But in the U.S., Khaled has yet to generate even name recognition, never mind excitement, among the average pop fan.
While Khaled has appeared on Letterman and Leno's shows, and toured the U.S. once before -- in 1997 with the Gipsy Kings -- he has yet to crack the U.S. in the style to which he has become accustomed elsewhere. Still, Khaled hopes that headlining his first U.S. tour will help raise his American profile closer to that of international artists such as Youssou N'Dour and fellow rai star Cheb Mami, whose respective careers got decided boosts via prominent collaborations with Peter Gabriel and Sting.
Khaled's conquest of France -- like Ricky Martin and Mark Anthony's sweep of the U.S. -- was accomplished with the help of one concession to the market: doing at least some of his singing in the local language. That's not an option in this case, as Khaled's English is rudimentary, and American listeners have long resisted flocking to hear anybody sing in French. For rai to succeed in the U.S., language is just one hurdle. Today, there are concerns in some quarters that the lyrics might be political. Not so at all, Khaled insists.
"The music, thank God, is universal. It explains itself," he says through a translator, on the phone from Geneva, where he's enjoying some quality time with his daughters. "The songs are not political; they are about love, people, everyday life. There is great variety, it's very universal, whether accompanied by oud or rock 'n' roll guitar. There are no borders, it's all about love, peace and hope."
Besides, the Western influences in Khaled's music makes it more accessible to American ears. "When I was 10 I saw the Jackson 5 on TV. Right off the bat, that influenced me!" He also cites Elvis Presley, The Beatles and James Brown as inspirations.
Indeed, Khaled's 10-piece touring band, which comes through Atlanta this week, is worthy of a James Brown-size production. The group includes Algerian, French and American players, and features New York-based Palestinian oud and violin virtuoso Simon Shaheen. Khaled himself plays oud (north African lute), guitar, percussion and violin, but prefers to compose on his beloved accordian or on keyboards (including a synth with Arabesque quarter-tone tuning).
The word rai means opinion, advice or point of view, and as a music form it developed in the towns of western Algeria as a fascinating amalgam of traditional Bedouin music with imported influences and instruments (Spanish, Moroccan and French). Later, the music also drew on reggae, R&B and rock 'n' roll sounds.
Khaled points out that music's origins go back to the 1920s. "The real start of rai, it started with women singing at home about love. That was the core, long before the innovations." Some have compared the genre to rap. Both came out of the ghetto, where those with little to lose could air their views in song using street language (and often borrowed music), shocking the more respectable elements of society. Indeed, Khaled and the cadre of producers he tends to use (Rachid Baba Ahmed, Michael Brook, Don Was, Steve Hillage, Lati Kronlund) can rap, scratch and loop with the best of them, but the performer himself favors another comparison.
"Rai is like when rock 'n' roll was first evolving in the U.S., it's the same thing. I was the first one to sing about love and pride. Some people objected; they said girls were enjoying it and not being good Moslems, but they were just having a good time. Thank God rai music had the strength to overcome that. All young men enjoyed it too."
Rai was a long time finding acceptance in the conservative society of Algeria, but technology helped change that. The old (and expensive) way to get a song out, on a vinyl single, gave way in the mid-'70s to the ubiquitous mass-produced cassette, and by 1979, a teenage Khaled had his first (and rai's first) nationwide hit with "Ana ma h'lali ennoum" ("Sleep Doesn't Matter to Me Anymore"). In 1985, the first rai festival was staged (in his native Oran), at which Khaled was officially crowned King of Rai, a title he's been in no hurry to relinquish ever since.
Just as it took some time for rock 'n' roll to find mainstream acceptance and a regular place on television in the U.S., so it was with rai in Algeria. "A lot of people think it was the government who prevented rai from being played, on TV and radio, but it wasn't," Khaled is quick to point out. Having said that, there continues to be considerable resistance from terrorists and extremists, Khaled says, "like the Taliban -- they do not want people even watching TV." Another rai star, Cheb Hasni, and producer Rachid Baba Ahmed were assassinated a few months apart in the mid-'90s.
Moving to Paris soon after his coronation in Oran, Khaled signed to the prestigious Barclay label and soon found major crossover success with a heady mix of funked-up rai, Egyptian strings, electronica and techno beats, not to mention Spanish and French chanson influences. He shared the stage with two younger Parisian rai masters, Rachid Taha and Faudel, for a huge concert in 1998 which resulted in the world's biggest selling Arab release ever, the live 1, 2, 3, Soleils (finally released last year in the U.S. on Mondo Melodia). Rai's assimilation into French culture is perhaps symbolized by its celebratory closing, "Comme d'Habitude," which you'll recognize as "My Way."
In 2000, Khaled made a triumphant return to Algeria, giving his first concert there for 14 years. However, despite his initially confident claim to have played in "every country except Iran and Taliban-controlled areas," he admits that, despite having had two No. 1 albums in Israel, he has never played there or in the Palestinian territories.
He yearns to reverse that situation and vows to sing there some day, he says, "in peace time. The area is filled with my people, people I wish to reach out and perform for. A singer should be allowed to perform anywhere, in any country. I am the neutral zone. We are all one -- brothers -- not divided by race or religion." He is proud of the fact that his two biggest hits were collaborations with Jewish producers.
It has been three years since Khaled's last studio album, Kenza (Ark21), named after his second daughter (his previous release, Sahra, was named after his first). So, is there a new release -- not to mention a new daughter -- in the works? "God willing, yes!" he says, laughing. "My wife is seven months pregnant, and I am trying out different producers. Don Was is a possibility. He's a really great producer, and like my brother to me. The next album will be named after my new daughter, as long as there is no jealousy among the three of them, for I love them all equally."
While we await that delivery, there is the new song, slated to appear on the UNICEF benefit album, Many Voices, One World, this spring. A collaboration with Egyptian star Hakim and Iranian singer Andy, the song is appropriately called "Salaam al Lakoum (Go With Peace)."
Khaled plays Wed., Feb. 6, at the Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Ave. Show time is 8 p.m. $25-$27.50. 404-524-7354. www.variety-playhouse.com.
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