As-Yet-Unnamed Music Column: “World Music” + Khaled

Hey y’all. I’m keeping with my warm-weather theme this week, as temperatures in the UK plummet and I routinely wake up not being able to feel my toes. This week we go overseas, far out of the English-speaking world, to Algeria.

David Byrne, of Talking Heads frenetic nerd-rock fame, once wrote a great article in the NY Times called “I Hate World Music”, in which he decried the Western practice of categorizing everything in music as either “English-language” or “world.” Where’s the sense, he asked, in putting flamenco music cheek-by-jowl with Japanese pop? What’s the connection between Selena and Lata Mangeshkar, if only that they don’t play music that narrowly fits our Anglo-American concepts of radio-friendly? “World Music” is an otherness category, an exclusionary, exoticising cage for the stuff that we can’t and usually don’t understand. (You can read the whole article here if you like, or you can wait until I start talking about David Byrne again. I talk about him a lot. I’m sure I’ll link to it more than once.)

The Happiest Man Alive.
I may or may not be biased in favour of this man considering my dad used to have the exact same mustache.

Khaled gets thrown in the World Music category. He was one of the early singers of “raï,” a purely Algerian Arabic/French language style of pop that rose to prominence in the ’80s, and fought to survive. Its singers, who usually prefaced their names with cheb (“young man”) to distinguish themselves from the elders or sheikhs of more traditional music, sang about the growing liberalism and secularization of Arab culture, including drinking, dancing and casual sex. The backlash against raï was often violent: for years the entire genre was banned by the Algerian government. One star, Cheb Hasni, was murdered in 1994 at the height of his creative career.

Khaled fled to France, and proceeded to release a string of incredible albums that incorporated the basic structures of raï with elements of funk, jazz, pop, and folk movements from the Arab world. In 1996, the album Sahra was released, and took the Arab world – and lots of Europe, Africa, South America, and Asia – by storm.

The biggest hit from Sahra is far and away the track “Aicha,” a simple love ballad sung in French with an Arabic chorus:

Recognise it? That’s because “Aicha” has been translated into and covered in about a zillion languages. It won Victoires de la Musique song of the year in 1997. To put this in perspective, 1997 is the same year that the Spice Girls released “Wannabe.” LOOK WHAT WE MISSED OUT ON, ENGLISH-LANGUAGE FOLKS.

Sahra is a tight, 12-track album full of rhythms that, as a Westerner, I didn’t expect or anticipate, and which I subsequently adored. Khaled runs the gamut from classic raï beats on the title track (named for his daughter Sarah) to edgy funk-piano underbeats on “Walou Walou” (listen for the scale run down the keyboard at the start of the song!) to the clearly incredibly awesome French language rap on “Oran Marseilles.” Really. If you haven’t heard Algerian/French/Arabic rap before you have been living under a rock. It is THE BEST.

One thing you’ll notice about Khaled is his incredible vocal flexibility. Like most raï singers, Khaled is able to stretch a note out for measures, and fluctuate up and down the musical scale while doing so. The resulting sound is probably best described as an uluation, similar in feel to the Bedu folk songs that form the backbone of raï. Listen to “Wahrane Wahrane” to gain an idea as to what Khaled’s idea of these songs might have been like a generation or two ago:

Khaled was my introduction to Arabic popular music and is still my first real love in the genre. I’ve collected scores of different tracks from various parts of the Arab world, but no album grabs me like this one. I don’t know if any album will ever have the same effect on me again. Most songs in the world make me want to get  up and dance. The songs on Sahra make me want to grab my guitar and write a whole new album to Frankenstein onto this one, and to try to create something even better. I’ve even learned a little Arabic from his songs; for example, qalbi means “heart.”

Khaled is still known as the King of Raï, which is even more awesome when you say it in French. Yet he’s criminally under-represented in English-language countries. I’m here to urge you to GIVE IT A LISTEN, LADIES*. No matter which way you slice it, this is incredible music, and it deserves all the attention you can give to it. Salaam alaikham and vive le Roi de Raï!

Oh, and while we’re at it: piss off, “World Music.”



*This is my new acronym. GIALL will hereby be used to denote unmissable albums for your ears, brain, and dancing butts.

By Dr. Song

Dr Song is an archaeologist, in exile from the great state of Maine. Her life motto is "Hold fast."

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9 replies on “As-Yet-Unnamed Music Column: “World Music” + Khaled”

I absolutely love rai.

In broad terms, in Arabic music there is a great emphasis on elaborations, or ornamentations, of the main melody. Which is what gives Khaled’s vocal lines their complexity. And of course he has an awesome voice. Powerful and flexible.

Also check out the live album 123 Soleils with three greats of rai, Khaled, Faudel and Rachid Taha!

I’ve been aware of Khaled for a few years because of the song “Alech Taadi” which was used in the Taxi Chase scene of The Fifth Element.  Incidentally, it was what I wanted most off the soundtrack and the one song that wasn’t actually included on the album, though I don’t know why.  Presumably a rights issue of some kind?  Anyway, it was quite a while before I even found out what the song was – I had to wait for IMDB to catch up.

I love Khaled! I love Aicha! I love you!! Back in my salad days in college I was a DJ on the school’s freeform radio. It was one of the deader slots, because I was a freshman, so I played ‘world music’ to my slackery stoner friend at 4am.  ‘Abdel Kader’ (probably spelled wrong, as I don’t actually know Arabic) is also one of my personal favorites. It will make your belly want to dance.

Now I miss unorthodox bellydancing and the radio and college in general…

It’s criminal how many people don’t realize that popular music exists outside the English language. Just try explaining to people that Laundry Service was not Shakira’s first album, and that many of the songs were not new. Hell, I’ve even met people who didn’t realize that Australia has their own pop music, or that British pop did not stop with the 1960s. Sad, sad state of things.

And you have just made a David Byrne lover out of me.

1) I love Khaled!

2) I lived in France in 1997, so I heard “Aicha” a bajillion times that year.

3) “Aicha” is a beautiful love ballad, yes, but the woman’s response I’m the song is also a feminist response in that she says she would rather have the same rights as the man proclaiming his love to her than to have his love. Pretty progressive of Khaled to include that, imo.

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