Raï king Khaled claims freedom from musical straightjackets and has made some of the finest music of his career.
As Philip Bohlman points out in his excellent book World Music, the raï music of Algeria is a perfect example of a genre that expresses in-betweenness and hybridity, presenting a mixture of tradition and commercialism, classical and popular styles from a variety of sources. It is thus reflective of North Africa as a whole, a liminal space anchored physically between Europe and the rest of Africa, and culturally between the East and the West. Raï has been able to use its liminality and hybridity to express the previously un-expressible, challenging taboos at home while presenting a modern and postmodern North Africa to the world outside. Raï (an Arabic word for "opinion") has traveled from its origins in the port city of Oran to metropolitan centers across the globe, particularly France where there is a large Maghrebi population. Not unlike other vernacular musics from port cities, it has been both a stylistic melting pot and a music of migration.
No one has been more associated with this story in recent decades than Khaled, Algeria's "king of raï". Liberté, his first new album since Ya-Rayi in 2004, is, in some ways, a retrospective in that it revisits songs Khaled originally recorded in the 1980s, such as "Raikoum", "Liberté", and "Yamina". Khaled's story involves early years in the 1970s devoted to the fusion of North African, European and American musics and the exploration of new technology (particularly synthesizers), followed by a dissemination of the music across Europe, its establishment on the emerging world music network and a host of collaborations with musicians from a wide array of genres. Having achieved all this, Khaled, not unlike other African musicians based in France such as Youssou N’Dour and Salif Keita, has found himself in the privileged position of going "back to the roots"; his last recording was presented as one such venture. Yet Liberté fits the theme of retrospection better in its fine mix of the past and the present. As well as reworking material from earlier in his career, Khaled has also teamed up with the producer of his early hits, Martin Meissonnier. Together they bring to these seventeen pieces a range of acoustic and electric instrumentation, live performance and studio precision.
The album opens with a dramatic introduction to the first track "Hiya Ansadou", one of a number of dedicated intros to feature on the album. The mood is set with dramatic strings with a distinctive North African tonality. These are joined by oud in the lead-up to the song itself, which is driven by an insistent beat and Khaled’s emotion-drenched vocals. His voice is an incredibly flexible instrument which he is able to stretch skillfully over the instrumentation. Throughout, the strings assert the theme and call-and-response vocals add to the general high spirits.
"Raikoum", a track originally recorded by Khaled two and a half decades earlier and one of his most well-loved early pieces (also known as "Hada Raykoum"), is given its own introduction featuring Khaled's accordion and melismatic vocals. Once again, the percussion announces the start of the song and it is not long before the singer is being answered by female backing vocals and pin-sharp stabs of brass. The raï of Khaled's generation has often embraced international black musical forms such as reggae, funk and hip-hop. On "Raikoum", Khaled and his musicians remind us that this is also soul music of the most ecstatic, infectious, and life-affirming sort.
"Gnaoui" is one of two tracks on the album where Khaled references the Gnawa music of Morocco. Gnawa music, derived from styles brought to the north of Africa by sub-Saharan slaves, has a strong resemblance to blues music and listeners who have been attracted in recent years to the music of Touareg groups such as Tinariwen will find much to enjoy here, from the microtonalities of the plucked instruments to the Egyptian strings and, above all, the desert blues beat. Fans of Egyptian movie music and Bollywood strings, meanwhile, will find much to enjoy in the tender "Soghri" and the dramatic "Rabbi". "Zabana" alters the instrumental palette once more, opting for light jazz piano in addition to the hook-heavy string interjections. This eight-minute song is another showcase for Khaled's vocals, proving that his is truly a voice to get lost in.
The title track is a typical example of the double-voiced nature of raï in that it places a message about liberty from an oppressive regime within a narrative about escape from an overbearing woman. Another of the album's reworkings of earlier material, "Liberté" here manages to expose further layers of meaning, becoming a message of freedom from the constraints of genre and career expectations.
Popular music thrives on contrasts and cycles, replacing what once was new and cutting-edge with a return to the basics, only to then reposition the once-new again as an object of technostalgia lost in the prehistory of a newly heralded "organic" simplicity. What Khaled is able to claim with Liberté is both a freedom from musical straightjackets and from the double bind in which raï has often found itself placed, condemned on the one hand by Arabic conservatives for its forsaking of tradition and on the other by those who would see in it a willing target for orientalist projections of exotic otherness. In breaking free from these constraints Khaled has made some of the finest music of his career.