x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The Mawazine Sessions, part 3: The rai singer Cheb Mami

Out of jail, the Algerian Raï artist is coming back with a new album.

The Algerian singer Cheb Mami is recording a new album, which he describes as a traditional rai record, after a seven-year hiatus. Youssef Boudlal / Reuters
The Algerian singer Cheb Mami is recording a new album, which he describes as a traditional rai record, after a seven-year hiatus. Youssef Boudlal / Reuters

The Prince of rai is back.

Cheb Mami has returned to the music scene to reclaim his place as one of the leading purveyors of the North African genre.

The Algerian performer's career seemed to have permanently derailed in 2009 after being found guilty by a French court of the kidnapping and assault of a former partner. The five-year sentence was cut short with Mami released in 2011 and returning to Algeria.

Keeping a low profile, the 47-year-old took tentative steps back to the music spotlight this year with a recent slot headlining Morocco's Mawazine Festival. He explains the performance is part of a comeback plan including a new album to be released by the end of the year.

"I don't get invited to a lot of world music festivals," he admits. "This is a great opportunity to play again for the fans and have some real rai music showcased at such gatherings."

It is a statement of intent.

Mami says the power of rai music, with its political and social observations, has been diluted to a shadow of its former self. The organic beats, he observes, have been jettisoned for more shiny synthetic productions.

"It is like takeaway music," he sighs. "The songs today don't sit well. They are churned out without any thought. It's like McDonald's, you hear it and it doesn't stay with you. This needs to change and I hope I can play my part in that."

Born Ahmed Khelifati Mohamed to a family of factory workers in Saida, a north-western province of Algeria, Mami began his musical career by performing on his tattered accordion in the city's bustling neighbourhoods.

Sick of performing traditional folk songs at weddings and community gatherings, a teenage Mami began exploring the North African music of rai. The genre was the perfect foil for his elastic voice that is equally at home over rock riffs as Arab percussive beats. However, owing to the genre's political outlook it was shunned by Algerian authorities, with concerts and sale of cassette tapes often banned.

Mami eventually moved to Paris in the 1980s and performed in clubs predominantly visited by North African migrants. The move to Europe not only garnered him a fan base but also expanded his sound. Mami added modern music elements such as reggae, pop and salsa to his repertoire.

Ask him to describe his style, however, and Mami states it's mainly blues driven. He says the genre found success overseas first as the songs captured the spirit of exile.

"It's the music of migrants," he says. "These people, whether they are in France, Holland or other foreign lands, hear these songs and they recognise their life and stories within. It is through the migrants that our songs then spread to a wider audience."

Mami's keen musical ear is also responsible for his rise as a world music artist. The diminutive singer possesses a stunning range, with a voice effortlessly shifting from sultry croon to a full-blooded wail. Backed by accessible memories, albums such as the 1989 debut Prince of Rai and 1996's Douni El Bladi garnered a cult following across Europe.

Word of Mami's stardom reached Sting in 1998, when he was in the process of recording his atmospheric album Brand New Day. Looking for a North African collaborator to duet on the track that would become the hit Desert Rose, he travelled to Paris to attend a Mami gig.

"He was looking for a specific kind of singer that he couldn't find in England," Mami recalls. "During the show where he came to visit, I sang an a cappella of a traditional rai song called Saida Baida. Sting told me when he heard that he decided straight away I got the job."

Mami enjoyed the recording session with Sting. "He made me feel welcome and that I was part of this project," he said. "For me, Desert Rose felt like a real duet. We worked closely together in the studio and that chemistry I think came through and many people responded."

With Desert Rose topping numerous charts, Mami became a global ambassador for rai music. High-profile shows included the Grammy Awards and the Super Bowl.

The momentum led to Mami's most successful release, 2001's Dellali. Produced by the disco legend and former Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers (who co-wrote with Daft Punk the current hit Get Lucky), the seminal recording finds Mami wrapping those expansive vocal chords around rock, funk and soul productions. Sting even popped in, providing backing vocals for the dance driven Raï C'est Chic.

While Mami never matched the career high of Dellali, the album's success earned him a worldwide following and his subsequent four albums were greeted with enthusiasm. Mami is set to test his fans' resolve with his first album in seven years. With recording underway, he describes the new album as a "traditional rai" record.

One thing the new collection won't include is Mami's reflections from his prison stint.

"I don't feel like I have to sing about those experiences. I don't want to be like some rappers who talk about such things and be proud of it," he says. "What I can say is the experience benefited me in every way. I have learnt so many things about myself. I am now focusing on the future."

Next week: the Grammy-nominated Malian duo Amadou & Mariam


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