For millions of people across the world, rai musician Khaled is not just an artist; he’s a phenomenon and the long established star of Arabic popular music. Like many fellow Algerians, Khaled flee to France in the late 80s to escape the brutal civil war.
Born Khaled Hadj Brahim in Sidi-EI-Houri on February 29, 1960, in Oran, Algeria, Khaled sang and learned to play guitar, bass, accordion, and harmonica as a child. He enjoyed the sounds of Moroccan music and Elvis Presley. Though his uncle played the accordion, Khalid’s family looked down on his musical aspirations. His father, a policeman, disapproved of it entirely. Khalid’s debut recording, La Route De Lycee, came out when he was just 14 years old. After that, he dropped out of school, left home, and formed a group called the Five Stars, and started to perform at local weddings, parties, and clubs.
Rai music was originally heard in seedy Algerian bars in the 1920s. This “sinner’s music” was sung to the beat of light percussion and an ancient rosewood flute called a gasba. Khaled released a handful of self-produced rai cassettes before he teamed up with producer Rachid Baba Ahmed, who had a greater pop sensibility. Under Ahmed’s influence, Khaled’s sound increasingly began taking on more of a Western sound, incorporating such Western instruments as synthesizers and guitars. Khaled became the most well-known singer of the revived “pop rai” trend that first became popular during the 1960s. Excite online likened his stage presence and effect on Algeria’s youth to that of Elvis Presley on American teenagers in the 1950s. Though Khaled was embraced by Algeria’s disenchanted youth during the 1980s, not all of Algeria shared the same enthusiasm for rai, which offended the sensibilities of Islamic fundamentalists.
Until 1983, Khaled’s music was censored by the Algerian government for both his candid lyrics about romance and his lyrics against Islamic fundamentalism. The Algerian government attacked what it considered to be outspoken hedonism, and Khaled’s music was banned from Algerian radio and television. In 1985, though, he was crowned the “king of rai” at Algeria’s National Rai Festival in his hometown of Oran. In the late 1980s, sensing trouble in Algeria, Khaled fled to Paris, as did many other Algerian artists and journalists. The 1992 Algerian elections were clearly going to be won by Islamic fundamentalists, so the military government cancelled the elections and violence broke out. Terrorists targeted and killed many artists, including the popular “prince of rai,” singer Cheb Hasni.
The mass exodus of rai musicians to France resulted in a change in the traditional rai sound. Used to shoddy equipment and a strict government, the Algerian singers suddenly had creative freedom and access to France’s high-tech recording studios.
“Khaled” – (The Album)
Khaled was the first Algerian expatriate to break out in France with his love song “Didi,” a crossover hit for his French record label Cohiba. On this album Khaled, the singer continued to globalize the rai sound and even began to incorporate funk, hip-hop, reggae, and the French chanson—a song style from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Though his songs had taken on an international flavour, Khaled remained true to the Arabic sound with his “seductive phrasing and nasal, soulfully gruff voice,” wrote Margasak. Khaled’s records became popular in France, the Middle East, and India. In the mid-1990s, Khaled dropped “Cheb” from his stage name, a term meaning “kid” that was given to singers like Khaled to make them distinct from older, more traditional artists.
“Mauvais Sang” starts with the classic Algerian vocal/keyboard intro and gets more complex as melodic motifs are woven in. But the rhythm is driven by keyboard bass blats and a drum machine and the instrumental break features sax over thumb-pop funk bass and James Brown scratch-rhythm guitar before the final call and response between David McMurray’s throaty R&B sax and Mustapha Kada’s Arabic keyboards. To say that’s a blueprint of what Khaled wants to accomplish here is true on one level, but ignores the range and variety of the material. Algerian homeboys Kada (keyboards) and Mohsein Chentouf (derbouka) are on every song and Khaled himself plays keyboards, accordion, oud, and bendir on the Brook-produced tracks. Reggae pops into the bubbling rhythm undercurrent on “Ragda”; “Sbabi” works violin against an atmospheric, Robert Fripp-like lead guitar over Khaled’s voice and a funky, chunky groove. With its near-flamenco acoustic guitar and accordion, “Wahrane” has a French café feel, but “El Ghatli” and “Harai Harai” take it all the way home to Algerian tradition.
“Ne M’en Voulez Pas” is sung in French, with more café accordion set against organ, bass solo, and clattering percussion, and winds up in a near-go-go beat. The song is too busy and never quite makes up its mind what it wants to be, but it’s a unique, invigorating ride, which may be the best capsule summary for Khaled. Some artists are born to try this kind of cultural crossover, and in the context of rai, Khaled is both trailblazer and standard-bearer.
Lastly, an interesting documentary about the origins of Rai music (French only)