Khaled: Return of the king of rai

After a five-year gap, the controversial Algerian singer Khaled is back with his sixth album. Phil Meadley meets him in Paris
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The Independent Culture

When one's actions lead to intense media speculation and occasional death threats, it's hard to imagine wanting to make music - let alone being prepared to stand on stage in front of thousands of people. Indeed, there was a time when Khaled, Algeria's greatest singing star, was close to deciding that enough was enough. "There was a big concert in Rome, bringing together 30 singers from war-torn countries to make a show of peace," Khaled explains, in the plush offices of Universal Records in Paris. "At the end of the night, we all came together and sang 'Imagine' by John Lennon - partly because I'd sung it as a duet with the Jewish singer Noa on my last album, Kenza. The next day, a Saudi paper printed a picture of Yitzhak Shamir, Noa and me, with the headline: 'Khaled is a traitor' underneath.

"I went to Lebanon a few days later, and didn't sleep for three days in fear for my life. But I wanted to show them that it was a lie, so I brought my kids with me to show them that I wasn't going to play their game. You have to confront these people, not with weapons but with words, look them coldly in the eyes and challenge them to prove what they are saying."

Khaled is back with his sixth album, and, after a hiatus of five years, he has taken to the idea of promoting his new opus with renewed vigour. Ya-Rayi sees Khaled ditch trademark drum machines and synthesisers in favour of a far more satisfying blend of traditional instrumentation, pitch-perfect vocals, and mature tunesmithery. It veers away from the well-trodden Franco-pop leanings of albums such as Kenza and Sahra, but still utilises the production skills of Don Was and regular cohort Philippe Edel.

The presence of the young Algerian producer Farid Aouameur (the first home-grown talent Khaled has used since he left Algeria) also adds a certain vitality, and this appetising combination looks set to rejuvenate a distinctly tired-looking career that had sunk into cliché-driven live performances amid tales of drunken debauchery and unpredictable mood-swings.

It's quite a different Khaled that is in evidence today, however. Clearly excited by the direction of the new album, he feels that this is an opportunity to set the record straight. "The Arabic press tend to pick up on the tabloid gossip that comes out of France, but the only one that has put my life in danger was this Saudi paper. There's so much injustice and hypocrisy. Sharon is a proven criminal, and Yasser Arafat has got blood on his hands, yet these people get treated with respect.

"I've had pictures taken with Arafat. Now he's a poor old man, but at one point he got married and had a child, and that's when he moved to make peace. That I can respect. But he learnt a lot of things from the regime in Algeria. Horrendous nepotism takes place within the Palestinian authorities."

The new album doesn't really get to grips with such awkward issues. Instead, it returns to the Algerian cabaret roots of Khaled Hadj Brahim, who first performed in seedy clubs aged 14. "Even now, the cabaret scene hasn't changed. When I was young, there were five cabarets along the corniche (the coastal road along the south side of Oran) and that's where everything happened. Things were very controlled because it was near a naval base.

"Now, the government encourages people to open up their houses, sell alcohol, and play rai music. The ambience is one of flirtation, drinking, and party-party, even if the government tightly controls bordellos. To counteract terrorism, the government has brought in complete cultural and moral liberalism."

On the track "H' Mama", Khaled plays homage to Algerian folklore by recording a traditional chaabi track with the Algerian national orchestra. It was only recently that Khaled returned to Algeria after many years of self-imposed exile in France. "After September 11, I was due to play in New York but postponed the concert out of respect for the dead. You are meant to observe 40 days of mourning, which is also why I didn't play in Algeria for 10 years. Throughout the Nineties, there were so many deaths that to come and play would have been completely wrong."

This exile alienated him from a sizeable home audience, many of whom thought that the move to France had watered down his music and rebellious spirit. "Back in 2000, there was a producer in Oran who took me to court for breaking a contract that never existed," he explains. "The whole thing was completely false, but I was still given, in absentia, a five-year prison sentence. Then the new president, Bouteflika, came to France and wanted to meet me. He asked when I was coming back to Algeria, and I said that I would love to come back but was concerned about terrorism. I asked him to guarantee my safe passage, to which he agreed. I also told him of the court judgment and that I didn't want to come back with people thinking that the president had stepped in on my behalf to skew justice.

"So, I got off the plane with bodyguards, was handcuffed and taken in front of a judge in Oran. It was a huge media event, which resulted in the case being thrown out. After that I was free to do a benefit concert for sufferers of diabetes in Algiers. There's a shortage of insulin in Algeria."

Rai is Algeria's most popular music form. Its name translates as "opinion" in Arabic, and, accompanied by tinny drum machines and cheap Eighties synthesisers, the singers wax lyrical mainly on inoffensive subjects such as love, drinking, and parties. But there is also a hint of rebellion behind the sugary façade. One of Khaled's most famous songs, "Aicha", encouraged equal rights for women, and he has always supported the notion of cultural and religious tolerance.

This openness in the midst of religious fundamentalism saw many rai singers assassinated during the 1980s and 1990s - most famously, Cheb Hasni, who was killed in Oran in 1994. It is understandable, then, that Khaled is wary of undue press attention. "The newspapers in Algeria have reported that I'm in prison, that I'm dead, that I've lost my voice. They've said that I have problems with my wife and we're getting divorced. Bouteflika encouraged freedom of expression, but the flip side is that people can abuse their power."

This abuse stretches to a long-held assumption within Arabic press circles that Khaled is an alcoholic. "The problem I've had with alcohol is the problem everyone has, no more, no less," he explains in a hushed, gravelly voice. "I've been teetotal for eight years now. Sometimes, the rumours have been hellish, but if you are a real artist, you can't react because you get into a vicious circle.

"I do have a lot of respect for journalists, especially after what has happened in my country. The highest mortality among any profession is in journalism. On the other hand, they are all-powerful and if they're found wanting or tried for libel, they have the money to pay. Even if they print a retraction, it sells papers.

"But all these things just make me stronger and give me the desire to be who I am and make the music that I do."

'Ya-Rayi' is out on 30 August on Wrasse Records