North Africa has no bigger star than Khaled. The one-word moniker suits him well – he is Algeria's Elvis, a voice and a permanent smile instantly recognisable across the Arab world. His first Greatest Hits album is released this week, and the King of Rai returns to the UK for a one-off concert at the Barbican, with his old friend, the 80-year-old Jewish-Algerian pianist Maurice El Medioni in support.
Khaled came, like Rai itself – the street music that fermented from Algerian independence, Moroccan rebel music, and the universal desire to party – from the Mediterranean port of Oran. "It's an open city, with lots of street festivals. Its artists are without borders. The mentality is French, Spanish, Algerian, Moroccan. When I was young, it was like the Switzerland of Algeria, a neutral city. There was no problem between Muslims and Jews. It's the kind of city where all those conflicts are reconciled."
Khaled was a self-taught musician from the age of six, and released his first single at 14. But with the rise of fundamentalism and terrorism in Algeria in the 1980s, the "bad boy" of Rai received death threats and was forced into exile, like many artists. But his music remained at the barricades, fighting against prejudice and narrow-mindedness.
"Rai closes the gap between cultures," he says. "It has won the same battle as rock'n'roll, it gives us a small freedom, it breaks taboos."
The huge success of Khaled's breakthrough hit, the Don Was produced "Didi" back in 1991, was a big surprise for the star: "For me, it was just a funny song about men in nightclubs having eyes bigger than their stomach."
He's working on a new record, which he describes as a "very steady rock'n'roll album", and that extends the same live and acoustic bent of 2004's Ya-Rayi, and the same concentration on the musical legacy of Oran. "All the music there inspired me – Jewish, Andalusian, Algerian, Flamenco..."
And will we hear some duets between Oran's greatest singer and its finest pianist, El Medioni? "It would make the gig for me if we get the chance. Maurice has the real mentality of Oran. In Algeria, people who have a shadow in their soul, we say their angels are very heavy." He laughs. "Maurice's angels are very light."
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