For as long as we can remember, Khaled has proudly borne the title "king of rai". Promoting the release of his album 'Ya Rayi', the king granted us an audience:
First, somewhat evident, question: Your last album ‘Kenza' already dates from 1999. After that a great silence surrounded Khaled. Where have you been and what have you been up to?
Khaled: "True... Well, for starters, I was in conflict with my record company, but I toured a lot too. At the same time I planned out my future a bit and I became father to a third daughter so I took advantage of this time to spend the first two years of her life with my family. That is not always easy when you're a well-known artist. I was doing about 150 gigs a year, so for my two other daughters I hadn't really been there that much. Kenza, the title of my previous album, is also the name of my second daughter; the oldest is called Sahra and my youngest one Roseanne. I didn't really want to give her the name of my album as well. (laughs) I really thought I deserved a break to enjoy family life. Being in conflict with my record company really only brought me good things, it brought me closer to my family."
God guides us along then?
Khaled: "Exactly! I'm a strong believer in that. Often I ask myself: "What will I do?" and then after I say: "Well its destiny. It's like that and you can't change it.""
Real fans already know you from the time when you did 'Didi' or even longer still, but the song that really made your career go international was 'Aisha'. I have even heard versions of that song in Hindi and Turk. What does 'Aisha' mean to you?
Khaled: "Well, for starters, it wasn't me who wrote 'Aisha'. For the first time I asked someone to write me a lyric in French, because I'm not a French-speaker by birth. His name is Jean-Jacques Goldman, who is a friend of mine and who is really well-known in France and the rest of Europe. It was he who introduced the name "Aisha" and I immediately loved it. Goldman really has an easy style of writing, not trying to be too intellectual by mingling in a lot of difficult terms. All the songs he has written, even the stuff he did with Celine Dion - because he also did a lot of songs with her - are really easy to sing. I didn't want to be selfish. More and more French people were listening to my music and they were coming up to me saying: "Listen Khaled, we love the stuff you do, but we don't understand any of it!". For that reason I wanted to share my feelings and so I asked Jean-Jacques Goldman to write that song. The word "aisha" means "life" and it is also the name of the fourth wife of the prophet Mohammed. But as I said it was Goldman who chose the name, not me! Poets always look for names that roll of the tongue and that can fit well into melodies. Because of that, there are some names you will never hear in songs as well. I'm sure I made every girl in the world named Aisha very happy. (laughs) Afterwards the song was translated in many languages and it keeps conquering the world in more and more versions. That is what is so nice about this song."
I listened to the new album 'Ya Rayi' and the sound to me seemed a return to the roots of the rai music and maybe even to the Algeria of the fifties and sixties. It also made me think of the movie "Sheltering Sky" by Bernardo Bertolucci. I don't know if you've seen it?
Khaled: "Of course! That's exactly what I wanted to achieve. I wanted to return to the roots, the fifties and sixties, and promote collaboration. In those times the people in Algeria lived in poverty. There was uproar everywhere, but still people made music and danced. This whole problem of religion didn't exist. There was no hate. It was the time that people united all together against fascism. That's why it was such a pleasure for me to be able to reunite Maurice Médioni, who is in his seventies now, with his old friend from Oran. They hadn't seen each other for more than forty years! That is worth much more to me than selling millions of albums. You really had to be there to understand: The Algerian Jew and the Muslim from Oran together again in the studio. One plays the piano, the other a guitar that dates back to the twenties. He loves that guitar, it never leaves his sight and it's like a daughter to him, but it also has an incredible sound! And just like that, they started playing again, fooling around at first. Songs like 'Let's Twist Again' in Algerian! I said: "Hey, wait a minute. Are you singing in Arabic there?" and they answered: "Yes, in our time we just adapted the words because we didn't understand any English.""
So, if I understand you correctly, in that time they were used to adapt popular songs into Arabic?
Khaled: "Exactly! Elvis Presley in Arabic! It's like you would take a song of Elvis and sing it in a Flemish dialect. I thought to myself: "Listen to this, this is unbelievable!" Our generation really has everything, but in reality we have lost a lot! So with this album, I wanted to return to the roots, I wanted to promote collaboration and I wanted to prove that music is not just a game of electronics. I don't believe in always serving one's fans the same kind of music; you have to surprise them sometimes. Your public is always awaiting the new fruits of your labour. I'm always among my fans. The life I live today is not that of a star. I never wanted to be a star. As a singer, you should never forget that you are there thanks to your fans. When I think, I always try to put myself in the shoes of the person that is going to listen to my music. It's maybe rare or strange that an artist says these kinds of things, but I'll say it nonetheless. And that way of thinking gives me a totally different perspective on things."
Your albums are hardly ever accompanied by translations of your lyrics in English or French. Do you hold more value to the musical language of your songs than to their lyrical potential, or is there another reason?
Khaled: "I believe that the music is more universal than the lyrics. I sing in Arabic, to be more exact, in a dialect from Algeria. To reinterpret that dialect in French would take away a lot of the song's charm. If you would literally translate the text, nothing would remain. I also didn't want the lyrics to be written in Arabic. That would have taken too much space and I wanted the people to be able to read the lyrics, even if only phonetically, so that at least they could sing along. If you can sing along to a song, then don't worry, you'll grab the meaning soon enough!"
You talk about collaborations. For the second time, there's a remix by one of the members of the French hip-hop group IAM, this time by Imhotep. What is your relation with these guys?
Khaled: "IAM, Imhotep, they are friends of mine. I invited them to sing with me on the ‘Sahra' album and they invited me to do a song about the political situation in Algeria. For this album, I really wanted to do a song with Dr. Dre, but he was very busy and I was in a hurry so I did it with Don Was. Even Don Was was very busy! He was just producing the new Rolling Stones album. But Don is like a brother to me, he asked me to give him 48 hours and then he called me back and said: "Listen, don't worry, I talked to Mick Jagger and he has given me one week." Of course I immediately answered: "Ok!" Halting the production of a new Stones album to do my songs isn't just anything; it's a sign of respect. It was for that reason that I was a bit disappointed by Dr. Dre, so I decided to have the remix done by Imhotep to prove that he's better at it anyway. (laughs) No, seriously, I chose Imhotep because he represents Marseille to me and I also wanted to prove that we have musicians here in France that can do things that are just as good as or maybe even better than the stuff from the States. We have to stop just buying everything they try to sell us! I've been fighting for that cause for a long time too."
The nineties saw a real boom in raï music, with you as the king, Cheb Mami as the prince and a whole lot of others who tried to follow in your footsteps. These days it's a lot quieter again. In your opinion do you think the events of September 11th and the subsequent bad publicity given to all things Islamic have had a negative impact on the commerciality of raï music?
Khaled: "Oh no, not at all! In the beginning I thought that too, but after September 11th I went on tour in the United States. There was some hatred out there against Muslims and Arabs, but I faced it head-on and gave the best of myself - I even visited some states I had never heard of - and I'm very proud to say that I made the Americans dance! It's really in Europe that this music is pushed in a corner a bit. At one stage rai was becoming so popular that they wanted to tone it down a little. When they talk about Mami and the others, I think those are artists that didn't really do much for the music at all. That was also one of the reasons why I was in conflict with my record company. The told me: "Now there is Cheb Mami, there's Faudel..." I'm not the jealous type but I said to myself: "I'm going to take a break and we'll see who is left standing in the end." It was like they weren't thinking for themselves anymore, like they were operated by remote control and there were many artists that fell in that trap. I can't fall into a trap like that because I know who I am and what I'm worth. Mon raï c'est mon raï et il restera sur ses rails! (My raï is my raï and no one can derail it, red.). There was also some jealousy going around, they wanted me to go in open conflict with other raï singers. I have a little something to say about that: "You can't put yourself in the place of the caliph!""
I remember a time when Khaled received threats on a regular basis. Double question: Did the recent murder of the Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh remind you of those times and is this period over for you now?
Khaled: "I was on tour and watched those events on television and I have to tell you it was a blow. I am unhappy, because it seems as if the world has gone crazy and anything goes. I'm speaking for the Moroccans now, for the Arabs who live in Europe and who are respected citizens with respect and tolerance for others. It's not because one little idiot, who has had his head filled with nonsense by I don't know who, acts that way that all Moroccans are like this! This has to stop! My God created me to tell the truth, why then should I hide stuff? I am a man of the arts as they say, I can make people dream. I don't understand why they have to kill a person like that. I haven't seen the film in question ("Submission", red.), but I've seen parts. The truth can hurt sometimes. But he said things that were true and that I also renounce! In Algeria there are types that talk about Islam. Why then do they kill babies? Why do they rape women? Nobody even speaks of it! I could make a film about it tomorrow if I wanted to and then somebody could come and kill me too when the only thing I did is show the truth! The guy who made that movie talked about women who had been brutalised and raped because they were forced into arranged marriages by retards who still want to uphold these backward traditions. Luckily, it's not like this in the whole of North Africa. Most countries are civilised now. Especially Morocco, that country is nothing like Algeria. Where sex is concerned, people are free there, they have an open mind. They are really on another level than the Algerians. In answer to your question about the threats made against me, I have to tell you that this has never ended. As you can see, certain types are ready to kill just about anyone to make a name. The killer of Theo Van Gogh left a note on his body with the name of his next victim on it. For me there is no greater shame than that. Where are we living here? These are people who have no respect whatsoever for anyone who lives differently than they are accustomed to. And because of people like that, my Algerian and Moroccan friends living in Holland and Belgium are going to be harassed. It can only stir up more hate! There's a Muslim generation now that was born and raised in Europe. They don't have any direct connections with Morocco or Algeria anymore. If they were made to return, what are they going to do? I know some young Algerian cinematographers myself, who make movies ten times worse than this one. They make their movies to denounce certain things. They are not scared and they are prepared to tell the truth. There is information out there for those who are looking for the truth, but one should stay weary because there's also a lot of liars around, telling you just about anything you want to hear! But there are still enough well-meaning people who want to open people's eyes. Pardon me for saying so, but in my opinion, artists should be untouchable, like the people of the Red Cross or like journalists. We are not here to preach hatred; we are here to sing about love! Today all respect is lost. We live in a world where nobody respects anyone anymore. In war they bomb hospitals now, can you imagine that? Or they shoot at vehicles clearly marked "Red Cross". In Algeria, one journalist is killed after the other. Why? Because they tell the truth! The last one they killed was quoted to say when he was still alive: "If you talk in Algeria, you get killed, but if you keep quiet you get killed too. Then why should I shut up?""
Let's return to music for the next question. For those who haven't heard of it before, could you explain in simple terms what the difference is between raï and chaabi?
Khaled: "Raï is popular music. It's a part of Algerian folklore. Here in Europe you would call it pop music. In the Arab countries chaabi is also popular, but it has more Andalusian influences mixed into it. Chaabi is has a softer, more classical tone. Raï is more rock-and-roll, more dance."
There is an obvious musical connection between raï/chaabi and reggae. You already worked with the I-Trees; Cheb Mami did a track with Ziggy Marley. Do you feel a connection with reggae music?
Khaled: "Are you kidding me or what? (laughs) I'm actually preparing a tune together with Ziggy Marley and Santana myself at this moment! Again I'm uniting people. I have the song with me here and I'm rehearsing it. You have to admit, reggae musicians aren't really white right. (laughs) It's like on 'Ya Rayi'; I put a taste of the Antilles there working with Kassav, with Jacob Desvarieux. It's important for me to visit these places too. To see the studios where Bob Marley used to do his recordings, to meet the I-Trees, just to have a general feel of how the people live over there. I went out there at night and there were people warning me: "Be careful! It's dangerous here!", but you just have to know how to behave yourself. The only thing I heard was: "Yeah Man!" It's a whole different world over there. It's like in Algeria, people living the hard life wanting to do nothing else but smoke and be left in peace. In Oran almost sixty percent of the population is involved in raï music. We have become like an Arabic Jamaica! We only want to be left in peace, to smoke, drink, and dance and show you're the most handsome fellow in your neighbourhood. Nobody wants to know about war, they only want peace!"
I read the forum on your website. It's filled with comments like: "Khaled is the king!", "Khaled ,we are proud of you and you're our hope on earth!" and "Salutations to the king". Remarks like these, do they fill you with a sense of responsibility?
Khaled: "I respect the people that crowned me their king. I respect my crown. There were some journalists who brought pages and pages of quotations like that and there was not one negative message among them! That makes me proud. I can feel that there are people that really believe in me and I won't let them down. I will always remain true to myself. I will always be their voice and I will continue to make my music until the day I die!"