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KHALED: Algerian Rai Music

Interview | Artist By Paul Tingen
Published October 1997

For millions of people worldwide, rai musician Khaled is not just an artist, he's a phenomenon. Paul Tingen catches up with the elusive Algerian, and two of his many producers, to get the full story.

Though he's not too well known in the UK, rai musician Khaled (pronounce the 'kh' as 'ch' in the Scottish 'loch') is a phenomenon in the Arabic world, with a popularity that has reached almost surreal proportions. In 1992 his monster hit single 'Didi' sold over a million copies in European, Arabic and Asian countries, and made him more popular than Michael Jackson in India. This year he was also elevated to the status of nationwide celebrity and ambassador for the Arab minority in France, when his first French‑language single, 'Aicha', put his brand of rai, a blend of traditional Algerian music and more Western styles such as soul, reggae and rock, at the top of the French charts for months, and sold 700,000 copies in France alone.

Time Out reviewer Peter Paphides, not usually given to using superlatives, called Khaled's most recent album, Sahra (1996), a work of 'celestial brilliance', and was bewildered that most Britons have never heard of the man, let alone his music. And the various people I interviewed for this article were all palpably thrilled to be given a chance to talk about their work with Khaled, clearly considering it one of the most unusual experiences of their lives. Don Was, the legendary American producer who produced 'Didi', described on the cover of Khaled's 1993 album N'ssi N'ssi how he appeared live with Khaled on the American late‑night TV show Tonight in 1992. At least five of his friends called him the next morning, because they "found this quarter‑tone funk so unlike anything they had ever heard before, that they were uncertain as to whether the entire show had occurred in their dreams."

Ecstatic Response

Last May I had a chance to speak with Khaled, in the basement of his record company's offices in London. Khaled Hadj Brahim was born on February 29th, 1960, in Oran, an Algerian port, and made his first recording as a child prodigy atthe tender age of 14. Despite strong disapproval from his parents he had started to sing at weddings and cabaret evenings, and had begun to appropriate the rai, originally traditional Algerian music sung by women, and mix it with Western music and Western music technology. He continued to develop this new, electric rai under the name Cheb Khaled (Cheb means 'young'), and helped to start a whole new musical movement.

During the late '70s and early '80s rai music became the voice for Algerian youth rebellion, just as rock 'n roll was the voice of youth rebellion '60s and '70s. Rai is Arabic for 'opinion', and in it the singer presents his opinions on life, the universe and everything, though in the case of rai and Khaled, the universe rarely stretches much beyond love, women and alcohol. Despite this, Khaled created a song that became an anthem for womens' liberation, and continuously spearheaded calls for religious and cultural tolerance. It's easy to see why the religious fundamentalists took offence, and during the '80s and '90s rai singers have been assassinated with chilling regularity, most recently, and most famously, Cheb Hasni, who was killed in Oran in 1994.

Khaled, meanwhile, had been crowned the King of rai during the '80s, releasing his music in a fashion that was typical for African and Mediterranean countries during that time: on compact cassettes. Because Algeria used to be a French colony, strong ties remain between the two countries, and when Khaled made his European live debut in France in 1986 he got an ecstatic response. Becoming more and more nervous about political developments in Algeria — he feared for his life — and seeing new creative and commercial opportunities looming in France, he decided to relocate to Paris.

His cassettes had been odd, hi‑tech, low‑fi affairs, full of idiosyncratically applied synthesizers and drum machines. It was therefore not surprising that his major label debut, Kutche (1987, with Safy Boutella, released on Stern's African in the UK) was a hi‑tech, hi‑fi affair, and a wholly original and exhilarating mixture of traditional Arabic music and instruments with state‑of‑the‑art Western technology, including the Linn 9000 and the Fairlight CMI sampler.

Don Was: "Khaled has this spirit, and when he's in the room, things light up."

Khaled: "My cassettes were very much home‑made, DIY affairs, produced by Algerian producers. My work with Boutella was the first time I worked with a foreign producer. It was my first venture into true professionalism." Boutella was trained as a jazz musician at a music college in Boston, and this oddest of culture clashes created something so unique that, according to Khaled's A&R man, Barclay's Pierre Paparemborde, Kutche has become one of the most popular CDs to lift samples off for many Western dance and rap music acts. However, Kutche gained little recognition with a larger audience, and Khaled decided to sign with the French label Barclay. Indicating that he felt he'd grown up, he dropped the 'Cheb' from his name, and set his sights as high as he could. Having acquired a taste for working with Western producers, nothing short of the world's top producers would now do.


The first step was the album Khaled (1992), half of which was produced by Michael Brook, a producer with an excellent reputation for top world music albums with artists such as Youssou N'Dour and Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn. With the exception of the scorching flamenco‑influenced track 'Wahrane Wahrane', and the lascivious 'Liah Liah', which gave musical form to Khaled's reputation as "a man constantly on heat", Brook's production was little more than competent. The real breakthrough happened with the five tracks produced by Don Was, the American producer extraordinaire famous for his work with Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, and his own bands Was (Not Was), and most recently Orquestra Was. Amongst these five tracks is the stunning and bizarre 'Didi', which was a hit in 49 countries and sold over a million copies worldwide. Khaled takes the story from the beginning: "I said to Barclay that I wanted to work with a top American producer, so they gave me a list. When I saw Don Was's name I wanted him, because I remembered the music of Was (Not Was), and he'd worked with Bob Dylan, who I also like a lot. Dylan is a romantic and poet who sings about love. So I went to see Don in Los Angeles, brought him the demos that I'd done with my keyboard player Mustapha Kada in my home studio, and played them for him. The demos were very good, better than Kutche, and Don said to me: 'What do you want me to do? These demos are excellent, I have nothing to add.' I said: 'No, no, no, I want you to create a different, more American sound, and I want you to play bass on it, because you're a great bass player.' So he said: 'Alright then, but it's going to cost you.'" [laughs uproariously].

Via transatlantic telephone from his home in LA, Was gives his version of their first meeting, and some other reflections: "First of all, I'd like to say that I've been a fan of Khaled for a long time. I'd bought some of his cassettes when Was (Not Was) was touring Europe in '86‑87, and it immediately struck me that he was a very soulful singer, who could really penetrate your emotional skin. I also thought that he'd come up with a really bizarre way of working with drum machines and synthesizers, and combining them with traditional percussion and all this quarter‑tone stuff. It was something I'd never heard before, and it was radical and extreme. He'd managed to use all this technology without losing any of the original identity of the music. So when I was approached to produce him, I was thrilled to even meet the guy. But what I liked about his stuff was that it was different, and when he asked me to incorporate American R&B — to Americanise the music — I must say that that was the least appealing thing about it for me [laughs]. But in the end I thought: 'OK, let's do it, and at least try to create some music that no‑one has ever heard before.' I felt that there were a couple of really important political points that we could make, by attempting to make an irresistible record that everybody in Europe was going to want to play and dance to, and that was sung in Arabic. At the time, playing a record sung in Arabic on French radio was still almost a criminal offence. And secondly, I'm an American Jew, and I work a lot with American black musicians. The nature of world history is that Jews, blacks and Arabs have been pitted against each other as a decoy, so that the powers that be can make money, and I thought that it was a really strong statement to show that when you put these three groups together, they can conquer anything."

Despite the fact that Don Was, like Khaled, was also aiming to conquer the world with the music the partnership would make, the success of 'Didi' still caught him by surprise. One of the keys to its success was the way in which Was put together the disparate ingredients that went into the record. One such ingredient was music technology, and one of the big decisions Don Was had to make was how to work with it, since it had formed an essential part of Khaled's Algerian DIY cassettes, Kutche, and also of the demos he'd made for the music Was was working on. Khaled: "There were many machines playing on Kutche, and although it was a very good album, when I went to the USA Don told me that I should have more live musicians, and that one shouldn't become the slave of the machines. We nevertheless used drum loops made on a computer as the foundation for the tracks Don and I made. I overdubbed drums played from a keyboard, and Mohsein [Chentouf, Khaled's percussionist] played live percussion." Was adds: "Synths and drum machines were the foundation of Khaled's music when he came to me, so it was important to use technology in the right way, and not suddenly go for a completely live sound. I think the combination of live playing and technology is the most interesting, unless you go for the emotional tension of completely mechanised playing, like Kraftwerk. Their coldness is a very strong emotional statement. I can't quite remember exactly what I did with Khaled, but I have a Linn 9000, on which I program most of my drums, and we used a Macintosh, just sampled a bunch of shit, usually from my own programming and records, and looped it up.

"Using loops is very much a matter of working till you find something new that's made of something old. It's not so much the idea of taking someone else's drums that's appealing, it's more the texture that you get from re‑generating your samples two or three times and losing overtones, and the hypnotic repetition that's evocative. And that works well with live playing. So I got this band together, a lot of guys from Was (Not Was), and together with Khaled, his keyboard player Kada and his percussion player Mohsein Chentouf, we set up in this tiny little MIDI room, which also had one overdub room. I was sitting behind the console playing bass, Khaled was out in the live room singing, his percussionist in the corner, and so on. It was really informal, with people listening to each other and to the loops, and for some inexplicable reason everyone locked. There was no reason to believe that there would be any chemistry there, but there was not only a great vibe, we set each other off, and worked really quickly. It was pretty wild music. I felt really great about it, and felt we'd managed to create something that had never been heard before, and that becomes increasingly hard to do these days." More than a million people worldwide agreed, though oddly the British and Americans are virtually the only people who are still largely unaware of this new sound.

Breaking New Ground

Just one year later, in 1993, the next album, N'ssi N'ssi, arrived. Don Was produced four tracks, French producer Laurent Gueneau and British producer Richard Evans produced a track each, and French composer, arranger and producer Philippe Eidel (see box below), produced and arranged the remaining five tracks. Though containing much excellent music, compared to its predecessor N'ssi N'ssi was a disappointment, sounding flat and nowhere near as wildly inspired as Khaled. The main highlights are the Was‑produced title track, with a brass riff and groove guaranteed to get you on your feet, and the Eidel‑produced string‑soaked waltz 'Bakhta', plus the relentless 'Zine A Zine', carried along by manic synth and drum sequences courtesy of Alex Gifford. But Was's reworking of 'Chebba', the highlight of Kutche, added nothing to the sublime original. Khaled's main memory of the Don Was sessions for that album was that Was dissuaded him from using machines altogether: "I said to Don, 'let's do it like 'Didi', let's have some machines', but he said: 'no, that's an insult now in the USA. Nobody works with machines now anymore. They are all going back to the real thing, live playing. It's better.'"

Philippe Eidel: "I don't like doing composite vocals. It's a waste of time. Khaled hates doing more than three or four takes anyway."

Don Was remembers it rather differently. Laughing: "Something may have gotten lost in the translation there! We've never been able to have a conversation without a translator, but we have great musical communication. Pointing at a guitar and then up means make the guitar louder! I think I was just encouraging him to be even freer and have more interplay between the musicians. So we did use a live drummer this time, but there are still loops all over the place. I think the interplay on that album is greater and people are more confident and intuitive in their playing. Maybe that's good, maybe that's bad. We managed to cover the seams a little bit that still showed on the first album between the disparate elements, and made it sound more organic. At the same time, there's something about the tentative nature of the Khaled sessions that makes those songs a little crazier, a little quirkier, a little more charming. I think the flat sound of your copy of N'ssi N'ssi may also have something to do with it being a bad pressing. I've discovered during the last two years, since I can take CD‑Rs home from the mastering plant, that there's an astonishing variation in quality between different CD plants. If you think digital is perfect, I have news for you. Many of us have been fooled by this myth that it's just 0s and 1s and therefore copies perfectly. It doesn't. The variations in quality are pretty wild, and random. Just the way you hook up a cable can make a difference. And there's no quality control in these CD plants, other than someone checking whether there's any level being transferred."


By the end of 1996, Sahra arrived. I was totally prepared for the album to be as much a relative dissappointment as N'ssi N'ssi, especially since the album was again made by a host of different producers: Don Was (three tracks), Philippe Eidel (six and a half tracks), reggae producer Clive Hunt (two and a half tracks), the famous French chansonnier Jean‑Jacques Goldman (two tracks) and IAM, a hip‑hop/rap duo from Marseille (one track). But in fact Sahra turned out to be a triumph, taking Khaled's music into entirely new territories. The ABABAB structures of Khaled have made way for more intelligent and varied song structures, and influences of reggae, ska, calypso, jazz, French chanson, Egyptian strings, latin, funk, African music and Algerian rai are seamlessly woven together into an astonishingly rich and vibrant‑sounding sonic tapestry. Khaled: "I wanted to incorporate many more influences than before, and especially to work with a real reggae producer, because reggae has long been an important influence on my music. Philippe Eidel said: 'go to your roots', so we went to Jamaica to work with Clive Hunt. But doing this is not just about looking to break new ground, one also has to know how to marry these different influences."


The most striking aspect, for me, is how much better Sahra is than N'ssi N'ssi when it covers the same ground. The track 'Wahrane Wahrane', for example, sounds to Western ears like a reworking of 'Bakhta', but the arrangements, playing and production are of much higher quality. Somehow it seems as though Philippe Eidel, who arranged and produced both tracks, took a quantum leap forward, and I asked him whether he agreed with this observation. Speaking from his Parisian home studio, Eidel responds: "I'm glad you're seeing it like that, because it means I made progress. But I'm very proud of 'Bakhta'. Although many people think that it's close to traditional Arabic music, it's actually very new for the Arabs too. It was my first attempt at marrying Western and Arabic music in this way, and playing the rhythm like a waltz. This track was very successful in Arabic countries, and cemented my relationship with Khaled. The difference between the two albums was that we made N'ssi N'ssi very fast, and that I didn't know Khaled personally. I wrote the string arrangement for 'Bakhta' in the morning and recorded the track in the afternoon! But in working on Sahra, Khaled and I spent a lot of time in my studio and made demos for ourselves and talked about things and experimented a lot. So I had a chance to create an arrangement for 'Wahrane Wahrane' that was more exciting, more lyrical, and that can be listened to on many levels. Khaled is very open to new ideas, and for this album he kept telling me: 'Philippe, go as far as you can go. Make things happen as much as you can, and I'll follow you.' Just as you have certain types of blues or folk songs, much of Khaled's music is based on traditional Arabic songs; these songs were very important to him, and he wanted to create very strong and definitive versions."

When writing new material, or playing around with traditional Arab material, Khaled usually works with Mustapha Kada in his home studio, where he has a "little mixing desk with 16 channels, a small tape recorder, a Yamaha drum machine, and two synths, one with Arabic quarter‑tone tuning." Since Khaled professes to be completely non‑technical, and always uses engineers and/or producers to work the technology, he couldn't remember more details. In this studio Khaled and Kada create demo tapes that are then re‑worked by the foreign producers the singer chooses to work with, but in the case of Sahra, Eidel and Khaled worked together to create or rearrange material from scratch. Eidel elaborates on how he works with the singers for whom he writes and arranges music: "I wrote the music for the title song, 'Sahra', though Khaled changed the melody a little bit, as usual. He's very good at taking a basic melody and making it more melodic and making interesting changes, because he's such a good singer. The same happened with my Mammas and Imuhar projects (see 'Philippe Eidel' box), when I wrote music for traditional singers. I always leave some space for singers to change things. It's not like with pop music, where you have an exact melody in which you don't change a note. The other thing with singers is that I don't like doing composite vocals very much. It's boring, the vocal sound changes and it's a waste of time. Khaled hates doing more than three or four takes anyway. When you have a good singer it's much better to choose a good moment, and to give him or her good energy and confidence, so that you know he or she will be in good form and will only have to sing two or three takes. And even if there may be a phrase or word better in another take, I prefer to just leave it, because this is music, this is the way the song is, and it's OK."

For the Don Was tracks, Khaled and Kada had delivered him demos made in the singer's home studio on DAT, but sadly, because of logistical problems, Khaled couldn't make it to LA, so Kada travelled there alone, to help Was with the cutting of the three tracks that he was given to work with. Was: "Kada was Khaled's ambassador here. They had put Khaled's vocals on one track and the backing on another track, so I lived with the songs for a while, and changed the chords and structure around and made some new drum loops for them. I do that on the Linn 9000, and generally don't bother sync'ing it to tape. It's just a pain in the neck. I prefer to just play straight from the machine to tape. Then I took what I did to Ocean Way Studios, where I'd assembled a whole band. Percussion player Lenny Castro played to the rhythms, and everyone else played to Lenny and Khaled's voice. We recorded everything on 24‑track analogue, and in the end I made a submix on DA88, sent a cassette to Khaled, he overdubbed his voice to it in Paris, and we then flew the DA88 tape back and mixed the whole thing in LA. So there was a sense of interaction, but it was also a bit of virtual reality experiment. We talked on the phone a lot about the direction we were taking, but it is true that Khaled has this spirit, and when he's in the room things light up. It's possible that we missed some spark from that. But then this new album isn't about adventure, it's his pop record, and for someone like him, a rai singer from Algeria, making a pop record is as wild as Ornette Coleman doing his atonal things. And yet I think there is still a lot of musical ground to cover for Khaled, and I hope to do some of that with him in the future."

Meanwhile, the object of all this interest and admiration was still lighting up the room at the Mango Records offices in London. Echoing Don Was's point about the political implications of 'Didi', and his observation that Khaled has similar leadership qualities and a similar role to perform for his people as Bob Marley, the singer argued that the integration of the enormous diversity of styles that can be found on Sahra is a political statement. The choice to give the album a slightly more commercial flavour just serves to further the message: "With my music I show that there is no racism in music. You can make music with a black or a brown or a white person, it doesn't matter. Jean‑Jacques Goldman is a Jew, and by making a hit record together, we have demonstrated that Arabs and Jews can work together and do beautiful things together, rather than make war. The people who have protested against me doing this are living in Cro‑Magnon time! I had a number one hit in Israel with 'Didi'. That breaks many barriers. It shows that music is from all places and all times and all people. The Arabic world, especially Arabic youth, has now declared me an ambassador for them, but I don't feel an ambassador. I feel more like someone who gives the Algerians, who can be found a little bit everywhere, pride. They have pride because I show the Algerian culture to the world. There has been no Arab music that has touched the world like rai music has. When they see that someone has travelled as far as I have, they have pride in that they have a king who has done something, who has given the world a beautiful image of Arabia."

Philippe Eidel

Philippe Eidel is a guitarist, keyboardist, composer, arranger and producer who has built up a reputation in France and beyond for his work in the field of world music. Eidel was born on Madagascar, of French parents, and raised in Marseille, which probably accounts for his interest in world, and especially Mediterranean, music. He shot to fame with his record Balkan (1989), which featured Bulgarian voices and received a nomination for a Grammy Award. He also produced The Mahabharata (1990), for Peter Brook's film of the same name, a recording of which was released on Real World Records. Eidel's two most recent releases under his own name are the delightful Mammas, featuring four female singers from around the Mediterranean and music written by him in a traditional style; and the stirring Imuhar, which, again, features music based around a film, and written by him in a traditional style together with people from Niger, a country located in the South Sahara. Eidel has also written the music for several other French feature films.

He works in his home studio, Zombie, in central Paris, with a setup based around a Yamaha 02R desk and a Macintosh Quadra 950 computer, with Logic Audio software (which he also uses for score printouts), and Digidesign's Pro Tools. "I'm finished with tape recorders," he remarks. "I stopped working with my Fostex B16 two years ago. Hard disk gives me everything I want. With 12 tracks I have enough to make something happen, to be able to work on the format of a song and quickly try new things. I can experiment very easily with hard disk, cut and copy things and so on. I have no problems with digital sound quality. Analogue is only good when you maintain your equipment very well, every day, so I prefer digital for that reason as well. My aim with my home studio is to have equipment that's good enough to enable me to take what I do here to commercial studios, without having to re‑record it. So I always travel with my hard disk. I'm not that interested in having good reverbs or good effects. I'm not an engineer who can get great sounds. I'm just interested in getting things down on tape properly, and so I have a very good mic preamp with EQ and compressor, the JPL, a French valve box."

Interestingly, given the acoustic nature of much of Eidel's current work, he started out as a great fan of Brian Eno and Krafwerk, and developed a keen interest in synthesizers during the early '80s. "I like the idea of 'what you compose is what you live', like Eno's Music For Airports, and Kraftwerk's urban, industrial music, which was written in an urban, industrial context. So I still have and use an old Oberheim, the yellow one with the four modules, a Roland JP8, Minimoog, and so on. I also have a Fender Rhodes, Roland U220, Emu Vintage Keys, Roland MKS80 and Akai S3000XL sampler. I make my own percussion loops with the Akai, but I lack the patience for real drum programming. I'm not too much into sampling and programming anyway. When I work with world music, I try to respect what people do and work in their style. I'm not into the way Deep Forest work, sampling some bits and pieces and making world music with that. What is exciting for me is when things happen between people."