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.)
Khaled gets thrown in the World Music category. He was one of the early singers of “raÃ¯,” 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 raÃ¯ 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 raÃ¯ 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 raÃ¯ 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 raÃ¯ 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 raÃ¯. 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 RaÃ¯, 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 RaÃ¯!
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.