Perhaps only once in a generation do artists such as Cheb Khaled come around. Trailblazing talent that defies expectation at every turn. Talent that can engineer entirely new genres that start in a city and explode to popularity around the world. Yes, global love doesn’t come easy… but, as the old saying goes: you only get what you give.
There’s something uniquely beautiful about the legendary Cheb Khaled.
The infectious laugh, the twinkle in the eye and the voice unlike anything you’ve heard before – yes, yes and yes. But it’s an image he conjures that resonates above all else.
If you’re of a certain age and lived in the Middle East you’ll remember Khaled’s peerless early 1990s smash hit “Didi”. You’ll remember a time when you couldn’t turn the radio on without the absurdly catchy tune blaring back out at you. Around the world, DJ’s would drop it at club nights, an Algerian curve ball aimed at ecstatic, if uncomprehending, ravers.
While “Didi” signalled the global explosion of Raï music, it made Cheb Khaled an overnight sensation... at least on the face of it. The fact of the matter was that Khaled had been a sensation in his own right for almost two decades.
“Some of the songs I grew up with, we used to sing at weddings,” he explains to GQ on the set of his Parisian photoshoot. “We have heritage and many songs in the Maghreb [North Africa]. A song like “Wahran Wahran” by Ahmed Wahbi, for example, I tried to give it a new arrangement. I didn’t want that heritage to die. I wanted to give it a new twist.” It was a desire that would ultimately see him crowned the King of Raï.
“The first record I ever made was in Wahran,” he says. “It was in 1974, I was 14 years old, and it came out on a 45 disc.”
It wasn’t too long before music producers realised they had a rare crossover talent on their hands – and so did the image-savvy marketing men.
“They said that I should get a stage name,” he says. “But I said, ‘Why?’ Everyone was trying to come up with different names and I was a little upset, I said, ‘My name is Khaled. I’m not an international star, I’m only known in Algeria. You must have my name as Khaled.’”
But then, some luck.
As an upset Khaled was consoled by a producer with the words, “Don’t be upset cheb [young man],” an idea formed. “I thought for a moment and then said, ‘Cheb, that’s a name I can have… Cheb Khaled.’ We were all happy and now it’s become a trend. It even became fashionable in Raï music for all the recording artists to have the title of Cheb.”
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That wouldn’t be the first time that Khaled would be caught unawares on his journey. The lightspeed in which Raï music spread, particularly through Europe, was something only imagined in the loftiest dreams. The Algerian music genre dates back to the 1920s, but it was the pop-infused tunes of the late 1980s and early 1990s that vaulted it to the world.
“People started to enjoy these old songs,” says Khaled, with a smile. “Now we have many [artists] in the Maghreb. Then, we had artists from Tunisia, from Algeria, from Morocco, that I grew up with. I became the first artist from Algeria, the first from the Maghreb to break down barriers. It gave me an opportunity to make bigger productions.”
But trailblazers rarely have an easy ride, and Khaled remembers the prevailing prejudices against African and Arab artists in Europe at the time. The way around it? A US producer to help him circumnavigate the problem. With that in mind, legendary producer Don Was came on board. The result that came from the man who had previously worked with the Rolling Stones, Brian Wilson, Ringo Starr? “Didi”. They didn’t have to wait too long to see the fruits of their labour.
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“I recorded ‘Didi’ in Los Angeles,” says Khaled. “Then, when I came back to Europe after the record was released, a producer called me excitedly. ‘Khaled, it’s phenomenal,’ he said. ‘Forty-eight countries are distributing your new album.’”
Suddenly, clubs from the US to the UK, Spain to the Middle East were playing “Didi”. Raï had been fully injected into the mainstream.
In the mid-1990s, Khaled approached the producer Jean-Jaques Goldman to compose a French song for him. Goldman was surprised by the request – the Algerian star hardly needed help in songwriting. But Khaled explained that he was “no French poet,” he was far more at home writing in Arabic. In Raï, however, he knew he had the right vehicle to spread his wings, and in Goldman, the right man to help him do it.
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Just one year later, the Frenchman returned with a batch of songs – with some notable successes amongst them. Let’s put it this way: if “Didi” had brought Khaled to the attention of a wider international audience, the 1996 track, “Aicha”, made him a bona fide superstar.
“When I released ‘Aicha’, it was my first time singing in French,” says Khaled. “To be honest, I wondered if people might laugh at my accent. But no, we went from ‘Didi’ in 48 countries to ‘Aicha’ in 60.”
Another asset for Khaled? Longevity. He’s sold over 80 million records worldwide, and in 2010 performed “Didi” at the opening ceremony of the World Cup in South Africa, exposing him to a new, younger audience. And he knows as well as anybody that he needs to keep those guys interested to stay on top.
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“I have a taste for Khaleeji (Gulf) music, for Egyptian music, for Tunisian, for Moroccan music,” says Khaled enthusiastically. “I like hip-hop, rap, reggae. I recorded a song at Bob Marley’s studios in Jamaica. The music that had been restricted to my country, Raï music, broke down barriers in Europe. It’s now married to all types of music, even rock and roll. It has no race.”
In 2012, a decade and half after the release of “Aicha”, Khaled ruled the charts again with “C’est La Vie”. He says that the acclaim he receives from fans around the world has put extra responsibility on him to continuously innovate and pay back their support.
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As the interview nears its end, Khaled returns to the notion of tradition, of growing up in a pre-digital era on the streets of his hometown, Oran – a time when the community ensured you behaved yourself, even if through unorthodox means.
“As a child, if an adult saw you misbehaving, he’d give you clip around the head,” he says, laughing. “I once complained to my father that stranger had told me off with smack to the head. My father then clipped twice before adding ‘If a man told you off, then you must have done something wrong.’”
Khaled has an air of contentment and gratitude, and he acknowledges that the ubiquitous laugh was inherited from a special person in his life. “This laugh has no explanation,” he said. “It’s human, and I’m very proud to say that it comes from my mother.”
And then, in her honour, he breaks into a beautifully melodic verse of “Aicha”. It fills the studio.
Comme si je n’existais pas
Elle est passée a cote de moi
Sans un regard, reine de Saba
J’ai dit Aicha, prends, tout est pour toi
Ooh, Aicha, Aicha...
It’s the right way to end. Forever cheb – forever young. The twinkle in his eye remains.
Photography: Matthieu Delbreuve at Kaptive
Styling: Gaultier Desandre Navarre
Styling assistant: Ferdinand Paimblanc
Grooming: Anne-Sofie Begtrup at THINGSBYPEOPLE
Producer: Lara Abdessalem at Newcomers