|Algerian superstar returns to his joyous roots|
|With more frequent trips back to his homeland, and a new album being lauded by critics, Khaled has a lot to smile about
It feels like a soccer match. A rowdy crowd jumps up and down chanting for Bab al-Oued, the Algerian slum district famed as an impenetrable rebel stronghold both in the 1954-1962 war of independence and in the country's recent troubles.
Algerian flags are waved with abandon and the faint whiff of marijuana is in the air. But there will be no big game tonight. No, this crowd, seemingly all of the capital's Algerian population, is assembled in the Shepherds Bush Empire in West London one Sunday night earlier this month to see their singing superstar, Khaled.
The "Sinatra of the Saharas" is in town to mark the release of his new album, "Ya-Rayi," a jazzy return to the rai roots that made him famous.
Finally, dressed in a slick white suit, as the chants reach fever pitch, Khaled emerges to greet his adoring fans.
Having risen to prominence in the 1980's as Cheb Khaled, the King of Rai, he has since dropped the cheb (or young man) for his hair is flecked with gray and his belly full with too much good living. He is now simply Khaled.
Yet he remains "the man," taking the stage with the swagger of the street kid made good. Despite the increasingly diverse explorations of his recent albums, fusing rai with different global sounds, Khaled remains most passionate about the music that made his name.
"Rai is like the blues that was sung by the slaves," he told The Daily Star after the concert. "But in Algeria it was sung by the shepherds in the days when we were colonized by the French. It used to be hidden and forbidden."
Born in the Algerian city of Oran, Khaled has lived in Paris since 1989 after receiving death threats from Islamic fundamentalists as the country was about to be engulfed in its barbaric civil war, leaving thousands dead. His blend of rai, replete with odes to drink, love and sex, saw him at odds with the increasingly reactionary tendencies of the conservatives back home. In 1994, another popular rai singer, Cheb Hosni, was killed by extremists in Oran.
"I was spat at, threatened and accused of being French and a traitor," Khaled recalls of the time.
While the new album features the production skills of regular contributors Phillipe Edel and American Don Was, who provided Khaled with his first big crossover hit "Didi" in 1992, "Ya-Rayi" is notable for featuring young Algerian producer Farid Aouameur. It's the first time Khaled has used an Algerian producer since leaving the country over a decade ago. The result is a refreshingly energized back-to-basics sound that has critics hailing it as the singer's best album in years.
One of the tracks, "H Mama," is a heartfelt homage to Algerian folklore, with the singer performing a traditional chaabi track backed by the Algerian National Orchestra. The dark days of the 90's, a time of exile and violence, seem to be slowly drifting away.
Alongside the sense of nostalgia pervading the concert there is also a sense of joy. It is as if Khaled is reminding the audience that the soul persists, and there's always a good reason to have a party - namely because we're all still alive. With this philosophy in mind, he has begun returning to Algeria with greater frequency.
"After Sept. 11, 2001, I was due to play in New York but I postponed the concert out of respect for the dead," he says. "You are meant to observe 40 days of mourning, which is also why I didn't play in Algeria for 10 years.
"Throughout the 90's there were so many deaths that to come and play would have been completely wrong."
Wooed back with his safety guaranteed by Algerian President Abdalaziz Bouteflika, Khaled eventually performed a benefit concert in his native country to benefit sufferers of diabetes. With this greater freedom, however, has come a down side - notably consistent press intrusion on the singer's private life. In the same way that Omar Sharif has endured a relentless stream of innuendo in all his years away from the Arab world, so has Khaled had to contend with negative gossip. It is something he feels strongly about.
"The newspapers in Algeria have reported that I'm in prison, that I'm dead, that I've lost my voice, that I'm an alcoholic. I haven't had a drink in eight years," he says.
"Sometimes the rumors have been hellish, but if you're a real artist you can't react because you get into a vicious circle."
Back in the Shepherd's Bush Empire, having gone through a repertoire that included songs from the new album like the infectiously funky title track, as well as some of his past hits, Khaled performed his most famous tune, "Aisha."
The first song he ever recorded in French, "Aisha" remains Khaled's signature tune and the one really responsible for turning him into a global superstar. It has been remixed countless times.
From the initial guitar refrain, the crowd roars its approval. Khaled may as well have not been there - the crowd deliriously sings every word for him. The song, itself a paean to equal rights for women, saw Khaled's ever-present smile grow even wider in response to the crowd's rendition. For a man so accustomed to mixing his "shukrans, thank yous and mercis," it was a fitting testament to the power of tolerance and pleasure that have marked his remarkable career.
As the man himself summed up: "There is another scent in this music: the hope that the world will be okay, that everyone will be okay, because the world is rotten and because what I do is a music of joy."
Beirut,12 20 2004
The Daily Star