INTERVIEW / Talking to the shah of Oran: The Algerian rai star Khaled is in London. He talked to Philip Sweeney about fundamentalism and fun

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The Independent Culture
The last time I saw Khaled, three years ago, he was ending his highly successful British debut concert at the Empire Leicester Square, grinning his great, fun-packed grin as a succession of young London Algerians clambered on to the stage and ran to be photographed draping their belts or scarves around his neck or clutching him around the shoulders. Here is Khaled again, still grinning mightily, exuding bonhomie and energy half-way through a five-hour series of press interviews in a London hotel. Does he still indulge his fans' desire for personal contact?

'Yes, as long as they don't try to stay too long, and not while I'm singing. When I was young it was a chance I never had . . .'

And does he still play at private parties and weddings, for years a prime source of income?

'Well, yes, from time to time . . . but not just for anybody . . .'

The reason Khaled can afford to be particular about the parties he plays at, and the reason why he's sitting here now with a London PR-man hovering, an interpreter on call, two Amex cards in his breast pocket and, as he agreed with delight, 'lots of doors opening', is a record entitled simply Khaled. It is probably around his seventieth - he doesn't know for sure - in a 15-year career. Khaled, and the single taken from it, 'Didi', have between them sold 1.5 million copies in Algeria, and several hundred thousand more in North Africa, the Middle East, India and South-east Asia (No 2 in the MTV regional chart). In France, Khaled's adopted home for the past four years, the single has spent two months in the charts, rising to ninth position, making Khaled's the first Arabic language record to have penetrated the French Top 10.

The success of Khaled's new record may be as significant politically as it is musically. For three years, the western Algerian youth music known as rai has been under fierce attack from the bearded puritans of the FIS, the Islamic Salvation party. To them the traditionally louche, open port city of Oran, Khaled's birthplace and the centre of Algeria's wine production, is an especial affront and a target.

The cancellation of the Algerian elections and the arrest of FIS leaders at the beginning of the year halted the fundamentalists' advance to power, and Khaled's record hit may indicate a resurgence of the rai boom of the early Eighties. 'What with the aggression of the extremists, and then the army roadblocks, things are still a bit quiet in Oran,' says Khaled. 'People are worried about going out, but life continues, people still drink. The FIS set up in Oran specially - they know the Oranais are drinkers, party-goers, so they want to crush them. They'd pay thugs to go into cabarets and beat up the clients . . . There were even extremists who went into clubs waving swords . . . That's why I support the army's intervention. For the fundamentalists to come to power would be a catastrophe.'

No song on Khaled captures better the feeling of imminent catastrophe than 'Wahrane', Khaled's ode to Oran, the cradle of rai music, under its Arabic name. 'Didi' ('Take It'), with its bouncy Los Angeles-produced techno- funk arrangement, may be the tune currently blaring out of Algerian radios and cassette players (and televisions, advertising household sponges). It is Khaled's reworking of his most famous hit, however, the 12-year-old 'Wahrane', which best evokes the cosmopolitan spirit of Algeria's Liverpool, where as Khaled says, 'Arabs, Jews, French, pieds-noir, Spanish, everyone used to mix happily . . .' The track opens with a strummed flamenco guitar, recalling the strong influence of nearby Spanish Morocco, and then a melancholy accordion, Khaled's favourite instrument, before the rich voice cuts in: 'Rouhi ya Wahrane rouhi besslama / El kalb likane yabghik ana nakouih' ('Go, Oran, go in peace, goodbye . . . but this heart still bears the brand of its love for you . . .').

The lament proceeds through a series of simple Andalucian choruses likening Oran to a pretty girl oblivious to her peril in an ominous, violent city turned 'Chicago-like' by intolerance.

Although Khaled has spent virtually all of the last four years in France - at first in Marseilles, latterly in the Parisian suburb of Villejuif - he has not escaped the attentions of the fundamentalists: a tear-gas grenade was thrown last year at a concert in Nanterre. Indeed, Khaled's current rapprochement with the Algerian authorities has not been been typical of his career. Modern rai music, born in the late Seventies of a lengthy intermingling of French, Spanish, American and Egyptian pop, western Algerian and Moroccan folk styles and much else, retains a strong line of descent from the bawdy, lower-class music, unacceptable to polite society, of the female entertainers known as cheikhates. Khaled's early recordings - his first single The Road to School was cut on a Grundig two-track tape machine when he was 15 - could never be played at home. Still less acceptable were the great hits of the full- scale rai boom, with their outrageous references to love, sex and alcohol. Single women found attending the rai clubs in the early Eighties were taken home in police vans.

It was 1985 before the previous wave of puritanism, President Boumedienne's early Seventies operation anti-dragueur, had faded sufficiently for the state-run media to open up to the new rai stars and for the seminal Youth Festival to be officially organised in Algiers. Khaled, then using the prefix 'Cheb' (Boy) sported by all young rai stars, in pointed opposition to the 'Cheikh' (Venerable) used by the old poet-singers of the Thirties and Forties, emerged victorious from the Festival's song competition.

Seven years on, Khaled is sitting pretty. He has escaped the clutches of the small-time cassette producers of Paris's Barbes-Rochechouart district, for whom he recorded so many cheap hits. 'You have to watch those guys - they're quite capable of taking an old recording, changing the jacket and telling you it's a new album . . .' He's picked up a decoration - Chevalier des Arts et Lettres - from the French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang. He's even resolved two substantial 'problems' - the requirement to do military service, which he fought for years ('They wouldn't let me off - I was an example to youth') has been dropped, since at 32 he's now too old; and a muddled court case for defamation, brought in Algeria by a 'jealous producer', has finally been dismissed on appeal, removing the prospect of a year's prison sentence.

Khaled's famous love of partying, bars and booze, the ex-Cheb claims, is now muted. In 1986, after his performance at the first French rai festival at Bobigny, the newly arrived Khaled and his party checked into the smart Prince of Wales Hotel for two days, 'staying up all night talking and emptying the mini-bars - it was great'. He still likes to entertain, but these days more sedately.

Steering his international career with the aid of a Paris-based management company, Khaled Unlimited Sound, Khaled keeps houses in Villejuif and the Oran oil refinery area of Arzeu. He issues his own cassettes in Algeria, through a company, Agadier, run by members of his family. One market as yet only partly penetrated by rai, the Middle East, is beginning to express interest. 'I've had offers of concerts in Cairo, Damascus, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.' Isn't this getting a mite close to the hyper-prudish Saudis? 'No, no problem,' says Khaled, pouring another glass of red, 'Abu Dhabi's got alcohol - where there's alcohol I don't worry . . .'

Khaled plays the London Equinox on 13 September (071-437 1446).

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