Khaled on his vibrant new album and how rai is the music of the Algerian working class

Singer has released his first album in a decade

Algerian singer Khaled's new album is full of the powerful vocals that define the rai genre. AFP
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For his first album in a decade, Khaled wants to go global.

The meaning of “global” is relative, however, for an artist largely responsible for introducing the passion and poetry of rai to the world.

In an exclusive interview with The National, the Algerian singer explains that his new album, Cheb Khaled, aims to showcase the dynamism and inclusivity of the genre, which dates back to the 1920s.

“It is the music of Algeria and it is part of our folklore and continues to be the basis of many local and cultural celebrations,” he says.

“But at the same time, the music is very generous. It is very open, inquisitive, and that is what makes it open to fluidly mix with other genres and traditions.”

epa01285501 World reknown Algerian rai singer Cheb Khaled preforms in front of the Sphinx with the  French Rap group IAM 14 March 2008. The group grave a free concert that was broadcast live in France and was also filmed for a documentary film they plan to screen at the Cannes Film Festival in May.  CORBIS/MIKE NELSON

For his first album since 2012’s dance-friendly C'est la vie, Khaled, 62, returns to remind us of rai’s relevance and reach.

Nearly all 10 tracks are exercises in fusion and collaboration, as his powerful vocals are paired with everything from dance music to Spanish flamenco, Indian bhangra and Latin blues.

In lesser hands, it could have been a mess.

But such melding is a natural by-product of the genre born in the cultural melting pot of Oran, the Algerian port city once referred to as “little Paris”.

“It's across the sea from Spain and near the border of Morocco but really, at its heart, it is an Andalusian city,” Khaled says.

“Because of that heritage, Spanish folk music and salsa were widely heard and those influences made its way down the generations.”

Songs of the kasbah

The working-class lyrics of rai, which deals with everything from politics and society to love, stems from the folk musicians and poets who often performed in Algeria’s historic medinas.

Born Khaled Hadj Ibrahim and raised in Oran, Khaled remembers seeing these grizzled artists play on family leisure trips to the souqs.

“There were called the Sheikhs of the Kasbah,” he says. “And their poetry was about everyday things. It was very direct and it affected people.

“Rai basically took that emotional approach and mixed it with other sounds.”

By the time Khaled was born in 1960, rai — meaning “opinion” in Arabic — was solidifying its reputation as the people's music, with its mix of local lyrical concerns with the sounds of the day.

Early songs blended rural and cabaret sounds before taking in other styles such as Spanish flamenco, Moroccan gnawa, Arabic classical music from Egypt, even reggae from Jamaica.

Khaled remembers absorbing a lot of those elements from a young age.

“It is a mystery or a miracle when it comes to how I became passionate about music because there was no member of my family involved in the field at all,” he says.

“I had absolutely no roots in the arts, so I do look at it as a gift from God that I was able to have a love of harmony and songs from a young age that really helped me when I began my career.”

Those early passions are revisited in Cheb Khaled’s opening track, Trigue Lycee, a new version of his debut 1976 hit single that he released aged 16.

Where the original had his ebullient vocals expressing hopes of being a singer on the “road to school”, the heft and gruffness of the re-recorded vocals and beats, courtesy of Algerian EDM star DJ Snake, gives the rai classic a newfound poignancy.

“I look back at that original song and I just feel so lucky,” Khaled says.

“It was the first song I recorded in a studio and I remember it just became really popular and people connected with it. I was a teenager and that song introduced me to all of Algeria.”

And the world soon followed, with Khaled releasing European hits such as the horn-soaked Didi (1992) and the ethereal French ballad Aisha (1986), which made him a rising star on the world music scene.

Taking the music forward

Cheb Khaled doubles down on that adventurous approach, with his authentic rai wailing on a musical journey across the world.

Come Together (Acere Que Bola), one of several tracks produced by Lebanese-American composer Dawn Elder and featuring reggae singer Elan Atias, is a joyous blend of Latin percussion and Middle Eastern orchestration as Khaled pleads for reconciliation from “Santiago to LA”.

Forever Love, featuring Riffat Sultana, is a rhythmic treat, with its marriage of rai and northern Indian bhangra music.

“India is another world that has its own rich tradition and working-class music,” Khaled says.

“Doing that song was a beautiful challenge because it allowed me to stretch and evolve. This is really the direction that I want to take the music”

In addition to fellow Algerian Cheb Mami, who scored a global hit with his 1999 Sting collaboration Desert Rose, Khaled remains a leading purveyor of the genre nearly five decades on.

While their status is a tribute to their consistency, does it signify a dearth of new talent coming up through the ranks?

Khaled concedes the lack of new names is part of a wider problem affecting Arabic popular music.

“It is perhaps a generational thing and to do with how music is being heard today,” he says.

“Everything is more disposable now and young artists are looking for that one big hit and relaxing off that, rather than working hard, creating more songs and playing shows.

“Such a mentality affects everything in how the music is produced and how the artist is managed.”

That said, Khaled is adamant that rai is in no danger of losing its relevance.

“This is the music of life and is meant to spread joy and relief,” he says.

“Considering the state of the world today, we need more rai than ever.”

Updated: December 30, 2022, 6:10 PM