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Khaled is the poster boy for the modern form of Algerian desert blues known as Raï. Certainly he's been its most successful modern exponent, the first to find success on the international stage. Born Khalidu Hajji Brahim in Oran, the traditional center of Raï, he was attracted to music from an early age, especially to Raï, which was seen at the time of the music of outcasts, drunks, and prostitutes, although he also loved James Brown and the Beatles. He taught himself to play guitar, bass, harmonica, and accordion, releasing his debut disc, "Trigh Lycee," when he was just 14. Leaving home, he began on the peripatetic life of the musician, performing frequently at clubs, parties, and weddings (the only places where Raï was seen as an "acceptable" form of entertainment). It was in the early '80s that Cheb (meaning "young") Khaled's fortunes changed, when he met up with producer Rachid Baba Ahmed, who was revolutionizing the Raï form by introducing Western electric instruments and studio techniques. Together, they changed the face of the music. Khaled was the right voice at the right time and the addition of drum machines, synthesizers, and guitars took the music to a new generation, even though much of it continued to be censored by the Algerian government, which considered the style subversive. A number of those early tracks can be found on Le Meilleur de Cheb Khaled on Blue Silver. By 1986, Khaled (who'd now dropped the Cheb) had been forced to move to Paris, as violence in Algeria claimed lives and he'd been threatened several times (producer Ahmed would, in fact, be murdered, as would several Raï performers). Arriving with a reputation, he attempted to take his music to a global level, although his real debut, Kutche, did him no favors with its jazz-rock arrangements. He fared much better with 1992's Khaled, with some tracks produced by Michael Brook and others by Don Was. It yielded his first big hit, "Didi," and helped consolidate his reputation as Raï's first superstar. That was firmly cemented the following year with the Was-produced N'ssi N'ssi, which mixed funk, rock, and an Egyptian orchestra behind Khaled's persuasive voice and winning smile for a major commercial breakthrough in France, winning a European, as well as North African, audience. In 1996, he hit again with Sahra, whose first single, "Aïcha," written for his daughter, gave Khaled a French number one hit. A mix of producers gave varying sounds, with French hip-hoppers Akhenton & Imhotep proving the hardest on the track "Oran Marseille" with its rapid-fire rap. There was even some reggae on "Mektoubi," which merged relatively seamlessly with the North African sound. While well-received critically, it sold little in the U.S. however, unlike France, where the album became Khaled's biggest success. Perhaps the moment that justified his title of King of Raï, however, came in 1999, when he headlined the 1-2-3 Soleils concert in Paris (which led to the album of the same name), over Rachid Taha and Faudel. It was the biggest Algerian show ever staged in France and left no doubt that Khaled remained Raï's hottest attraction. 2000 brought Kenza and a change of producer, as former prog rocker Steve Hillage helped bring a more organic feel to the proceedings. A smash in Europe, once again it did little business in the U.S.
© Chris Nickson /TiVo


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