Raï began as a rural Algerian folk music that moved to the city and got streetwise. In Khaled’s hands in the 1980s, it was modernized to incorporate drum machines and keyboards, and soon it went on an international journey. For Khaled, the open spirit at the core of raï music, and its ever-widening appeal, has everything to do with life in Oran, the Mediterranean port town where he was born in 1960.
Flamenco, Arab classical music, wahrani, Latin grooves, and later rock ’n’ roll, French pop, reggae and the rest were all in the air in Oran, and Khaled knew from childhood that music was going to be his life. He picked up the guitar, then accordion, and while his brothers pursued professions, he spent his time in bars and nightclubs.
Although he was a self-described “bad boy,” there was nothing violent or spiteful in Khaled’s rebellion. It was all about freedom. Khaled is a Muslim believer, and proud of it, but he was educated by Catholic priests, and cherishes the memory. If his greatest foe in adult life has become religious fundamentalists, it’s because his deeper religion is the street culture of Oran, a culture of respect.
Khaled’s refusal to serve in the Algerian army led to a crisis in 1986. He chose exile over the army and spent nearly all of the next 14 years in France, though he now lives in Luxembourg. When he finally returned to Algeria in 2000, he was no longer “little Khaled,” but one of the most popular and successful African singers of his time, with major European hits to his credit.
Khaled insists that he sings love only, never politics, but there’s a sense of political engagement that runs through most of his verbal flights. He says he wants to project the image of the "maryule," a happy bon vivant, who loves life and spreads joy. Behind his messages of love and merriment lie tougher, worldlier passions. But when he sings his new song “Love To The People” the message, with all its complexities, gets through.