World Music: Khaled Astoria, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Diminutive Algerian rai star Khaled (the Cheb prefix, implying a youthful apprenticeship, has been rightfully discarded) is now acclaimed as the King of Rai. He demonstrated his idiosyncratic blend of North African melodies delivered in an evermore European manner to a mixture of excited fellow-countrymen who, before the show, had attacked the front doors in frustration, and a crowd which had queued around the block. Topped with sublime melodies and laced with subversive lyrics (for those who speak Arabic), his tunes and nine-piece band - including horn section, rock guitar, keyboards and electric cello - overcame the soundman who, apparently, had his head buried in a bucket of sand, to deliver what seemed at times to be a stadium-rock version of the current hit album Sahra. The audience was inspired to wave cigarette lighters and arms in appropriate fashion from the first song onwards.

Receiving a delirious welcome to his only London gig, Khaled and his band showed how, aided by the production of such rock 'n' roll stalwarts as Don Was, his music has crossed into the mainstream. The nattily dressed Khaled, aided by cooling fans positioned on each side of the stage, led his exemplary band through a variety of moods - notwithstanding the soundman, who introduced each instrument some minutes after it started playing. They incorporate Iberian atmospheres, silvery trumpet solos, wailing rock 'n' roll guitar and a keening Northern African taksim vocal intro which led the audience to form human pyramids of ecstatic appreciation.

A moment's respite for a percussion and keyboard interlude led into the closing moments of the programme. Khaled's rather abrupt disappearance from the stage at the end of the set seemed to bewilder the crowd - a brief pause ensued before he and the band returned for a rendition of his mega-hit "Aicha". He coquettishly encouraged the obliging audience to sing the refrain of his first French-language hit before the true nature of his art was revealed by the final song "El Harba Win?" (Escape to Where?"), a tune adopted by Algerians in memory of the bloody 1988 riots. The very walls shook as he was moved to leap down into the audience and pass among the converted, causing evident concern among his security staff for their boss's welfare. He was among friends, however, and, despite the fact that the song started like the Rolling Stones at half speed, the band reached a frenzied and emotional climax.

A spokesman for those Algerians who have left their troubled country, Khaled's music speaks directly to both his fellow countrymen and to those who respond on a purely musical level - if you don't understand Arabic, put on your dancing shoes. These crossover gigs, however, do need a sympathetic soundcrew - the recent WOMAD event at the Barbican was marred by similarly cloth-eared technicians.

Martin Gordon