In the DVD which accompanies his latest release, ‘King of Raï’ Khaled compares the production of an album to both a fable and a country. If this album is a fable, the moral of the story is that we all live happily ever after. If this album is a country, get me a passport.
It shouldn’t be too hard: the immigration policy of the republic of Ya-Rayi is clearly a liberal one. There’s room for soul, rock, pop, smatterings of High Life and a very generous slice of funk alongside traditional Algerian grooves. Arrangements are just as eclectic, featuring (and this isn’t a comprehensive list) piano, fender rhodes, Spanish and electric guitars, Arabian string orchestras (specially recorded in Cairo), West-African style backing vocals, every kind of percussion, accordion, bano, charanga, bouzouki, derbouka, ney, even cornemuse (traditional French bagpipes) and best of all, brass arrangements to make James Brown blush. The bass playing of Michel “Mishko” M’Ba (throughout the album but maybe most of all on El Ghira) deserves a special mention here.
Ya-Rayi also has an enlightened approach to its senior citizens. In an approach reminiscent of Buena Vista Social Club, Khaled has turned to the idols of his Algerian childhood, singer Blaoui Houari and pianist Maurice El Medioni, both almost unknown in the France in which Khaled has made his home, for collaborations on the album. El Medioni’s decorative piano opens the disc on the uncharacteristically gentle and lilting Mani Hani, like a whiff of smoke from a shisha pipe or a sip of strong mint tea, and Houari joins Khaled for a duet on the classic H’Mama. The spirit of tribute to the motherland runs through an album which was codenamed Back to the Roots by its record producers, and conceived in the wake of devastating earthquakes in Algeria in 2003. According to Khaled, the song lyrics have more to do with family and home than the more standard romantic themes of Raï.
Given all this, you might expect an album somewhat burdened by reverence for tradition, or by the breadth of its influences, but nothing could be further from the truth. This is free-spirited, high-energy pumping party music. There’s no sense of a fear of vulgarity, but thanks to the musicality of everyone concerned and especially co-producer Don Was and co-arranger Philippe Eidel, also no vulgarity, even with the cast of thousands that makes this album the celebration it is.
In addition to the making of the album, the DVD includes an engaging review of Khaled’s French career and videos of his two biggest hits, Didi (this video is not to be missed – I’ll say no more than that) and AÔcha, as well as his appearance alongside fellow Raï stars Faudel and Rachid Taha in the historic 1998 concert 1,2,3 Soleil. Apart from some fascinating insights into the painfully slow liberalisation of France’s radio and club scene, the central character that emerges is as sympathetic as his singing is beautiful, smiling constantly and seeming to share a secret joke with us. Maybe it’s something to do with those shirts.