There's a pop trend that's bombarding the French charts at the moment. This is the recipe: take a four-to-the-floor disco beat with a deep beef-shank thud to it, add a vocal group of West African origin, a few mouthy French rappers, an Arabic wailer and a rainbow-mêlée of Francophone party animals. Mix well, don't stint on the spice or the melody, shoot a video in a French suburb with plenty of ghetto-fab demoiselles and beefed up dudes in Technicolor football shirts, stick it on You Tube and... voila!
The Merlins of this particular hit machine are Magic System from the Ivory Coast. Their ability to glamorise and internationalise afro-disco styles such as zouglou or coupé décalé has made them about the most popular African band in the world – for the time being. In 2007, they teamed up with top North African rap combo 113 to record the massive hit "Un Gaou Oran". A few months ago, Magic System returned with "Même Pas Fatigué", which topped the French charts over the summer. But this time their partner from the Maghreb was no "junior" rap crew. Rather they bagged (or vice versa) the most famous North African pop singer of all time, the king of Algerian rai music himself, Khaled, sporting a sober but stylish "gangster" suit, a louche tache and that legendary smile.
A few months short of his 50th birthday, Khaled, who was once revered as an icon of youth and teen rebellion – albeit the apolitical and carelessly hedonistic brand championed by rai music – is no doubt overjoyed to be the voice of choice in the French banlieues once again. The last time he found himself in such good grace was in the mid 1990s, when his tearful song "Aisha" became the biggest thing since croissants au beurre and made him the most beloved Algerian in French history. Considering the loveless, blood-soaked relationship between France and its former colony, this was quite an achievement.
After dizzying peaks of success came a series of falls, however. Khaled was harassed by well-publicised matrimonial bust-ups, alcoholic misdemeanours, wrangles with his record label, taunts for being a fat irrelevant tax exile; in short, the usual snarling furies that harass rich and famous pop stars as they stumble gracelessly into middle age. Not only did Khaled survive this extended slide into hell, but he came out of it smiling and smelling of some very expensive eau de cologne. For while "Même Pas Fatigué" has hoisted his banner among French "ghetto" kids – who probably weren't even born when Khaled, or Cheb Khaled as he was then known, first came to France from his native Oran in Western Algeria in 1986 – his new album Liberté has spruced up his reputation among fans and cognoscenti of rai. Produced by the French veteran Martin Meissonier, who last worked with Khaled on his landmark album Kutché in 1989, Liberté is a back-to-basics exercise proving that Khaled's voice need fear no rival in contemporary Arabic music, and that his rai-stew of raw trancey Maghrebi roots and French, Spanish and Middle Eastern pop is best served as simply as possible, with little or no studio frippery and electronic garnitures.
Khaled, who is a conversational engine that just fires up and motors in all weathers, emitting generous expletives and guffaws as it races along, says Liberté encompasses many definitions of the word "freedom". "Meissonier knows me too well. Twenty years after Kutché, he made me an offer I didn't dare refuse. He said, 'I'd really like you to sing the way you sing on stage. I'll let you be free and I won't give you a click'," he says, referring to the computer-generated metronome that some producers use to tie their musicians to the beat. In effect, Liberté relies solely and courageously on good microphones and great musicianship to achieve its epic power.
However, the album's honesty doesn't merely reside in its production values. As he nears his half-century, Khaled has clearly spent some time looking at the man in the mirror; mulling over his rebellious past, the apocalyptic sufferings of his Algerian homeland during the 1990s, his relationship to God and Islam and his tussles with his father, a stern car mechanic who considered the phrase "a career in music" to be an impossible absurdity. "I also called the album Liberté, because of the freedom that my father provoked in me. I wanted to prove something to him, because he always used to say being a musician means getting involved in drugs, drowning in alcohol, being a tramp, never marrying, never having kids... all that kind of stuff."
Khaled has also been busy contemplating the tragedy of Algerian history. Like most of his contemporaries, born in the euphoria of the early 1960s, when the young Algerian state had only just emerged victorious from its bitter struggle with France, Khaled can't help looking back with dumbfounded bewilderment and ask: "What the hell went wrong?" A need to find heroes and mentors untainted by the horrors of the civil war of the 1990s has led him to the avuncular embrace of the rai legend Blaoui Houari, who was singing in Oran's bars and cabaret's when Khaled's parents were courting in the 1940s. Houari shared a prison cell with a young freedom fighter named Ahmed Zabana, to whom Khaled dedicates a song on Liberté. "He was the first martyr to be guillotined by the French during the war of independence," Khaled explains. "Zabana means freedom to me. He sacrificed his life for freedom, so that's why I wanted to pay homage to him."
But there's one specifically North African interpretation of the word "freedom" that Khaled can really claim to be his own, his offspring, his life's work, his greatest pride. It's the freedom that has always been the cause célèbre of rai music, ever since the original pop-rai revolution of the late 1970s, when Khaled was just a youth with bum fluff and monster flares, burning bridges all over Oran, singing his heart out at weddings and baptism parties while drowning his sexual, social, and spiritual frustrations in free alcohol.
"The history of rock'n'roll with Elvis Presley and the history of rai are one and the same thing," Khaled explains with explosive enthusiasm. "Rai was banned from television and radio because they said it was misogynistic music that couldn't be listened to by the family. It's also a music that men dance to with their hips, which for a Muslim country, was outrageous... Rai was a music that upset people who were a little bit stuck up in the way they lived, or I could also use the word 'fascists'."
The fact that Khaled has survived with his primary weapons, his voice and his smile, sharp and potent, for so long, is quite extraordinary, illogical even. Hedonistic, outspoken, devil-may-care, a North African rock'n'roller par excellence, Khaled has walked a tightrope for decades, with angry imams, po-faced politicians and lethal fundamentalist emirs baying for his blood. It's the smile, the impregnable bonhomie, the voice that transports every North African to some essential and indefinable place where myths and ancestors lurk, that have been his sword and shield from his earliest days. Khaled was right never to play real politics. It's a strategy that has allowed him never to appear like a real threat, while he shook, rattled and rolled his homeland to its moral core.
"I was brought up in a country that was very closed," Khaled remembers. "But I was always free thanks to music, because I was communicating the message of love and I've always fought for freedom... The problem is that in a place like Algeria, when you sing about love or about the beautiful things in love, it almost makes you a protest singer. But you mustn't fall into the trap of politics. Politics is for politicians. Each has their role to play."
Khaled plays at the Womad at the Tower Festival on 9 September. 'Liberté' is out now in the UK on Wrasse RecordsReuse content