Cheb Mami’s name may not be on the tip of your tongue, but odds are his music is. Over the past decade, this Algerian native has skyrocketed to the top of the world’s Arabic rai (pronounced “rye”) music scene with a dynamic mix of reggae, hip hop, salsa, blues, funk and North African rhythms. While his delicate, often fluttering vocals have earned him millions of adoring fans across Europe and North Africa, it was his recent collaboration with Sting, “Desert Rose,” that first introduced Cheb Mami to mainstream North American audiences. The smash hit led to television appearances on “Saturday Night Live,” “Today,” with Jay Leno and David Letterman, on the Grammy Awards telecast and even a live performance at the Super Bowl.
Mami grew up in the southwest Algerian city of Saida in a family of factory workers. He began singing and playing the accordion on Saida’s dusty streets; by 1980, at the age of 14, Mami could be found singing at circumcision ceremonies and weddings. “Traditional weddings in Algeria are incredibly long,” explains the diminutive singer. “They often last for days.”
Even then, Mami’s North African fusion was called rai (Arabic for “opinion”), but was shunned publicly by Algerian authorities who banned the genre from the airwaves, considering it “vulgar” and, at times, politically confrontational.
“The media and elite detested rai and its sexual undercurrents,” he adds. “But the people loved it, like the blues. Rai was the music that could be heard on the streets, in the poor neighborhoods.”
It was in Paris, however, where Mami found his musical launching pad, fusing blues, funk, salsa, reggae, hip hop and Algerian rhythms, while integrating touches of his idols Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding and French rapper MC Solaar.
“I first came to Paris in 1985 to buy new instruments for my band,” explains Mami, “adding bass, drums, synthesizer and guitars to our lineup of flute, accordion and darbouka (Middle Eastern percussion).”
Mami was forced to return to Algeria to serve in the military, working for two years as an entertainer on army bases. Following that stint, he returned to France, and began making recordings and performing in cabarets in the Paris suburb of Barbès; the French equivalent of Dearborn, it’s a diverse community of recent Arab immigrants from Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.
As civil war raged in Algeria following the army’s nullification of the 1992 election that the Islamic Salvation Front was expected to win, more and more of the top rai musicians arrived in France. In that decade, the death toll in Algeria topped 100,000.
“I was shocked to see my country descend into horror,” explains Mami. “But as a singer, it was a form of combat. Every concert where I saw kids with Algerian flags, it was our resistance.”
It was during this period that fellow Algerian superstar Khaled stunned chart-watchers with hits — “Didi” and “Aicha” — that reached No. 1 in France. The event put rai directly in the mainstream of the French music scene and, for once, Khaled and Mami found their CDs in the “pop” sections of major record stores, with sales topping six figures. Although they were across the Mediterranean, these rai musical rebels couldn’t escape the carnage as Algerian militants launched a series of assassinations, which culminated with the killing of rai star Cheb Hasni. Consequently, Mami was unable to perform in his homeland.
“I wasn’t afraid of doing a concert there,” he says, “but I did not want to have a concert unless people could feel at ease, and that can’t happen in an environment of terrorism where people are killing each other, and even children.”
Throughout that period, rai remained a leading force of protest in Algeria. After an eight-year absence, Mami returned to Algeria’s capital, Algiers, for an open-air concert in 1999 that attracted a staggering crowd of 100,000.
“I have hope for Algeria’s future,” he adds. “This concert was to raise morale and to turn the page after all that has happened in Algeria. I hope, above all, that this concert will lead other singers to return home after me.”
That same year Mami himself topped the French pop charts with a groundbreaking duet with French rapper K-Mel, “Parisien du Nord.” The song was an anthem against racism that seamlessly made the transition between hip hop and rai, and introduced throngs of young new audiences to rai.
“It is a song against racism, so I wanted to sing it with a North African who was born in France,” explains Mami. “Because of that and because of his talent, I chose K-Mel. In the song, we say, ‘In your eyes, I feel like foreigner.’ It’s like the kids who were born in France but they have Arab faces. They are French, and they should be considered French.”
Still residing in Paris, Mami has also seen significant changes in France. “When I arrived, people were put into boxes. They were seen only as part of a clan: the Maghreb clan, the African clan, the Chinese clan and the French. Now it’s different. Thanks to music, thanks to sport, thanks to theater and film, there are people who identify with these actors, athletes and singers. For example, there are people in France who say, ‘I want to play like Zidane’ (the leader of the French soccer team that won the World Cup championship in 1998). He is not thinking in his head that Zidane is from Algeria or the Maghreb — he is thinking that Zidane is the best football (soccer) player in the world. The same is happening with rai music in France.”
Last year saw Mami reach new heights with the remarkable success of “Desert Rose,” Sting’s global chart-topper.
“Cheb Mami is one of the greatest voices in world music today, a truly gifted singer,” boasted Sting, who asked Mami to compose a countermelody along with a series of Arabic lyrics for “Desert Rose.” Mami’s distinct fluttering vocals and rai’s seemingly endless ability to meld itself with other genres proved to be a perfect musical combination for this pop hit.
Now, Mami is back in the United States, with both a new CD and a concert tour. His new release, Delalli (Dearest One), may be the album that enables him to challenge Khaled’s title of “rai’s king.” Delalli is Mami’s most consistent recording, full of state-of-the-art production by Nile Rodgers (whose résumé includes work for Peter Gabriel, David Bowie and Diana Ross). While the opening track, “Le Rai C’est Chic” — an energetic dance track featuring Mami’s biggest fan, Sting, on backing vocals — is destined to get most of the mainstream media attention (and radio airplay), what is most remarkable about Dellali is that, on the whole, it stands along with some of Khaled’s classic recordings such as Sahra and N’ssi N’ssi as one of the best rai recordings ever.
Dellali is a nonstop exploration of Mami’s remarkable range. With “Viens Habibi,” he puts together a brilliant mix of electric guitar-driven rai, funk and reggae, while on the tender “Tzazae” he returns to rai’s roots in an acoustic production set to accordion, violin and tabla. Mami seamlessly darts between rai and French chanson on the romantic “Yahamami,” and even brings in a gospel choir on “Ana Oualache.” Dellali is sure to be a major hit in French and Arabic nightclubs.
While it may be some time before Mami’s records get moved from the “world music” to the “pop” sections, it seems inevitable that he is well on his way to emerging, on this side of the Atlantic, from behind Sting’s shadow as a star in his own right.
Cheb Mami performs Saturday, July 14, at 5:15 p.m. on the Main Stage at Chene Park in downtown Detroit (at Atwater and Chene, on the Detroit River). The official concert schedule can be found at www.concertofcolors.org.
Be sure to check out the rest of MT's special features in celebration of the Concert of Colors: