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- Posted on Aug 25th 2009 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
Er ... Las Vegas.
"I expect Las Vegas to be for this one night the capital of Rai & Roll," says the emotive singer, who has revolutionized his birth nation's folk-pop music several times in a career stretching back to his teen years in the mid-'70s. "Las Vegas is a legendary city in which many of my music idols have performed, such as Elvis Presley, U2, Earth Wind & Fire and now even Santana. It is a great honor for me to follow their footsteps.
"Besides," he adds, "I promised my wife to remarry her in Las Vegas, as that is also what we hear Las Vegas is famous for."
And even from his home in Paris he can't help making a quip based on the Vegas marketing line to declare his very high hopes for 'Sahra,' the Nov. 21 event at the MGM Grand, which will also feature Syrian star Assala Nasri and young Iraqi pop sensation Rida Abdulla. Joining them will be an array of top-tier musicians, including Palestinian oud and violin ace Simon Shaheen.
"It is said that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," he says. "But I sure do hope that what happens on Nov. 21 goes beyond Vegas."
In any case, this trek to the desert, albeit a rather decadent desert, marks Khaled's own return to his musical traditions with his new album, 'Liberté.' In the last 18 or so years, he's ventured into a variety of settings -- working with producer Don Was on various projects (including Khaled's Maghreb-funk breakthrough 1992 single 'Didi,' the first Arabic song to chart in France), recording Jean-Jacques Goldman's politically tinged women's rights lyrics on the multinational and controversial 1996 French-language hit 'Aicha' and teaming with Carlos Santana on 2005's 'Love to the People' (seen here on a live YouTube video). This one, though, stands on a steady foundation of Rai dynamics, both in its lyrics of quests for spiritual and cultural meaning and in the music.
Some songs feature extended orchestrated instrumental introductions in the manner that spread across North Africa from Egypt in the mid- and late 20th century, with real strings recorded in Cairo. Synthesizers and other electronic production touches are given a more supportive role than in the more forwardly "modern" sounds he'd favored for some time. Key, he says, was recording it essentially live rather than engaging in a lot of studio fiddling around. Not that this is a conservative set, per se. And Rita Marley, widow of Bob, provides backing vocals on the song 'Raikoum' as she has on some previous Khaled sessions.
That balance can be heard very much in 'Sidi Rabbi,' with a swirl of ancient and modern sounds behind Khaled's distinctively pleading voice:
Khaled, 'Sidi Rabbi'
"This album represents not so much the return to the roots as a newfound freedom to do what I want with my music while still anchoring in the deepest traditions of Rai," Khaled says. "The themes of the songs and what I have done with the music all express the quest for liberty."
Khaled discussed further aspects of that in a wide-ranging Q&A conducted via translation from his North American manager (and the creative producer of the Vegas concert) Dawn Elder.
Around the World: There has been some interpretation of the album's title as you having "freed" yourself from the synthesizers and other production approaches of much of your music of recent years. Is that the way you look at it? Does it mean you don't like those other albums now?
Khaled: No, it means this album is a live album with live keyboards and traditional instruments. The difference is there was a little more liberty in innovating and being free to make music my way. In many of my other albums, especially with my song with Santana, 'Love to the People,' I got the opportunity to really express myself without any of the gimmicks. It was authentic and true to me. And when I recorded 'Aicha,' that was authentic and true to me, as was 'Didi' and working with Don Was and Jean-Jacques Goldman. We all grow, and each and every album we love as our children. And they all have their own individual identities. I have three beautiful daughters, and each of them has their own personality. And their own way is what makes them special -- no one is less or better than another.
Is this a permanent change, or might you return to "heavier" production in the future?
No, an artist has to grow. There should be no permanent change or it's stagnation.
Many of the songs on 'Liberté' seem to be about loss of innocence, loss of old ways, moving to a new and often hard life. 'Soghri' ["My Youth"; "My Childhood"] is quite heart-wrenching and sorrowful. What is the inspiration for this song?? Is it your own experience? The experience of your people?
It is my own experience as it is that of every human being. Gaining one's freedom was the inspiration for this song. It comes at the detriment of one's innocence. It is always painful to break out of one's mold and leaves some scars and memories. But if these scars and memories spur us to do something positive and something good then it is all worth the pain.
'Sidi Rabbi' ["My God"] is also quite moving and heartbreaking. But it is not as specific. It seems to be just a simple, deep prayer.
It is a prayer, and praying simple and to the point. It is repentance and a quest for forgiveness for all the pain I may cause to my loved ones, my parents in my quest for liberty.
There seems to be a very powerful story behind 'Zabana,' a tribute to an Algerian hero. Is this a key song on the album?
In this album, I pay my respects to many people who did leave a mark on my life. My father was among the ones who left the biggest impression. Zabana happens to also be a hero of mine. He was the first Algerian martyr to be beheaded by the French during the revolution. He died because of his quest for liberty. And yet his last message was a message of peace and love to all human beings. And this is what my album is all about: peace, love and liberty.
How did the Las Vegas concert come about?
The idea came from Dawn Elder. She and the MGM Grand wanted to bring together artists from all regions of the Arab world and North Africa, all uniting and celebrating their arts and culture -- and their children in honor of International Children's Day on Nov. 21.
The artists chosen are wonderful: Assala Nasri is the voice of the Arab world now. I had the opportunity to work with her on a TV show in Paris recently where we did an improv duet of an old Oum Kalthoum song and we had a great time with it. She has the most amazing voice -- and a great sense of humor and charisma. She is the real deal. And of course Simon Shaheen, he is my friend and buddy. His violin and oud sounds are like no other. He is amazing. And Rida Abdulla is one of the great new voices of Iraq and represents today's generation.
The orchestra of musicians and dancers will represent 21 countries in the Arab/North African world and America. We artists will all have our own band members with us, too, and they will be augmented by these amazing musicians, dancers and singers. And what is more important is that all the profits from the concert 100 percent go for the health and education of children.
Who do you think will be in the audience? Mostly people from the Arabic and North African world, or do you expect a lot of people who do not have those cultural roots?
I expect a wide range from all over America -- the combination of two worlds. There will be world music fans of all ethnicities as far as I know and expect. Arabs, Middle Easterners, North Africans, world music lovers, French, Italian, Asians, which is really what makes it so special. I love America in general for the reason it gives me a chance to play for people from all walks of life and with liberty, the freedom to make every moment different from the next on stage. There are always new experiences for me here, new musicians to meet, new artists to work with. And my audiences are so warm and appreciative. It's a great feeling. I have been hearing from everyone telling me they are coming. They can't believe I'm playing in Las Vegas. That is what makes Las Vegas so different. It's the melting pot of vacationers from around the world, so you can have a big mix in the crowds. When I tell my fans I am going to Las Vegas, it's like I'm giving them a reason to plan a special weekend getaway.