s. Maurice El Medioni is a pianist of Jewish origin who was a lynchpin of the cabaret style of 1950s Oran, which mixed US boogie, Latin syncopations, Arabic inflexions and the lush emotions of French chanson. These two giants are thankfully still alive and when they met in a studio in Paris to guest on Khaled’s version of the Blaoui tune ‘H’mama’, meaning ‘Dove’, they hadn’t seen each other for forty years. Khaled sat between them like a child in awe as the trio stepped gingerly through the emotional opening of the song, and walked hand in hand back into the past. “I wanted to come back to the old styles, in order to hope. I wanted to talk about the same things that they talked about,” says Khaled. “When people sang back then, they always spoke of a rosy future. They were looking forward to many things. We haven’t regained the rosy life they had, or that they expected to have. I also wanted to show that racism isn’t an Algerian thing. Here is a Jew and an Arab, who were mates back in Algeria before I was even born. They were artists who lived in peace and good spirits.”
‘H’mama’ is a song that was written at a time when singers could not sing openly about women, alcohol, sex, bars or society. Back then, the metaphor regined supreme. Khaled ingnited the modern pop rai explosion in the mid 1970s as a reaction to this lyrical timidity and hypocrisy. He became the musical mouthpiece of a whole generation who were born into the boiling euphoria and ecstatic hope that accompanied independence in 1962. This same generation came of age in the mid to late ‘70s when that hope and euphoria were already turning rancid and sour. They demanded the freedom to speak out loud about their frustrations, about sex and alcohol, military service, dole and exile. Rai became their vehicle, and Khaled their champion. Direct aggression or confrontation is not his style. The secret of his success is that he manages to clothe controversy or conflict in a mile wide grin and a shower of infectious laughter. This is the secret of his survival too.
Khaled Hadj Brahim was born on 29th February 1960 in Sidi El Houari, the old Spanish dock quarter of Oran. He grew up in Eckmühl, a quiet suburb of old French colonial townhouses, sandwiched between the Presidential Palace and the municipal Bullring. Despite the fact that neither his mother nor his father, who was a police mechanic, were especially musical, Khaled developed a early taste for sounds from Egypt, France, Spain and the USA. Formative idols included the Spanish boy star Joselito, Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel, Johnny Halliday, Elvis and the Beatles, Oum Khalthoum and Abdel Halim Hafez. Meanwhile, local ‘wedding’ music, especially the rural roots rai of Cheikha Remitti and the poignant songs of Blaoui Houari and Ahmed Wahby, impregnated the water and air that kept every youngster from Oran, including Khaled, alive. At the age of ten he fell under the spell of the radical chaabi band Nass El Ghiwane, from Morocco, whose plain speaking songs about corruption and oppression galvanised the whole of North Africa. This new love inspired Khaled to form his own band, ‘Noujoum El Khams’, (‘The Five Star’s’), and he started earning respectable amounts of pocket money at weddings and parties. One night he was spotted by a local producer who invited the 14-year-old into the studio to record his first vinyl 45, ‘Trig Lyci’, (‘The Road to School’). By his late teens, Khaled, whose name had been augumented by the obligatory ‘Cheb’ prefix which denoted a young and charming rai singer, had already become a local idol and in 1985 he was crowned King Of Rai at the Festival of Rai in Oran. But the lack of good studios and producers in Algeria, and the ever-present threat of military service, forced him to look for his future beyond the blue waters of the Mediterranean. In 1986 he was invited to perform at the legendary Rai Festival in Bobigny, a suburb of Paris, and by 1989 he had made France his home. He didn’t return to Algeria until 1999 and didn’t perform in his native Oran again until 2001. “How can I come and play party music in a country in mourning,” was his habitual explanation for this long absence.
In 1991, Khaled signed a deal with Barclay, a venerable French label then owned by Polygram, and recorded ‘Didi’ with the producer Don Was. The song was a huge international success, and the album that carried it, ‘Khaled’, has sold just over a million copies worldwide. He followed it with ‘N’ssi N’ssi’, which became the soundtrack to Bertrand Blier’s film ‘Un, Deux, Trois, Soleil’ and won a César for best soundtrack. In 1995 married the Moroccan beauty Samira Diabi in and was votes Francophone artist of the year at the presitiious Victoires de la Musique. The next year he collaborated with the renowned French songwriter Jean-Jacques Goldman to record ‘Aicha’, which, with its French lyrics, became the biggest hit of the year in France and brought both Khaled, and rai music, into the mainstream. Khaled had now reached altitudes of fame that no Arabic, let alone North African, musician had ever scaled. Two further albums, ‘Sahra’ and ‘Kenza’, both named after Khaled’s daughters, cemented this extraodinary success, as did the ‘1-2-3 Soleil’ concert with fellow Algerian stars Faudel and Rachid Taha at Paris’ immense Bercy Stadium in 1998, and the subsequent live album and DVD. In a decade in which Algeria slipped and slid to the murderous depths of political and social hell, its most famous son became a global superstar and rai, a music which celebrates life, love and good times above all else became the style most freely associated with Algeria itself. This is just one of the ironies, twists and contradictions at the heart of the rai story.
During this scud-like rise to fame, Khaled placed his trust in a small team of sympathetic producers like Don Was, Philippe Eidel, Michael Brook and Steve Hillage, to whom he entrusted the job of modernising and internationalising the rai sound, whilst he provided his trouncing soaring vocals and occasional improvised lyrics. His role on ‘Ya Rayi’ was very different. With special help and encouragement from Philippe Eidel, Khalled became intimately invovled in arranging the songs, playing many of the instruments, including his beloved accordion, himself. The result is a stripped down return the essentials of rai. The young and upcoming producer from Algiers, Farid Anouameur, helped Khaled record the song ‘H’mam’, which is his first ever foray into chaabi, a music which sums up the Algerian capital just as rai sums up its rival city, Oran. Jacob Desvarieux, one of the founder members of Kassav, produced ‘Zine Zina’, an intriguing blend of Antillean zouk and rai which has never been attempted before. The terrible Algerian earthquake of 2003 provided the grim inspiration for ‘La Terre a Tremblé’ (‘The Earth Trembled’), which, with double meaning so typical of rai, also alludes to man’s brutality towards his natural environment.
Khaled dedicates this album to ‘mon bled’, which means ‘my country’ and ‘my home’. He also dedicates it to his father, who died in 2001. “My politics is making music and making people happy,” he says, and adds, with his disarming ear-to-ear grin, “after love comes friendship,” a phrase which he seems to be very fond of. Rai is all about partying, conviviality, friendship, family, joy and life, the attributes which define Oran, and Khaled himself. It has never been about Politics or Political rebellion. In a time when Algeria is engulfed in hatred and division, digging into the past for golden examples of these self same attributes, in order to make the future shine brighter, seems innocent enough.
“Ya Rayi is a thrilling return to form as Khaled goes back to his deepest roots” TIMES
“The new album is a gem” – STANDARD
“one of the great singers in the world today, at the height of his powers” OBSERVER
“momentous” - INDEPENDENT
“as finished and perfect a piece of work as he has ever recorded in more than twenty years in the professional music business” BBC.CO.UK