Perfect Sound Forever


Photo from the Khaled website

Cheb Becomes Cheikh: The King of Rai
by Andrew Zakim, NYU '09
(June 2008)

At Shaherzad, a hookah café in Edison, New Jersey--the town where I grew up--sometimes people like to dance. "Didi! Yalla yalla!" Marco, the waiter, threw his head back and laughed, a machine-gun, guttural "huh-huh-huh," his eyes crinkling, as a darbuka rhythm came on the big-screen TV. Nick, my best friend, a first-timer, shot me a "what the fuck?" look as he blew some sweet-smelling smoke towards a ventilator.

In the second the groove kicked in, everyone rose up out of their seats and began dancing as the Shaherzad café seemed to transform itself into a scene from a Bollywood musical. It was impossible not to get dragged into the madness--Nick and I soon found ourselves dancing to the hard driving, bassy rhythm and singing along to the nonsensical yet unforgettable chorus "Di-di ouah, di-di, di-di-di-di zidine!" I watched, amazed, as everyone in the café sang along to not just the lyrics, but to the super-catchy horn refrain as well.

Marco grinned as he saw Nick and I dancing with two gorgeous Egyptian women. "Nice work, congratulations, habibi!" he said to me. "You like Cheb Khaled?"

"Who?" I asked. And that was how first I crossed paths with Khaled Hadj Brahim, the "King of Raï," and a major inspiration to me and millions of other listeners around the world.

In 1992, over one million people in forty-nine countries from France to India bought copies of Khaled's "Didi." For listeners in about forty-eight of those countries, "Didi"'s lyrics make no sense. Even for 35 million Algerian Arabic speakers, the phrase can mean a number of things, or nothing, depending on regional dialect. The most common interpretation is "take, take," referring to what lies beneath a girl's short skirt and her "young, 'sleepy' eyes," but even that is disputable. Yet "Didi" is the most well known Arabic pop song to ever be released.

"Didi"'s mega-success--and the number of records sold pales in comparison to the suspected number of bootlegs, said to be in the tens of millions--is consistent with Khaled's universal appeal.

What is cool about Shaherzad is that there is nothing specifically cool about it. It's a modest place, dimly lit, furnished with ceramic tables and folding chairs and cheap Salvation Army style couches. Yet the place has the feeling of a cultural melting pot, for lack of a better cliché. Patrons at the bar range from seventy-year-old Egyptian men to Pakistani and Indian teenagers whose grandparents fought against each other in the Punjabi border clashes to Staten Island Gotti wannabes. It doesn't matter who you are or where you are from--you walk into Shaherzad, and you feel welcome.

In this Shaherzad is just like Khaled's music, a melting pot that invites people to look past language and cultural barriers and simply get down. For me, born and raised a traditional Jew with anti-Arab prejudices to boot, the fact that I count a Maghrebi Arabic singer among my all time favorites is all the more reason to explore what makes Khaled so special.

Khaled's music reflects a tradition whose modern era begins with the end of World War II, fifteen years before Khaled's birth.

Hailing from Oran (Wahrane in Arabic), a seaport city in Algeria, raï derived from the traditional Algerian styles of andalusi and melhun at the beginning of the 20th century. Hana Noor Al-Deen, who teaches communications at the University of North Carolina, defines Andalusi as classical music of Spanish origin that came to the Maghreb via Baghdad with the expulsion of Spanish Arabs in the 13th century, while melhun is Bedouin poetry sung in the local dialect by cheikhs, holy men who delivered their opinions or "raï" to followers at religious ceremonies and weddings. It is related to the Sufi ritual.

Modern raï comes from a corrupted form of melhun sung by cheikahs, woman singers who used "lewd lyrics [to sing about] hardships facing peasant women in a big city, the pain of love, the lure of alcohol, immigration, and mourning." Before each song, the cheikah said "raï," meaning that is my opinion, or the way I see things. Different elements combined with the music of the Cheikahs, such as French and American sounds to create Wahrani music in the Post-WWII era, a mix of modern instrumentation (guitar, piano, accordion, violin). Male performers in the 1950s began performing Raï as the Cheikahs performed it, and introduced the modern instrumentation found in Wahrani music to the genre. While Cheikahs generally improvised, male Raï singers used professionally composed lyrics.

Though wahrani and raï singers supported the nationalist movement of the 1950s, after Algeria achieved independence in 1962, the new government sought to censor music with colonial influences in the interest of nationalism. To strengthen the state and appease Muslim fundamentalists, raï was banned from Algerian radio until 1985. Controversial lyrics criticizing the government added to the stigma. Welcoming their roles as incendiaries, raï singers began to target youthful audiences, so danceable percussion was added, and in the mid-1960s, trumpet, saxophone, and electric guitar were incorporated into the mix. Pop raï is said to have come about in the 1970s with the spread of the cassette tape, the medium on which a 16-year-old Cheb Khaled had his first major hit, "Trigue Lycee." The year was 1977, around the time that Raï singers began putting a Cheb or Chebba (meaning Youth or Kid) in front of their names, both in reference to their age and to the post-independence generation whom they were speaking for. In 1985, the ban on raï was lifted, and at the first Oran Raï Festival saw Khaled "proverbially crowned as the King of Raï." Soon after, Khaled recorded "The Rebels of Raï" with famed produced Rachid Baba-Ahmed (who with brother Fethi is credited with bringing the synthesizer and drum machine to raï).

When in 1991 the Islamic Salvation Front became the majority party in the Algerian parliament and banned raï once again against pain of death for any 'vulgar' music, many raï artists escaped abroad. Sadly, fundamentalists gunned down some of those who stayed in Algeria, including Rachid Baba-Ahmed in 1995. Khaled signed with Barclay in 1992 and released his debut Khaled, which contained "Didi."

One reason raï was controversial within its native Algeria and the greater Muslim world is the risqué lyrics that are intrinsic to the genre. An oft-cited lyric that displays "typical Raï sentiments" is Cheb Khaled's "Haya raykoum (It's your opinion):

The young girl wants to get married
The divorced woman wants to break loose
The married woman wants a divorce
The married woman wants to break loose
The married woman wants to go wild
You've done what you wanted
You've done what you decided
My god, my god, the husband's asleep.

Lyrics dealing with the concerns of Algerian urbanites have led scholars to make comparisons to blues and rap. Raï consistently deals with romance, alcohol, and partying. Raï singers also sang of time-sensitive issues such as the "the black market, Allied invasion, and rationing" during World War II and "nationalist concerns" during the liberation movement. At one point, it was also seen as the "CNN of the Arab World," to corrupt Chuck D. A press release for 1988's Kutche tried to underline the similarity between Khaled and rap: "A kind of Arab Jim Morrison, [Khaled] irritates and unsettles the authorities, at the same time seducing the masses and the intellectuals. Khaled is the most famous popular singer in Algeria and the spokesman for those youths who reject social traditions. He is taking Raï out of Oran's ghetto and turning it into a type of music that everyone listens to." Like rap, raï has mitigated its politics as it became more incorporated into mainstream pop culture over the years.

But raï's lyrics and their similarity to rap--while interesting and worthwhile--cannot explain why Khaled's music attracts people who do not understand the lyrics. Lyrics are usually only relevant from a listening standpoint if you speak the language they are sung in. To read a translation and apply that to what you hear is to risk losing subtle meanings conspicuous to native speakers. But at the same time, lyrics as phonetic information serve an important purpose.

In any genre, vocals serve an important role, regardless of language. They provide the easiest part to sing along to, and are what allows most listeners to distinguish between one artist and the next. For non-instrumental music it is undoubtedly the vocals that set people's tastes apart. Khaled's appeal to the non-Maghrebi (and furthermore non-Arab) audience does not come from the words he is singing, but from the sound of those words. Along with the tightness of the band playing underneath him, it is the way Khaled makes words sound that has endeared him more to the Western ear than any other raï/Arabic singer.

"Didi," exemplifies how Khaled's phonics works to universalize his music. Almost any speaker can say the phrase "di-di"--it lacks the glottal stop found in much of Arabic and the vowel-based phonetics of languages like French and Italian. The pause between each "di" allows the person singing along to give more power to the consonant "D", which makes the sound of the word even more memorable.

That said, the sound of the word is not the only reason "Didi" is so popular. Musically, "Didi" is a brilliant piece of pop, combining an 80's hip-hop groove and traditional percussion with a compelling bass line that drives the song forward. According to Nasser, the actual melody "remains static, not extending beyond a minor third, answered by a twisted figure from the keyboard ." While the centerpiece hook of the song is the word "Didi," the aforementioned horn interlude works as a complementary hook. If one listens to the various translated covers of "Didi" available on iTunes, the word "Didi" and the horn refrain are the portions most consistently retained. Coupled with the tight instrumentation, the phonetic effect of the words in "Didi" makes the song appealing to a mass audience.

"Didi" is probably one of the only Khaled songs where it is specifically the sound of the word that achieves universality, but some other Khaled tunes approach it. As Khaled has gotten older, he has become a master of the chorus. Most of these songs' most memorable choruses share the characteristic heard in "Didi" of single word phrases and easily pronouncability. "N'ssi, N'ssi," "Aicha," "Sahra," "Chebba," and "El Harba Wyn" are some of Khaled's most popular tunes for the same reason. In addition, most have catchy interludes that are nearly as memorable as "Didi"'s horn refrain.

On Khaled's later records, the choruses have gotten less memorable, losing their simplicity and focusing on melody and simply sounding cool. On 2005's Ya-Rayi, the chorus to the hip-hop-raï-meets-Bollywood "El H'Mam" features an ascending and descending chromatic melody sung to "El h'mam elli waleftou m'cha âalia/Ma b'ka li nesmâa soto fi rssami." These words are not memorable or pronounceable to the average English-speaking listener by any means, but what "El H'Mam" sacrifices in simplicity it makes up in melodic innovation. "El H'Mam" retains its catchiness through its melody.

It might even be said that Khaled has tried to widen his appeal as of late not through composition but through collaboration and further widening his playing field. His latest record finds him singing "Love to the People" with none other than Santana, in both an Arabic and English version with a patented "Santana" feel that makes the tune sound like a Supernatural outtake. Khaled has also recently released a single called "Karia-Hena" with Persian singer Cameron Cartio in Arabic-Persian and Arabic-Spanish. And a few years ago, Khaled made waves across the world (kicked out of a Jordan music festival for supporting "normalization" with Israel) by collaborating with Israeli pop star Noa on an Arabic-Hebrew cover of John Lennon's "Imagine" that reached number one on the Israeli pop charts.

I remember the first time I played some of Khaled's music for my father. His reaction was, if anything, exactly what I expected. Growing up in a traditionally Jewish family, I couldn't expect my father to react with joy that I was listening to an Arab. My parents aren't closed minded by any means--but given their own Jewish upbringing, Arabic is a threat. I experienced some of the same prejudices growing up. My Hebrew school teacher once told our class, "Never trust an Arab; they will kidnap you and make you take the Qu'ran or the sword!" And in fact, my American father would line up with many Jews in Israel, where in a recent poll conducted for the Center Against Racism, fifty percent of participants said they felt fear, while thirty-one percent said they felt hatred when overhearing someone speak Arabic.

In the post 9/11 world, suspicion of Arab culture is paramount. But for Khaled, speaking to an interviewer on the topic in 2002, the first time the singer had traveled to the United States since the attacks, "Islam means 'peace.' Islam has nothing to do with sects, nothing to do with killing. The good lord did not put us here to kill one another. It's written in all religions--Islam, Christianity, Buddhist--it's forbidden to kill. Don't do bad to other people... We are in solidarity with the United States. Me, I was outside in Paris and I saw that for the first time in my life--I am 40--I saw that the world had stopped. We were 10,000 km away, but we were present. I saw French people, Muslims, Algerians. Everyone was together. This hurt the entire world."

But it's no mistake that "Imagine" was a number one hit in Israel, and no mistake that "Didi" was either--reconciliation between Jews and Arabs is something Khaled ardently supports. He's quick to point to interviewers the debt Raï owes to Arabo-Andalus music created by Algerian Jews, and doing press for his hit, "Aicha," he constantly mentioned the fact that he co-wrote the song with Jean-Jacques Goldman as proof that Muslims and Jews can work together. Khaled recently reunited Jewish Algerian singer Maurice El-Médioni with Muslim guitarist M'Hammed Blaoui on "H'Mama (Dove of Peace)" from Ya-Rayi. " When they saw each other, Blaoui fell over. I was afraid he was having a heart attack," Khaled has said. "Afterwards, it was, "Oh, my friend. Oh, my God!" It was beautiful. And do you know why I did that? It was to show to these people who know nothing about life that Muslims and Jews can make music together. They are brothers."

An irony of the post-9/11 world has been that though with those planes the terrorists managed to drive the wedge between Western and Muslim societies as deep as it has ever been, since the attacks interest in Arab culture and society, especially among college students, has been on the rise. I include myself in this group. The attacks on September 11th worked as a catalyst in piquing my interest in the Arab world and Middle Eastern politics and culture.

Khaled's music has brought me greater understanding of Arab culture, and served as a point of departure for interesting conversations with Muslim fans from around the world. When I've mentioned how much I liked his music, surprise at my being Jewish is quickly surpassed by interest in conversing about favorite albums, songs, and videos. In this way, Khaled's music works to help his audience transcend cultural and sociopolitical barriers.

But despite all the politics, and the fact that I am English-speaking, Jewish, and American, there is the music that stands on its own. Khaled's voice is, after all, what makes him a superstar (that and his smile, it's been said). One of my favorite songs is "Wahrane, Wahrane," performed on the 1,2,3 Soleils live album (1999). The song begins with Khaled singing in a growling, ominous baritone, but he is soon soaring towards the dramatic peaks of upper octaves. Khaled's voice is both rugged and smooth; it hits you like a blast of cold air on a winter morning; it is jarring and refreshing, sultry and aggressive. The orchestra crescendos and falls behind Khaled's passionate vocals, rising in tension until the third chorus, where the entrance of a drum set brings release and at the same time another climatic build up that continues until the end of the song. To listen to "Wahrane, Wahrane" ("Oran, Oran") is to be amazed at the depth of Khaled's musicality, and the talent of his band in complimenting him. Lyrically, Khaled is singing about the poor state of his hometown, and his sadness in having to leave it for France. I find this adds to the power of the song, as his passion means something--but the vocals would be penetrating and powerful regardless. When "Wahrane, Wahrane" ends, I usually find that I have chills. Khaled has managed once again to touch something only reachable through the expressivity of music.

Though language, culture, and country are things that may divide Khaled's fans across the globe, we all share one thing in common: Khaled's music makes us happy.

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