Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Khaled: One of NPR's 50 Great Voices

I was very pleased to learn on July 26 that the great Algerian rai singer Khaled had made it into the list of NPR's 50 Great Voices--the series that lasts all year long. It's pretty remarkable, in fact, amazingly remarkable, considering that it's only month seven, and that three of the voices we've heard so far have been Arabs (the other two: Fairuz and Umm Kalthum). Plus one Afghani (the second in the series, Ahmad Zahir) and one Pakistani (Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan).

I have a quibble, however, with some of the ways in which Banning Eyre narrated Khaled's career. (Let me be clear that I greatly admire the work that Eyre has done in promoting World Music over the last couple decades, particularly with Afropop Worldwide. For instance, check out all the "Features" on North Africa on Afropop Worldwide's website.)

Eyre says that Khaled, born in 1960, came of age between the War of Liberation for Algerian Independence and the "religiously-fueled" Algerian civil war, which started in 1991. "In a land torn apart by intolerance and violence, Khaled stood out as an artist who embraced openness and peace," reads the text. Eyre actually says, "In a land riven by intolerance and violence, here was an artist [missing word, perhaps?] openness and peace."

Khaled did not, in fact, stand out at all, he was part of a very large and vibrant rai scene in Oran. The lyrics of the songs he sang came, mostly, from a collective pool, and were not, with perhaps a couple of exceptions, distinguishable from those sung by the rest of the rai crew, which included many other equally talented singers, such as Chaba Fadela, Cheb Sahraoui, Chaba Zahouania, Cheikha Rimitti, Cheb Mami, Houari Benchenet, Cheb Hamid, and Messaoud Bellemou, to name just a few. Moreover, the song which plays after Eyre makes this claim, one of Khaled's hits, "La Camel," from the 1987 album Kutché, is a cover of a song originally recorded and made famous by Cheikha Rimitti. (Here's Rimitti's original version. Rimitti later complained that Khaled had "stolen" this song, i.e., recorded without giving her credit. She even referred to him, in an interview with El Watan, as "Cheb Khayen" or "Cheb Traitor" for doing so!)

Moreover, the representation of Algeria as a "land riven by intolerance and violence" is quite simplistic a formulation, given that the two periods of conflict were very different in their causes and their nature. But the use of the term "intolerance" seems to foreshadow what comes next: a positioning of Khaled in opposition to Muslim "fundamentalism."

The transcript of Eyre's account reads: "Khaled's directness [about women and drinking alcohol] and his force-of-nature voice...didn't sit so well with the growing number of Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria, though, and his songs were consequently banned from state radio."
This is quite incorrect. The fact that rai music (not just Khaled's) was not played on state radio was not due to the opposition of "Islamic fundamentalists."

It's not so much that rai was "banned," it's rather that the Algerian regime had imposed an Arab/Muslim cultural politics that denied Algeria's multi-cultural nature, and so expressive culture in Arab dialect and in Berber were denied a space on state-controlled media. Rai is sung in the distinctive dialect of Wahran (Oran). This dialect is not merely not "classical" or literary Arabic, but it is also full of borrowings from Spanish, French and Berber. This brand of official puritanism was particularly characteristic of the regime of Houari Boumediene (1965-1978), but began to break down during the Chadly regime (1979-1992).

The standard story told about rai is that the music didn't make it onto state radio until 1985, but it appears that the restrictions against rai were not iron-clad. For instance, Cheb Mami became known nationally in 1982 due to the fact that he performed on a very popular television show, Alhan wa chabab ("Melodies and youth"), a program devoted to discovering new talent. He also performed in a national song competition, singing "El Marsam." When it was announced that Cheb Mami had come in second, the crowd booed, believing that he should have come in first (Daoud and Miliani 1996: 102).

And Khaled, in his autobiography (1998: 94-95), tells us a story about how he managed to push past the media embargo on rai in the early 1980s, shortly after he had begun to divide his time between his home town of Oran and the capital, Algiers. He was invited to appear on a t.v. show, which, he says, couldn't be censored, because it was broadcast live. Cheb Khaled (as he was known until 1992, when he dropped the Cheb) was warned ahead of time: no vulgarities, no sex. So he sang three songs: the first, about the Prophet Muhammad; the second, a "poetic" song, i.e., one that was artistically acceptable; and the third, about alcohol and women. (In fact, this mixture of songs about religion, songs of a more refined character, and songs of a more risqué character, was typical of the mix of songs Khaled typically performed at concerts, weddings, and in cabarets.)

Daoudi and Miliani (1996: 20) also write that the despite the official media's general embargo on rai, it did get played on radio on occasion in the early eighties, chiefly via the rare broadcast on Chaine III.

Eyre: "After he [Khaled] performed for 20,000 people in Algiers in 1985, his became the voice of a generation."

It's true that Cheb Khaled had become a national, as opposed to a regional, star, by the mid-1980s. His performance at the state-sponsored Festival de la Jeunesse pour la Fête Nationale, held in Algiers in July 1985, was certainly a key moment. But how was it that Khaled, and other rai stars, came to play at this festival? (And at another key festival, the first official rai festival, organized in Oran in August 1985?)

It was due in fact to the efforts of the "liberal" wing of the Algerian regime, le pouvoir as they are known colloquially, and particularly the efforts of Lieutenant-Colonel Hosni Snoussi, director of the state-supported arts and culture organization, Office Riadh el Feth in Algiers, who by this time had taken Cheb Khaled under his wing. According to Daoudi and Miliani, the interest of the regime's liberal wing in promoting rai occurred in the wake of a spate of unrest in Algeria: riots in Tizi Ouzou, Kabylia, in 1980 (the "Berber Spring"); in Oran in 1982 (I can find no details on this); in Algiers in 1985, following rumors that housing being built for the poor would be allocated instead to state bureaucrats; student riots Constantine in 1986 that resulted in the deaths of four protesters, and which spread to other cities. Young Algerians played a leading role in all these protests. The liberal wing of the regime therefore determined that it was necessary to focus its efforts on promoting and catering to the interests of youth and on developing the market economy, in order to deter further unrest (1996: 28-29). Rai, which was very popular with young people, was therefore embraced by liberal elements in the regime. It was due to changes in state policy toward rai, pushed by Snoussi, that got Khaled onto the stage at the officially-sponsored Festival de la Jeunesse pour la Fête Nationale.

Then, Eyre asserts, "In 1989, it became dangerous for Khaled to stay in Algeria, where artists and intellectuals were being killed by fundamentalists. He fled to safety in France."

First of all, the civil war in Algeria did not break out until 1992. No rai stars or intellectuals were fleeing to France until after the civil war broke out, and the Islamist militants of the GIA (the Armed Islamic Groups) began to target artists. (I want to acknowledge that I bear some responsibility for having helped spread of this sort of misinformation. In the article I co-authored with Joan Gross and David McMurray, "Rai, Rap, and Ramadan Nights: Franco-Maghribi Cultural Identities" [Middle East Report 178, Sept.-Oct. 1992, p. 13], we write: "by 1990, Islamist campaigns against rai caused several of its stars [Cheb Khaled, Cheb Marni, Chaba Fadela and Cheb Sahraoui] to relocate in France." This is incorrect. In the longer version of this article that appears in Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of Identity [ed. Smadar Lavie & Ted Swedenburg, Duke UP, 1996], "Arab Noise and Ramadan Nights: Rai, Rap and Franco-Maghrebi Identities," on p. 138, we modify the claim just a bit: "By 1990, when Islamist campaigns against rai, as well as the lure of higher earnings and global exposure, prompted several of its leading figures...to relocate from Algeria to France...")

Secondly, and more importantly, Khaled did not "flee" to France, he went there to try to expand his market and his fame, and he went with the backing of liberal elements of the Algerian regime and liberal elements in the French government of Socialist President François Miterrand. The move was entirely an entrepreneurial venture, not an act of seeking refuge. (Cheb Mami was the first of the rai stars to make this move, in 1985.)

Khaled performed in France for the first time at the rai festival at Bobigny in January 1986. The event was organized, according to Khaled, by Colonel Snoussi and Martin Meissonnier, a very influential French music producer and former journalist for the liberal-left daily Liberation. During the '70s Meissonnier was known for bringing well-known US jazz musicians to France; in the '80s he began produce a number of African acts for the World Music market. Snoussi and Meissonnier met at the Festival of Youth in Algiers in 1985, and together they were able to convince France's Minister of Culture Jack Lang of the importance of exporting rai from Algeria to France. In order for Khaled to secure a passport to travel to France and perform at Bobigny, Snoussi had to intervene with the Algerian military authorities, because Khaled had been avoiding his military service (Khaled 1998: 37-39).

It is important to note that most of the top rai artists performed at Bobigny in 1986, not just Khaled. (It must have been very expensive to transport all the major stars from Algeria to France and put them up.) It is important to note as well that Khaled opened his set with a religious song (as he usually did in concerts in Algeria as well), "Sallou 'ala al-Nabi" (Blessings on the Prophet). Important to counter the strong tendency in the discourse on rai (and Eyre's account is typical in this regard) to make it seem that there is a kind of inherent antagonism between rai artists and Islam.

The French government was as interested in trying to control and channel the energies of the rai scene in France as the liberal wing of the Algerian regime was to do the same in Algeria. The mid-eighties was a period of grassroots political mobilization by the Beurs, French citizens and residents of Arab background. Culture was an essential component of this mobilization. Rai music was very popular among young Beurs and it was widely aired on the Beur radio stations that sprung up in this period and was performed at rallies and multi-cultural concerts organized by SOS Racisme, France's leading anti-racist group of the time. Rai was a central badge of cultural pride and identity for young Beurs. It was therefore seen as advantageous to the interests of the French state to promote North African Arab culture in France, rather than to appear to be its antagonist.

When Khaled returned to Algeria after his stay in France, he tells us, Snoussi informed him that he was going to record an album in France. Snoussi tells Khaled that he is going there just to sing, and, that he should not talk about the situation in Algeria, about the role of the military or censorship and so on. This is how Khaled's 1988 album Kutché gets made, then, through the intervention of Snoussi, and (apparently) with financial support from the Algerian government (Khaled 1998: 128; Daoudi and Miliani 1996: 30). The album was a collaboration between Khaled and the Algerian jazz musician Safy Boutella (and it is credited to both), produced by Meissonnier, and released on Pomme Music-Sony. Kutché was not a major seller, but it is a terrific album, and it was an important step in Khaled's path of establishing himself as an artist in France. It is during this period as well that Khaled settles in France, in the city of Marseille.

(After the bloody riots that erupt throughout Algeria in October 1988, and the subsequent political opening and moves toward reform and democratization, this brief period of government sponsorship and subsidy for rai ends, for the moment (Daoudi and Miliani 1996: 30). In January 1992, after the Islamic Salvation Front wins the first round of parliamentary elections, the regime suspends the second round. Civil war breaks out. The regime again attempts to deploy rai in its struggle with the Islamists.)

Khaled makes no mention in his autobiography of having to "flee" Algeria for France. He does, however, make it entirely clear that Col. Snoussi, who was an important "cultural" player in the liberal wing of the Algerian regime, was chiefly responsible for initiating Khaled's first performances in France and for funding and organizing the recording of his first album in France.

This story of how Khaled launched his career in France is a much more interesting one than the tale of how he "fled from fundamentalism." The fact that the Algerian state played a major role in initiating and underwriting the process whereby rai music became known around the world, and whereby Khaled became the best-known Arab singer on the planet, deserves to be much more widely known. It is an amazing success story, and very important, both politically and culturally. Snoussi and his associates in the Algerian's liberal wing deserve credit, as do the French actors like Martin Meissonier and Jack Lang. The conventional story, of the West "saving" Khaled from the fundamentalist threat, is the familiar colonial missionary account.

Eyre: "Khaled has never really shaken his mischievous image: He's been to court on more than one occasion for domestic disputes..."

I wonder why Eyre uses such a mild term, "mischief," to characterize Khaled's trips to French court in a paternity suit and in a case involving a dispute with this wife. Khaled's legal troubles are not just the product of boyish innocence. But spun this way, I guess, they add to his "bad boy" image.

Eyre: "he's railed publicly against Muslim fundamentalists."

True. But Khaled still considers himself a Muslim.

Eyre: "His collaborations with Jewish and American artists have irked even moderate Muslims."

As far as I'm aware, the only time Khaled met with such criticism was after he collaborated with the Israeli artist Noa, on a recording of the John Lennon song "Imagine," and in concert. Frankly, the Khaled-Noa duet is quite dreadful, arguably the worst song Khaled ever released. (Second worst is "Love to the People," with Carlos Santana. Ugh.) "Imagine" appeared on the European release of Khaled's album Kenza (1999, Barclay) but not on the US edition (2000, Ark 21). Khaled performed the song with Noa at a "peace" concert in Rome in May 2002, called "Time for Life." The event was associated with a "Glocal Forum," a gathering of mayors, World Bank officials and development experts, aimed at making globalization work better at local levels. Khaled subsequently toured the Middle East, where he encountered organized efforts in Lebanon and Jordan to boycott his concert, on the grounds that he had performed "normalization" with Israel by performing with an Israeli artist at an event where Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was in attendance. Khaled responded that Palestinian singer Nabil Khouri had also performed at the event, and that Yasir Arafat's Mohammed Rashid was also in attendance. His concerts in Lebanon and Jordan, where he performed with Palestinian-American 'ud and violin maestro Simon Shaheen and Egyptian shaabi singer Hakim, were well-attended, despite the protests.

Khaled has also recorded with the Algerian Jewish pianist Maurice El Medioni, on his 2004 album Ya-Rayi. I'm not aware that he was criticized for doing this, although it's possible that he was. I'm aware of no instances of Khaled being criticized for collaborating with American musicians.

And who are the so-called "moderate Muslims" who have criticized Khaled for doing this? The problem with such a formulation is that it tends to make all "politics" in the Arab World seem to be about Islam. The criticism leveled at Khaled for performing with Noa, however, was a political criticism, not based on religious grounds. Those who fight against "normalization" with Israel (whether you agree with them or not) are of all political stripes, and they include the secularists and the religious.

In addition, by asserting that Khaled was criticized by "moderate Muslims" for collaborating with Jews and Americans, Eyre once again reinforces the notion, which is so prevalent and widespread in the discourse about rai, that Islam and rai are antagonistic.

Eyre: "Khaled fiercely adheres to his message of peace, love and personal freedom. But in the combative milieu of North Africa and the Middle East, those too can be fighting words."

It's true that Khaled sings about these subjects, on occasion. But Eyre pitches his description of Khaled and his political significance, so as to make it appear that the entire thrust of Khaled's message is in opposition to "Islamic fundamentalism." This impression, of course, is entirely to the liking of the Western liberal consumer, who can comfortably listen to and purchase Khaled's recordings, under the assumption that s/he and Khaled are involved in the "same" struggle against intolerance and in favor of peace.

Such an impression of course can benefit Khaled's music sales in the West. But the impression is mistaken. Khaled in general avoids making overt political statements, but he has, on occasion, spoken out about Palestine. For instance, in an interview in January 2002 with Sean Barlow of Afrop Worldwide, Khaled stated that "to end [terrorism], we need to fix the problems, the source of the big problem. For me, what is at the base of this whole thing is the history of the Palestinians. George Bush has said we're going to stop terrorism. This is the end. The end? Not yet. There are still people killing children in Algeria, in Asia, in Africa. There are still people killing Palestinian children. Palestinians have lived in war for 40 years. That means there are people who were born and died in war. They have the right to profit from life like me, like you, like everyone."

The kufiya Khaled wears in the photo above, which I believe was taken when he was touring the US in January 2002, registers his sympathy with the Palestinians.

Khaled has also expressed his objections to French racism (I can't locate any sources at the moment). But more importantly, he has worked tirelessly to bring Arab Maghrebi culture into the mainstream of French culture. This has done a great deal to counter the strong anti-Arab racist tendencies and movements in France. In my opinion, it makes more sense to speak of Khaled as a French artist (after all, he has made the country his home since the late 1980s) who has done a great deal to promote Arab culture in France, rather than as an Algerian artist.

Eyre's representation of Khaled as someone who is fighting for peace and love and against fundamentalist Islam is a comfortable image for the cosmopolitan Westerner to consume. As we listen to him, as we buy his recordings, we can imagine that we are somehow "doing good," maybe even striking a blow in favor of peace and against intolerance. A more complicated picture of Khaled, one that situates him in the ongoing struggles of Arabs in France for human rights and against racism and Islamophobia, a picture of Khaled as someone who, like most other Arabs, strongly feels that the Palestinians have been dealt a raw deal--this is not so easy to take on, for the presumptive fair-minded NPR listener who might be interested in World Music. It would be more comfortable for that listener to imagine that he was participating in the "rescue" of Khaled from fundamentalism.

But isn't it the responsibility of experts in World Music like Banning Eyre to educate audiences about the music of the world and the contexts that produces that music, rather than just promote that music, in the conventional ways deployed by the World Music industry?

References

Daoudi, Bouziane and Hadj Miliani. 1996. L'aventure du rai: Musique et société. Paris: Editions du Seuil.

Khaled. 1998. Derrière la sourire. Paris: Michel Lafon.

2 comments:

Opal said...

This was a fascinating read. I'm a long-time fan of Khaled's music, but I must confess I knew very little about his life apart from coverage similar to Banning Eyre's piece.

nikos pakos said...

Yes, great article... I am a fan of Khaled's music too and I really want to see him live sometime.

My conclusion on these information and also your thoughts about Khaled's life is that he is just another man with pros and cons, and not a hero of rai or, even, arab music. I appreciate his moderate or even progressive view on Muslim religion and his efforts to bring rai music to Europe and the world.

Also, as Greek and as a person living in the Mediterranean, I can say that, every time I listen to Khaled's music, I have a familiar feeling.