KHALED with HAKIM at Massey Hall (178 Victoria), Saturday (February 16). $29.50-$96.50. 416-872-4255. Rating: NNNNN
the algerian elvis is feeling more like a goodwill ambassador than the king of rai right now. A day after preaching peace and global unity at the controversial World Economic Forum in New York and hanging out in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel with Bill Gates, Bono and Kofi Annan, Khaled is still speaking about saving the world and fighting terrorism through music.
That's expected of you when you're the biggest Arabic music star on the planet, but it's still a stunning turnaround for the singer known worldwide as the flashy figurehead of Algeria's music of dissent.
With his elastic voice, cinema good looks and pop-star flair, Khaled quickly became the biggest star of the wildly popular and equally volatile Algerian blues.
His bootlegged cassettes sold in the millions, his concerts filled football stadiums with hundreds of thousands of ecstatic fans and his self-described "red wine and women" lifestyle in Paris boiled the blood of Algeria's Muslim fundamentalists, who tried repeatedly to have him killed.
Not exactly the obvious choice for feel-good spokesman, but perhaps even the great playboy has been tempered by the post-September 11 chill.
"The WEF thing was a great party, hanging out with my brothers Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock and Bono," Khaled offers from Washington, DC, through a translator. "I was supposed to be entertainment, but there was more to it than that.
"I have a message of peace to bring. I don't really feel comfortable being called the king of rai any more. I feel more like an ambassador.
"I'm bringing my music and my culture into all parts of the world. I want to show a picture of the people of Algeria. It's not the scene you see on TV.
"We have fun and enjoy life. We have a beautiful soul and culture and music, and it's important that I bring that picture to the Americans with my music, especially now."
Khaled's music is the perfect vehicle for his message. With a name that literally means "opinion,' rai began as wedding music in coastal Algeria in the 1960s, featuring singers crooning about partying, girls and the news of the day.
With its dance-floor-friendly beats and incendiary lyrics, rai soon became the voice of rebellious North African youth culture and was eventually banned from Algerian state radio. That didn't stop the music; it developed from a cassette-based culture to a massive industry boasting superstars and cultural icons like Cheb Hasni, Cheb Mami and Khaled.
The rapid development of rai mirrored Khaled's own progression from a singer who churned out rough basement-recorded tracks to the star of slick African fusion records made with name producers like Don Was and Steve Hillage.
His massive 1992 single, Didi, was an explosive, string-drenched funk track that turned up on Europe's hippest dance floors and featured North African elements as well as the strong influence of western club culture, jazz and reggae.
It's a tricky mix, and it doesn't always work. Khaled's 1999 disc, Kenza, features some churning, elastic grooves but also a horrifyingly gooey English-language cover of Imagine. Still, fusion has always been a fundamental part of rai, and Khaled helped bring this aspect of the music to full fruition.
"Until I was 26, I was locked up in Algeria," he explains. "I couldn't travel, so the only music I heard was what was smuggled into the country."
Most of that was music from other African countries, but very little pop or rock.
"When I was finally able to leave, I was able to spread rai out to the rest of the world but also hear different styles of music and instruments that I'd never heard before, like electric bass, sitar and funky guitars.
"I'm open to every sound, and those who criticize me for that don't matter. They're jealous because they can't sell the amounts of records I do."
The result of this experimentation is Khaled's rare strain of modern African music. With one foot rooted in tradition and the other in the clubs, Khaled's propulsive version of rai is often intense and fiery as well as achingly soulful.
It's the opposite of the quaint acoustic music that sandal-wearing "world music" fans would prefer to think is African music.
"We woke up modern," Khaled exclaims. "We're living in a modern age. Rock and roll didn't change when it went from an acoustic bass to an electric bass. The same with rai. People have always got to keep walking forward.
"The only people who really want African music to remain traditional are the anthropologists. I am a music scientist."
Traditionalists aren't the only ones on Khaled's back. Algeria's notorious Islamic fundamentalists haven't limited their distaste for the so-called "decadent" lifestyles of rai musicians to idle verbal condemnation.
Khaled was forced to move from Algeria to Paris in the mid-80s. The wave of attacks against rai singers launched by fundamentalists shortly thereafter culminated in the assassination of rai star Cheb Hasni in 1994.
"We were told we were making the music of Satan," Khaled quietly recounts. "It wasn't just us rai singers who were threatened, though. The fundamentalists used to kill all the journalists as well as the musicians. It was like the era of Hitler, where even the kids who didn't talk were killed.
"Our plight was noticed because we were famous, but the situation went much deeper than that. They kept saying to me, "We'll kill you if you say anything and we'll kill you if you sing.' In truth, they would have killed me if I stayed quiet, too. The only thing I could do was sing. That was my weapon."
A more moderate government may finally have lifted Algeria's 8 pm curfew and eased tensions since then, but Khaled hasn't exactly been welcomed back to his homeland with open arms.
In fact, his return to Algeria in November 2001 to headline a benefit raising funds for victims of massive flooding and mudslides was the first time he'd played at home in over 15 years.
"It was terrifying," Khaled laughs. "We had an incredible amount of security, but I was still very nervous because anything could have happened. They could have shot me. Instead, I was embraced.
"I've performed all over the world, but that remains the best show I've ever done. Just to smell the soil and see the Algerian people was amazing.
"The people were even more excited. They needed me. After all that rain, I brought sunshine." firstname.lastname@example.org lives
Black History Month is nothing without music. In fact, you could legitimately claim that any funk, jazz, hiphop, house, jungle or R&B show in the month of February is an unofficial Black History Month event. There are, however, several shows specially booked around the 28-day celebration that specifically reflect the influence of black culture on music. These are some of the best.
NUBIAN MESSENGER SERIES African jazz and beyond in a series curated by Radio Nomad's Waleed Abdulhamid. February 20 and 27, Bamboo.
ETHNIC HERITAGE ENSEMBLE AACM vets play Afro-futurist jazz. February 22, Artword Theatre.
THOMAS MAPFUMO Zimbabwe's rebel voice brings the funk. February 22, Bamboo.
NATHANIEL DETT CHORALE Afrocentric chorale sings jazz, blues, gospel and more. February 24, ROM.
VIBE 2002 A night of spoken word, storytelling and hiphop featuring Sankoah, K-OS, Motion and Divine Earth Essence. February 26, Hart House Theatre.