Cheb Mami, the “Little Prince of Rai,” first gained worldwide attention in 1999 when he collaborated with Sting on the hit single “Desert Rose,” performing with the pop star in a series of concerts, including the Grammy Awards in 2000 and the Super Bowl in 2001. He has long been known to followers of the musical genre known as rai, a style that originated in the singer’s native Algeria and spread through European cities with large Arab populations. In the first two decades of his career Mami did more than any other rai performer to broaden the music’s scope, retaining its distinctive, native sounds while adding elements from the music of other cultures.
Born Ahmad Khelifati on July 11, 1966, in Saida, Algeria, Mami began his career singing at weddings and circumcision ceremonies. His plaintive voice earned him the nickname “Mami,” which means “the mourner.” In 1982, at the age of 15, he participated in the lhan wa chabab contest, a popular radio program based in Oran, the home of rai.
Rai, which means “opinion” or “advice,” originated in the western Algeria port city of Oran. Its origins lie in the oral traditions of the Bedouin, and, as these
Began singing at marriage and circumcision ceremonies; won second prize in radio contest, 1982; first public performance at Premier Festival of Rai of Oran, 1985; toured Arab clubs in Paris, 1985; performed at Rai festivals in Paris and Bobigny, where he teamed with manager Michele Levy, 1986; performed at the Olympia Theater, Paris, 1986; relocated to Paris after completing military service, 1989; released album Prince of Rai, 1989; recorded and toured Europe and United States, 1990s; released Meli Meli, collaborated with Sting on “Desert Rose,” 1999; performed with Sting on Late Night with David Letterman and at the Grammy Awards, 2000, as well as the Super Bowl, 2001; released Dellali 2001.
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became less relevant in the modern urban environment, were adapted by new generations to suit new realities. Rai is the sound of the country, transplanted to the city, infused with a mélange of different musical traditions: Spanish, French, African American, and Arabic. While often commenting on universal themes such as romantic love, rai has also addressed social issues in a way deemed subversive and scandalous by both political and religious authorities.
The sound first caught on with the restive youth of Algeria in the early 1970s and was first frowned upon by Algerian authorities for its rebellious nature. The Rough Guide: World Music says that “[t]he shock value of modern rai is not so much its content, but a refusal to ‘contain’ potentially explosive material. By bringing the unspeakable out into the street, rai threatens the social order. The younger generation finally abandoned the double standards, and the rai phenomenon reflects a complete breakdown of the old order.”
As Algeria was torn by civil strife during much of the late 1980s and 1990s, rai was caught in the crossfire, and several of its leading local practitioners were killed. This resulted in an exodus of performers to the relative safety of European cities, where the musical form found a receptive audience among the immigrants and beurs (Algerians born in Europe). This exodus spread the music’s popularity beyond the borders of the Arab neighborhoods into the community at large.
When Mami placed second in the lhan wa chabab contest, he attracted the attention of a local recording label. He would, in the next few years, release a number of cassettes (the standard form of distribution for rai releases), which sold in the hundreds of thousands. Yet, given the organization of the industry in Algeria, Mami saw little profit from his efforts. In 1985 he made his first appearance at the Premier Festival of Rai of Oran; later that same year he toured Paris, performing in a number of Arab clubs, and he also appeared at the Rai Festivals of Villette and Bobigny. There he found a manager, Michele Levy. The following year he returned, performing at the legendary Olympia Theater in Paris. By the end of the decade, Mami had been crowned “The Prince of Rai” (his elder, Khaled, being the “King of Rai”).
As the political situation continued to unravel in Algeria, the ruling party squared off against Islamic fundamentalists, setting off the violence that would plague the country throughout the 1990s. Mami, like many rai singers, relocated to France after completing his military service. There he began to cultivate and expand his audience among the immigrants and beurs.
In 1989 Mami released Le prince du rai (Prince of Rai), his first recording to receive international distribution, on the French Sonodisc label. The following year he released Let Me Rai, which showed a considerable evolution from his debut, demonstrating his openness to outside musical influences. The album incorporated rock and dance elements, accentuating sinuous Arabic rhythms with funk- and reggae-influenced bass lines.
Mami’s next album, released in 1995, was entitled Saida, taking its name from the singer’s native village. This album continued Mami’s penchant for innovation, combining rap and rai. He was quoted by Banning Eyre on the Afropop Worldwide website saying, “young people in France listened to a little rai, and a lot of rap. Saida was the first time rai and rap were mixed. Now there are young rap singers in France who try to imitate us, the rai singers, and that is very encouraging.”
With the release of Meli Meli in 1999 Mami pressed forward, appropriating new musical forms and applying them to his own distinctive brand of rai. French rapper K-Mel of Alliance Ethnique guested on the track “Parisien du nord,” and the album included a remix of the title track by Gordon Cyrus (Neneh Cherry, Massive Attack) and Simon Law (Soul II Soul). The sophisticated fusion of rap, reggae, flamenco, and funk with Arabic pop grabbed the attention of British pop super star Sting, resulting in what would be for Mami a career-altering collaboration.
Sting invited the Algerian singer to collaborate on the song, “Desert Rose,” which went on to become a smash hit. In 2000 the two did a series of performances that included the Grammy Awards, a free concert in New York’s Central Park, the David Letterman Show, and, in 2001, the Super Bowl. Basking in his newfound success and high profile in the United States, Mami expressed his belief that rai was ready to expand its horizons to include the Western world. He was quoted by Bob Young of the Boston Herald as saying, “The reason I think people are grooving on rai music is that the rhythms and melodies are very infectious…. It’s like Bob Marley. (People) didn’t understand what Bob Marley was saying in Europe or in the Middle East but his rhythms were infectious.”
In 2001 Mami released Dellali, which expressed this confidence in the tune, “Le rai c’est chic.” The album includes Mami’s trademark eclecticism, utilizing Chic mastermind Nile Rodgers and Anglo-Indian producer Nitin Sawheny as producers. The instruments used include tablas, oud, accordion, and synthesizers, along with the more conventional bass, drum, and guitar. The album included guest spots by the late country legend Chet Atkins, Omar Hakim, Sting, and the London Community Gospel Choir. Dellali was the culmination of all of Mami’s previous work and reflected a resounding confidence in the viability of his music. As he told Billboard’s Jim Bessman, “the sound of rai is becoming more international, and with globalization and communication tools like the Internet and cable TV, there’s an opening of American and Western ears to the different tonalities, modes, and instruments of Arabic music.”
Mami’s daring innovations pushed rai to new levels of artistic sophistication, assuring its place as a vital component of world music. There are encouraging signs that the form is finding a new acceptance in the country of its origin and no longer considered suspect. In 1999, after an eight-year absence during which the country was riven by political and religious strife, Cheb Mami returned home to perform at an open-air concert in Algiers. The concert was a triumph, attracting an audience of 100,000. Speaking of this experience, Mami was quoted by Dan Rosenberg in the Metro Times as saying, “I have hope for Algeria’s future…. 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.”
Prince of Rai, Shanachie, 1989.
Let me Rai, Virgin, 1990.
Saida, Virgin, 1994.
Douni el Bladi, BSI & Virgin, 1996.
(With Khaled) 100% Arabica (soundtrack), 1997.
Meli Meli, Ark 21, 1999.
Dellali, Ark 21, 2001.
Broughton, Simon, Mark Ellingham, David Muddyman, and Richard Trillo, editors, World Music: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., London, 1994.
Austin Chronicle, November 2, 2001.
Billboard, August 11, 2001.
Boston Herald, July 11, 2001.
Metro Times (Detroit), July 11-17, 2001.
Middle East, December 2001, p. 45.
“Cheb Mami,” Afropop Worldwide, http://www.afropop.org (March 5, 2002).
“Cheb Mami,”All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 5, 2002).
World Music Portal, http://www.worldmusicportal.com (March 5, 2002).
"Mami, Cheb." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mami-cheb
"Mami, Cheb." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved June 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mami-cheb
Born: Mohamed Khelifati; Saida, southwest Algeria, 11 July 1966
Best-selling album since 1990: Saida (1994)
Hit songs since 1990: "Desert Rose"
Cheb Mami, also known as "the kid" or "the mourner" (nicknames earned during his early professional experience), hid in his mother's robes during village rituals to hear the percussion music and secret songs of the Bedouin "medda-hates" (traditional women's orchestras). Twice stymied in his attempt to break Algerian "rai" in the West, Mami has tried to popularize rai by bridging cultures, as in his collaboration with the singer Sting on the hit song "Desert Rose."
Mami was one of nine children, and from the age of twelve he earned money by adding his falsetto to the chorus of praise singers common at male banquets. In his teens, Mami would travel each weekend to Oran, the capital, to sing lewd and officially discouraged "rai" (truth), a partly improvised cabaret music.
Impressed by earlier modernizing Oran rai singers, Mami determined to rejuvenate the genre by applying Western instrumental arrangements to traditional Algerian scales and rhythms. He also wanted to create a "family rai" that would transcend the confines of its association with male decadence to find a broader respectability and acceptance.
In 1982, the sixteen-year-old Mami finished second in a singing competition organized by Radio Television Algerienne. That accolade brought him to the attention of Boualem, the producer of the Oran label Disco Maghreb. From 1982 to 1985, Mami recorded ten album-length cassettes for the label. Each release typically sold 100,000 to 200,000 units, with the singer earning only a very small cut.
In 1985, having severed ties with Maghreb, Mami made his first official public appearance at the First Oran Rai Festival. On a trip to France later that year, Mami found his music had preceded him and won him a significant audience. Invitations to the Bobigny and La Villette festivals and meetings with the manager Michel Levy convinced him to remain in Paris, where he recorded "Douni El Bladi" ("Take Me Back Home") and "Ouach Tsalini" ("I Don't Owe You a Thing").
Mami suspended his career from 1987 to 1989 to serve in the Algerian army, but upon his discharge he was welcomed back to Paris as the "Prince of Rai." He performed at the New Morning club and toured France, New York, Canada, Italy, Holland, West Germany, and England, making a notable stop at Peter Gabriel's WOMAD festival, which introduced rai's keening vocals and North African disco rhythms to British tastemakers.
Mami recorded Prince of Rai (1989) in the United States, but the first Gulf War foiled his attempt to establish an Arab music in America, and his album was banned on all French radio stations. Caught between Western anti-Islamic sentiments and fanatical elements in his homeland, Mami reached out to second-generation French Arabs with his trancelike songs "Haoulou" and "Douha Allia."
Virgin Records provided international distribution of Mami's third album, Saida (Happy) (1994), a tribute to his hometown. Saida attempted to give rai a high-tech sound appealing to Western audiences. It was produced in Los Angeles by Neneh Cherry and Paula Abdul, sold 100,000 copies in France, and won Double Golden Disc and Golden Disc Awards in Algeria and Morocco, respectively.
Mami raised his profile with a concert at the Zenith Auditorium coinciding with Ramadan in February 1996. He toured Japan, Brazil, and Scandinavia during the months he was onscreen with his rival Cheb Khaled in the musical comedy 100% Arabica, directed by Mahmoud Zemmouri. Sponsored by the French government, he sang at Bastille Day celebrations that year in both New York and Los Angeles. He appeared at the Zenith again during Ramadan two years later to introduce his rai-rap-techno-ska-funk-reggae-gypsy fusion sound from Meli Meli (1998) with guest artists Idir of Kabyle, Imhotep, and the rapper K.mel.
Rai singers in Algeria have faced death threats and assassination. Mami has declined to perform at home, but returned on July 5, 1999, for a concert of symbolic and political importance at the foot of the "Sanctuaire des Martyrs", drawing some 100,000 listeners. Soon after Mami was invited by Sting to record a song for his new album and perform at New York City concerts in December; Mami was also co-billed with the disco star Gloria Gaynor at a New Year's Eve concert at an oasis in the Tunisian desert and performed with Sting and Burundi diva Khadja Nin in January 2000 at Bercy Stadium in Paris.
Following a Middle East concert tour with Sting, Mami released Dellali (2001), produced by Nile Rodgers of the band Chic and featuring the French singer Charles Aznavour, reggae's Ziggy Marley, and the American guitarist Chet Atkins, among other crossover artists. Mami's pure, bright voice and injection of Mediterranean and modern influences into rai remain to be discovered by broader audiences.
Prince of Rai (Shanachie, 1989); Saida (Blue Silver, 1994); Cheb Mami MeliMmeli (Mondo Melodia, 1999); Dellali (Mondo Melodia, 2001). With Sting: Brand New Day (Universal/A&M, 1999); Desert Roses & Arabian Rhythms (Mondo Melodia, 2001).
"Mami, Cheb." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mami-cheb
"Mami, Cheb." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Retrieved June 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mami-cheb