It’s a balmy December afternoon in Los Angeles, and Algeria’s greatest pop singer, Khaled, settles down with a cigarette in the garden of the Beverly Hills Hilton. He’s just finished up the final work on the U.S. release of his new album, Ya Rayi (Wrasse). Some of the songs have been re-mastered and re-edited. He’s recorded a new vocal for the title track, originally produced over the internet with Khaled in Paris and producer Don Was in L.A.
And most pleasing to the beaming Algerian maestro, he’s just created a catchy plumb of a song called “Love To The People,” involving a host of producers and collaborators, most notably Carlos Santana. Santana’s signature guitar wail is the thread that binds together a dizzying mesh of Latin, Arabic and reggae impulses. This densely packed, four-minute track definitely packs a wallop, and Khaled has high hopes that it will make him known to a whole new audience in America. In short, we’ve got a lot to talk about. But once the tape rolls, the new album seems the last thing on Khaled’s hyperkinetic mind. For the next hour, all he wants to talk about is Oran, the Mediterranean port town where he was born in 1960. And that’s just the beginning.
“Oran is crazy-ville,” says Khaled, “a city of folly, a city of attractions, and many different mentalities. You had the American quarter, the Jewish quarter, the Spanish quarter, and a quarter where you felt truly Oranaise. It’s like in Brazil: you have the rich neighborhoods, and you have the shantytowns. Raï music came from the shantytowns, where there are the bars and taverns.”
Raï began as a rural folk music that moved to the city and got streetwise. In Khaled’s hands in the 1980s, it was modernized to incorporate drum machines and keyboards, and soon it went on an international journey that led to the doorsteps of the Wailers in Jamaica, and later Don Was and Santana in L.A. For Khaled, the open spirit at the core of raï music, and its ever-widening appeal, has everything to do with life in Oran.
“We were colonized,” says Khaled. “I won’t tell you something that is super beautiful. It was French Algeria. But the poets, at that time, who wrote the wahrani, the Oranaise folk music, they were not racists. They shared with the people who lived with them, even if they were colonizers. We live together; we eat together; we sleep in the same city. This is beautiful.”
Flamenco, Arab classical music, wahrani, Latin grooves, and later rock ’n’ roll, French pop, reggae and the rest were all in the air in Oran, and Khaled knew from childhood that music was going to be his life. He picked up guitar, then accordion, and while his brothers pursued professions, he spent his time in bars and nightclubs.
“I was the bad boy of the household,” he says with impish pride, “The hopeless one. I had some terrible moments. But for us, a bad boy was someone who goes out and comes home at three or four o’clock in the morning, who doesn’t listen to his parents, who does what he likes.”
There was nothing violent or spiteful in Khaled’s rebellion. It was all about freedom. As he expounds on his life of partying and hijinks, one word recurs: respect. The bars of Oran were always 200 meters from the nearest mosque. When a religious elder passed, you hid your beer so as not to offend him. Khaled is a Muslim believer, and proud of it, but he was educated by Catholic priests, and cherishes the memory. If his greatest foe in adult life has become religious fundamentalists, it’s because his deeper religion is the street culture of Oran, a culture of respect.
Khaled’s refusal to serve in the Algerian army led to a crisis in 1986. By then he was already a star, and his elders wanted him to follow the example of his hero Elvis Presley, and don the uniform. “They kept saying, ‘Elvis Presley.’ And I said, ‘But I’m not Elvis Presley. I am just little Khaled.’”