Cheb Mami is the pioneer of a new “raï attitude” whose objective is to make universalise raï by opening it up to Western influences whilst at the same time carefully preserving its traditional character. Today, Cheb is principally acclaimed for a golden high-pitched voice which ascends the scales with voluptuous grace. The “mini-singer” has not only introduced an original raï style but plays to full houses in front of young audiences more and more divorced form Algerian culture.
Cheb Mami (“the kid” in Oran dialect) belongs to that post-independence generation of Algerians full of faith in the construction of a free and modern society, and whose youth was sacrificed precisely because the contradictions between the country’s archaic shackles and progressive ideals were so difficult to live.
Bedouin and city music
Mohamed Khelifati, alias Cheb Mami, was born on July 11th 1966 in a working class quarter of Saïda, a small town 200 kilometres South of Oran (the capital of raï), on the edge of the high plateaux of the Sahara. From an early age, “the kid” loved to hide in his mother’s robe during marriage and baptism ceremonies and immerse himself in the percussion music of the “meddahates” (the traditional women’s orchestra’s) and the songs they sang afterwards on the secrets of love, expressed in crude terms to fresh young damsels, or on the torments of wives cloistered by their husbands. This was his initiation to the musical traditions of both the Bedouins and the city dwellers. Aged eight he preferred singing in the street to playing football with an old tin can. From twelve onwards, in the grand tradition of apprentice raï musicians, he earned money from paid dedications by joining in with his falsetto in the crude threnodies of the “maddahates” or at male banquets.
A little for my God and a little for my heart
Mami, now longer a kid, had to help support his large and poor family (he was one of nine children). Naturally responsible and serious, he had no difficulty in practising the Arab maxim, “a little for my God and a little for my heart”. During the week he worked as a welder in the Société Nationale du Métal factory, then left Saïda each weekend, attracted by the nightlife of Oran where, at marriages and other feasts, dressed in his robe of lights, he metamorphosed into a “cricket”. Eventually the group “Al Azhar” (The Flowers) spotted the prodigious kid and hired him. He made his debuts in the licentious cabarets of Oran’ corniche, at the Macumba, the Mon Château and the Biarritz clubs, where Algerians went to get drunk and dance the night away to the devilish rhythms and lewd lyric of the raï groups.
The cassette waltz
In 1982, encouraged by these promising debuts, the 16 year old adolescent sang on the “Alhan wa Chabab” radio show, a singing competition organised by Radio Télevision Algérienne. He sang “El Marsam” (The Sanctuary) a classic of Oranese music from the 1920’s. The audience was transfixed by the sheer emotion of his performance and by his sinuous vocal intonations which captured perfectly the flavour of the song’s title. The judges, who represented a government which refused to admit even the existence of raï, gave the first prize to a cover version of a hit by the famous Egyptian diva, Oum Kalthoum, but were forced to acknowledge the standing ovation Cheb received by awarding him second prize.
Cheb was spotted by Boualem, the producer of the Oran label, Disco Maghreb, and the cassette waltz began. From 1982 to 1985, Mami recorded about ten cassettes, whose production varied from 100.000 to 500.000 copies each Raï, which has a reputation for vulgarity, is definitely not family music and was therefore a highly profitable market for producers – everybody illicitly bought their own cassette and listened to it alone in private. The young artist’s slice of the cake was thin but his gain in fame was huge.
Yet this “ovni” (unidentified flying object) from the prudish provincial town of Saïda, now enthroned as “youngest raï singer”, still had to gain acceptance by the brotherhood of raï singers which included Cheb Khaled, Hamid and Houari Benchenet. They distrusted the “stranger”, this ideal son-in-law type who warbled lyrics dipped in rose water to respectable young women – in their genre of raï love is a physical thing described in raw, physical terms. Thanks to his “family” brand of raï, Cheb made his first official public appearance at the First Oran Raï Festival in 1985, which marked the official recognition of the genre by the Algerian authorities.
Now famous, Mami went to work in France for three months, where he intended to buy equipment and then return to Algeria and start his own group. He arrived in Paris in 1985 but his cassettes had got there before him. Bootleg copies were being sold on the street in the Barbès quarter. He was therefore immediately in demand, and played the oriental clubs such as the Monseigneur, the Omar Khayam and the Khaïma, often at all three in one night, while perfecting his new compositions in the lively Arab bars of the 18th arrondissement. An all-round singer-songwriter, Mami took pains to “polish” the crude language of raï and his intricate crossbred melodies whilst taking care not to drown them in drum machine sounds. Proud heir to the great Oran raï singers of the 40’s and 50’s, Blaoui El Houari, Ahmed Wahby and Messaoud Bellmou, who themselves had modernised the raï of the Saharan bards, Mami felt his mission was to rejuvenate the genre, to render his precious Algerian patrimony more universal by crossbreeding it with Western instrumental arrangements
From La Villette to L’Olympia
In January 1986, he was an obvious choice to appear alongside the great names of raï at the Bobigny and La Villette festivals in Paris. Cheikhs (old) and Chebs (young), the entire raï firmament was there: Khlifi Ahmed, Messaoud Bellemou, Cheikha Rimitti (the grand old lady of raï), Sahraoui and Fadela, Khaled… The La Villette concert was a legendary night for raï music. The press were swept away by an raï tidal wave. Overnight, of this boisterous yet haunting Arab music, was on the world music map. At the concert, Cheb Mami met Michel Levy, who became his manager and with whom he signed his first recording contract with the Blue Silver label. He scrapped his project to return to Algeria and stayed on in Paris, where he recorded “Douni El Bladi” (Take me back home) and “Ouach Tsalini” (I don’t owe you a thing). “Pygmalion” Levy organised Cheb Mami’s first appearance at l’Olympia in December 1986. The first raï singer to play in this prestigious Paris music venue, received a standing ovation.
In 1987, Mohamed Khelifati, honoured his duty as an Algerian subject by leaving his career in mid-flight and going home to do two years military service. To pass the time and boost the troop moral, he started a group and toured the barracks.
The first raï ambassador in the U.S.A
When he returned to France in May 1989, his name was again top of the bill at l’Olympia, where his vocal arabesques set the audience alight. The media enthroned him as the “Prince of Raï”, seeing him as the new hope for the genre’s renewal. The same year, he performed at the New Morning club. Throughout that year, he toured in France and abroad, from Angoulême to New York to Quebec to Italy, Holland, West Germany and England, where, at the famous Womad festival (created by Peter Gabriel), the British public at last discovered raï.
After having been the first raï ambassador to the U.S.A., in New York in1989, he returned there the following year to record the album “Let Me Raï”, produced in a sophisticated studio in Los Angeles by Hilton Rosenthal, the producer of the white Zulu Johnny Clegg. But, alas, the sumptuous arrangements and Mami’s voice of honey were never to reach the American public. The outbreak of the Gulf War not only scuppered Mami’s ambition to establish raï in America, but also caused the album’s flop in France, where it was banned on all French radio stations. While Western tanks ploughed through the Kuwaïti desert, Mami went through an arid period in his career. Slaloming between the French government’s anti-terrorist measures and the waves of Muslim fundamentalist bomb attacks, he continued to play small venues principally to second generation French Arab fans who identified themselves with the trance-like “Haoulou” and “Douha Allia”, which had become his signature songs.
A Western-orientated raï
His real consecration came in 1994 with the release of his third album, “Saïda” (a tribute to his home town, whose name means “happy” in Arab). “The Kid” signed with the Virgin label, who launched him on their international distribution network. “Saïda”, his second “American” album, produced by Neneh Cherry and Paula Abdul in Los Angeles, sold 100.000 copies in France and won a Double Golden Disc and a Golden Disc award in Algeria and Morocco respectively. The fact that Mami had married a Moroccan “beurette” (a second generation French Arab), had increased his popularity in Morocco. The album’s “high-tech” sound augured a new Western-orientated style, without sacrificing raï’s essence. Oriental violins blend with rap, especially in “Mama”, sung by Baby Girl.
His first mega-concert at the Zenith auditorium in February 1996 coincided with the Ramadan, always a good time for celebration. Mami’s stage show was in total contrast to the static, monotonous performances of other raï singers. The “mini-singer”, who once resembled la dislocated puppet, had transformed himself at thirty years old into a graceful and charming imp in total communion with an audience that undulated to his sinuous arpeggios. Tonton David invited Mami to join him in a Franco-Arab ragga duo, “Les Fugitifs”, on his album, “Le Récidiviste”. On this track Mami sang in his original Oran accent, as he did in his tribute to the singer Gérard Manset, “Il voyage en solitaire”, on Manset’s album, “Route Manset”.
In 1997, “Saïda” pursued his world conquest (Japan, Brazil, Scandinavia). Meanwhile, on cinema screens, he was to be seen co-starring with Khaled in “100% Arabica”, a musical comedy by Mahmoud Zemmouri. He flew to New York and Los Angeles to sing at the 14th July celebrations there, events sponsored by the French government. At the “Vive la World” concert, in Central Park in New York, crowds flocked in tens of thousands to see the ambassadors of French coloured music, Cheb Mami, Alabina and Lokua Kanza. In September, Mami provided a moment of high emotion on stage at the Fête de l’Humanité, by singing “No Woman no Cry” in Arab, with Bob Marley’s legendary group, the Wailers.
In 98, he appeared for the second time at the Zenith in January, again during Ramadan, to premier songs from his new album, “Meli Meli” (What’s happening to me?). While forever remaining faithful to the “tarab” (the shrill Bedouin chants and rhythms of the original raï musicians), the istikhbar (sinuous vocal preludes) and the derbouka (percussion) in “Trab”, the Kid continued to experiment with different fusions in eleven raï-rap-techno-ska-funk-reggae-gypsy numbers. Guest artists included his Kabyle singer friend, Idir, on “Azwaw2”, and the sound architect of IAM, Imhotep and the rapper K.mel on “Parisien du Nord”.
Cheb Mami, a raï singer who has ceaselessly declared that his only combat is artistic, nevertheless paid silent tribute in Oran to his friend Cheb Hasni, assassinated in 1994. On such occasions in Oran, as a symbol of the people’s submission to mektoub (destiny), the raw vitality of rai music is inevitably absent. Even though he has never received any personal death threat, Mami, whose heart has always remained in Algeria and who hopes to return to sing in his home country one day, declines to do so. He refuses to play with the lives of people who would come in droves to hear him. Whatever happens, his unforgettable velvet voice is universal.
Cheb Mami finally got the chance to play in his homeland on 5 July ’99 when he returned to Algeria to perform a special concert in Algiers at the foot of the “Sanctuaire des Martyrs” (on the Esplanade des Arts). The concert, of huge symbolic and political importance, attracted a massive turn-out, 100,000 of Mami’s Algerian fans flocking to the Esplanade to support him.
Later that same year Sting invited Cheb Mami to record a duet on his new album, instantly catapulting the young Rai star into the international spotlight. After performing a series of highly popular concerts with Sting in New York in December ’99, Mami went on to team up with disco star Gloria Gaynor for a New Year’s Eve concert at the Tozeur oasis in the Tunisian desert. On 10 January 2000 Mami brought the house down when he joined Sting and the Burundi diva Khadja Nin, performing a special one-off concert at Bercy Stadium in Paris.
By the end of 1999, Cheb Mami had taken a few more steps up the celebrity ladder. On 31st December the Algerian Raï star was invited to perform a special one-off concert with legendary American disco star Gloria Gaynor. The pair gave a memorable performance in a truly unique setting, singing right out in the middle of the Tunisian desert at the Tozeur Oasis.
Meanwhile, Sting had invited Cheb Mami to join him in the studio to record a duet for his new album. When the album was released in 2000, the pair’s duet, “Desert Rose”, went rocketing to the top of singles charts around the world, fulfilling Mami’s long-held dream of internationalising Raï sounds. Following the phenomenal success of “Desert Rose”, Mami accompanied Sting on an extensive tour, earning himself rave reviews in the British and American media.
After bringing the house down across Europe and the United States, Sting and Mami went on to play in Dubai, Cairo and Amman (Jordan). But the highlight of the tour was when the pair played to a 20,000-strong audience in Tunis in April 2001.
Cheb Mami goes global with “Dellali”
Mami soon turned his attention to his own solo career once again, bringing out a new album entitled “Dellali” (The Loved One), in June 2001. Aimed at a cosmopolitan audience, Mami’s new album featured a rich mix of languages and musical influences, featuring everything from house and Flamenco to reggae and African music. Indeed, the musical fusion on “Dellali” proved so intense that many of Mami’s purist fans complained the singer’s infectious Raï rhythms had become submerged in a sort of please-all mish-mash. Criticisms notwithstanding, no-one could deny that Mami’s vocals were as brilliant as ever and the album also featured an impressive list of guest stars – including contributions from everyone from Charles Aznavour (“Viens habibi”) to Bob Marley’s son, Ziggy (“Madanite”) and the famous guitarist Chet Atkins. What’s more, “Dellali” was produced by none other than Nile Rodgers, ex-frontman of the legendary disco group Chic and the man behind David Bowie’s worldwide hit “Let’s Dance”.
Following the success of his album, Mami kept up a hectic schedule throughout the summer of 2001, performing at all the season’s top music events including the Nice Jazz Festival on July 27th.
As his international career really began to take off, Cheb Mami planned a solo tour in the States. Unfortunately it was cancelled in the wake of the events of September 11th 2001. Disappointed, the singer was to wait until December 29th to walk back on stage. On that date, he performed at the Bercy Stadium, where 14,000 fans had gathered to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the rai singer’s career.
From Culture to Campaigning
As part of the celebrations for the “Year of Algeria” in France, Cheb Mami joined forces with the Kabylian singer Aït Menguellet for a special concert at Le Zénith in Paris on 1 November 2003. The “Year of Algeria” proved to be a fairly controversial event (Algerians in France seeing it as a sign the French government were supporting the Algerian authorities). But Cheb Mami and Aït Menguellet used their concert as a means of confirming their independence from all sides. Another occasion to celebrate Algerian solidarity came at the end of the “Year of Algeria” when Mami played a final concert at Bercy stadium on 29 December 2003 à Bercy, bringing the house down with other Algerian artistssuch as Raïna Raï, Abdelmadjid Meskoud, Baâziz and stand-up comedian Smaïn.
Cheb Mami has proved his commitment to human rights throughout his career. And in 2003 he got involved with the international campaign for children’s rights, recording the fund-raising song “Lazraq Saani” with proceeds going to the humanitarian association “Un regard, un enfant.” Mami also appeared alongside Saian Supa Crew and Sinsemilia on the compilation “Opinion sur rue” (released in November 2003).
This coincided with a special honour from the French president Jacques Chirac, who made the Algerian Rai star a “Chevalier de l’ordre national du mérite”, rewarding “the talent of a truly great artist who has done so much to promote Rai worldwide.”
From South to North
As fans eagerly awaited the release of a new studio album, Cheb Mami rocketed back into the charts in 2004 with a compilation of duets recorded with an impressively eclectic mix of stars. The compilation, entitled “Du Nord au Sud”, featured contributions from hip-hop activists (K Mel and the group 113), reggae artists (Ziggy Marley and Aswad), international pop stars (Sting and Zucchero), and fusion rockers Mouss and Hakim from the group Zebda. Mami also paid tributes to his Algerian roots on “Du Nord au Sud”, recording songs with Enrico Macias, Idir and Samira Saïd. And he embraced young up-and-coming talents, too, recording a cover of the Stevie Wonder classic “Master Blaster” with French act Corneille and another song with London-born Tamil singer, Susheela Raman.
Mami presented a live version of the album to fans in Paris, taking to the stage at the Grand Rex on 31 March 2004 accompanied by Enrico Macias, Susheela Raman, Zucchero and Mouss and Hakim. Seven months later, on 28 September 2004, a DVD and CD version of the concert hit record stores.
After a two-year absence from the recording front, Cheb Mami made a comeback on 30 October 2006 with a new album entitled “Layali” (Nights). The album, recorded in two major capitals of Arab culture, Cairo and Beirut, was a pure invitation to party and dance. Mami served up a vibrant musical fusion on “Layali” via a number of duets with R&B stars K-Maro and Leslie and Kadim El Sahir, king of the Arab pop world. The first single release from the album, “Non c’sera non”, was a superb duet with the young French rap diva Diam’s.
But the release of this new album was overshadowed by the Rai star’s arrest in France. Mami was taken into custody on 28 October 2006 and charged with “violence, sequestration and threatening behaviour” following a complaint lodged by a former girlfriend. The singer was to have performed in Marseilles at the Fiesta des Suds festival that same day, kicking off his new tour, but the concert had to be cancelled at the last minute.
Ketf Cheb Mami