Raï is a music style that originated on the Algerian coast, best defined as a melding of all the cultures that reached the Algerian coast. There's the Arabic influence of the Muslim majority, the rich variety of North African music and Spain right across the sea. Looking at Khaled, the biggest name in the genre's history, you must also consider the atmosphere of 1999: Africa's biggest music market was France, so artists like Khaled could score by aiming for that audience. France wasn't removed from Western pop music, so even African artists reached into that grab bag to grab listeners. It's understandable why Khaled's "Kenza" is such a blend, for better or for worse. There are 15 tracks on the album, and the first five exemplify the distinct flavors.
Nos. 2 through 4 demonstrate Khaled reaching out to his international audience. "C'est La Nuit," the single most active in the charts, is a French ballad. A little sappy, but cool. "El Harba Wine," another single, is Bollywood all the way. If you couldn't tell from the Indian percussion and wall of strings, vocalist Amar joins in with the high, nasal style popular in the classical style of the Subcontinent. Khaled's own vocals are similar to Mahmoud Ahmed, jumping pace as emotion calls for. "Imagine" is the only Americanized song here, and yes, it's a John Lennon cover. In Khaled's defense, duetting with Israeli vocalist Noa makes Lennon's lyrics especially poignant, even if the lyrics are English.
For my money, Khaled is best when he sticks to what he grew up with. Opener "Aalach Tloumouni" blends pop sensibility into great Arabic music. There's a blend of traditional percussion with a Western drum set. Thumping bass notes add a hip-hop vibe to the pentatonic strings, combining two forms that both inspire dancing. It works because nothing gets watered down.
The same can't be said for every track on "Kenza." Track five, "Trigue Lycée" and follow-up "E'Dir E'Sseba" display an uncomfortable homage to the '80s. Khaled's roots music hangs around, but synthesizers, programmed rhythms and awkward background vocals are awkward throwbacks to R&B from a decade before.
The album continues for nine more songs following the five I've described. Most of it is less international by nature, but these songs better display Khaled's other talent: the accordion. The instrument finds a home in most of the album's latter tracks, but Khaled accupunks (what? It's not really "shredding" if it's an accordion. So I thought of a more appropriate motion and came up with the act of doing acupuncture. Boom. Now official) a solo on "Melha."
Ultimately, at 15 tracks and more than 78 minutes, "Kenza" is too long. It's tough to choose three more songs to remove aside from the first two I criticized, but when only five songs are less than five minutes, some cutting needs to be done. Raï may not be straight pop, but Khaled had popular success before "Kenza," so he knew what he was dealing with. Tom Moon recommended a different album from the artist's earlier years to check out, so let's look forward to that instead.
INTERESTING FACT: Khaled was born in Oran, the capitol of Raï. The form was heavily heavily by conservative, religious types, but the city has a long history with "debauchery." Oran was invaded by the Spanish during the 16th Century, and they reputedly kept a large number of concubines there to entertain its forces.