There are pop stars who are rich and famous. And then there's Khaled, a Moroccan-born singer who has moved beyond merely being "popular" and into something more along the lines of "omnipresent."
"Khaled attracts people from across the board," says DJ Cheb i Sabbah, who is accompanying Khaled on his current U.S. tour. "'Didi' was on a cassette [Khaled's self-titled 1991 album] that was pirated and hugely popular around South Asia; Middle Eastern people, of course, are [at the shows], Armenians are there, some Latin people are there. Khaled has this appeal that's far beyond appealing to North Africans."
This universal appeal is both ironic and somewhat intentional. The 45-year-old singer was born in Algeria and made his name as a singer of raï, that quintessentially North African style of music that revels in a sort of licentious rebelliousness. Deeply rhythmic and dizzyingly intense, raï has for years been the music of the Arab street; although it was first relegated to back alleys and areas of ill repute, it has recently become far more populist in its appeal, but no less urgent in its sound.
This new appeal is largely attributable to the success of Khaled, whose work over the past two decades has seen him weaving different styles of music into raï, as well as incorporating raï into other pop forms. In the '80s, it was Khaled who shocked purists by utilizing drum machines and synthesizers in raï. However, it was that bold move as well as Khaled's work as a musical diplomat, helping to organize Algeria's first Festival of Raï in 1985 that helped make the music wildly popular in North Africa, and heightened its profile abroad.
In the years since, Khaled has both moved from Algeria (he now lives in France), and moved raï even further away from its roots. Those early infusions of synths and electronic drums paved the way for full-on crossover albums like 1993's Don Was-produced N'ssi N'ssi and his 2000 tour de force 1, 2, 3 Soleils, an album documenting a watershed 1998 live appearance with Faudel and Rachid Taha that has gone on to sell over 2 million copies. Khaled has kept raï as the fulcrum of his sound, but along the way, funk, reggae, Latin rhythms and other sounds found their way in, a fact that is evident from his latest album, Ya-Rayi, which is so collaborative it (like the tour) is actually attributed to "Khaled & Friends." Don Was, Carlos Santana, reggae vocalist Elan, the Orchestra of Cairo and pianist Maurice el Medioni all make appearances on the album, but it's the surprisingly large entourage that Khaled is bringing on tour that is truly impressive.
"We're barely going to fit on the stage," Khaled says via a translated telephone interview. "[Having all these musicians] doesn't really change me, but it does enhance the music. With all these incredible musicians working in the same spirit, it makes it even better than what it was. It's like being brothers and sisters."
Sabbah, though not on the album, will be performing DJ sets before the show as well as accompanying the band (which also includes Latin percussionists Walfredo Reyes, Jr. and Luis Conte, pianist K.C. Porter and, for the Orlando show, Don Was on bass) during the show.
Having dropped the "DJ" from his name on his most recent album the North African-inspired La Kahena Cheb i Sabbah seems intent on overcoming some misperceptions about what, exactly he does. Because, after all, he does two very distinct things: make records and play records.
"I'm a DJ, that's what I do. But at the same time, I produce music," he says of the difference between his record-spinning and the complex production work he's done to create albums like the tablatronics of Shri Durga and Krishna Lila. "People think I've sampled voices and remixed all those albums, but they're produced, composed, arranged … everything."
His live sets, though, are a little less meticulously arranged.
"It's really just a DJ set," says Sabbah modestly. "As a DJ, you always play other people's music, not just your own stuff. I go from here to there and back. There's not much to watch, although in Orlando I will hopefully have a drummer with me."
Khaled & Friends
with Cheb i Sabbah
8 pm Thursday, July 14
House of Blues