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The traditional music of Algeria is combined with Spanish, Moroccan, French, and Arabic influences to create the dance-inspiring sounds of "the Prince of Rai," Cheb Mami (born Khelifati Mohamed). Cheb Mami's music was described in a press release from the ARK 21 record label, as "Arabic rock & roll retaining virtues of traditional music but infused with urban urgency." Reviewing his 1999 album, Meli Meli, CMJ New Music Report wrote, "As perhaps rai's most popular vocalist, Cheb Mami is one of the leaders of the pack, turning the genre into a futuristic dance/funk hybrid with the power to pack the dancefloors of North Africa, Paris, and New York."
A native of Saida, a small village in southwest Algeria, Cheb Mami has been attracting attention with his soulful singing since his early teens. In 1971, he placed second in a talent contest organized by Ihan Wa Chabab.
Despite recording several successful cassettes in the 1980s, he made little money from their sale. Frustrated by the music industry in his homeland, he soon began to consider alternatives. Although he served a stint in the Algerian military, he relocated to Paris, France, following his discharge in 1975. With the release of his first internationally-distributed album, The Prince of Rai, in 1989, Cheb Mami reached the upper echelon of rai music. Cheb Mami has continued to take the rai tradition to new heights. Meli Meli featured a song, "Parisian du Nord," performed with rap singer K-Mel of Alliance Ethnique and a remix of the title track, which featured help from Gordon Cyrus (Neneh Cherry, Massive Attack) and Soul II Soul's Simon Law.
The new millennium was a much more pivotal time for Mami, for his collaboration with Sting on his mainstream hit, "Desert Rose," marked the first duet with a Western singer and an Eastern artist. Mami's rai background was full-fledged at last, allowing him to release Dellali (2001) without much music-industry political restraint.
Ahmed Khelifati Mohamed (Arabic: أحمد خليفاتي محمد, aḥmad khalīfātī muḥammad) better known by his stage name Cheb Mami (Arabic: شاب مامي, shābb māmī), (born in Saïda, Algeria on 11 July 1966) is an Algerian raï singer. He sings and speaks in Algerian Arabic and French.Azpiri, Jon. "Cheb Mami – Dellali". AllMusic. All Media Network. Retrieved 16 October 2014.
Cheb Mami was born in Graba-el-wed (Arabic: غربة الواد), a populous quarter of Saïda (Arabic: سعيدة), Algeria. Located 170 kilometres south of Oran, the city of Saida is on the high mesas of southwestern Algeria. Cheb Mami grew up to a family of factory workers. He began singing and playing the accordion on Saida streets and by 1980 began performing at local weddings and ceremonies.
In 1982, the 16-year-old adolescent sang on the Alhan wa Chabab radio show, a singing competition organised by Radio Télevision Algérienne. He sang "El Marsam" (The Sanctuary) a classic of Oranese music from the 1920s. The audience was transfixed by the sheer emotion of his performance and by his concordant vocal intonations which captured perfectly the flavour of the song's title. The judges, who represented the government which refused to admit even the existence of raï, gave the first prize to the contestant that sang a cover version of a hit by the famous Egyptian diva, Umm Kulthum, but were forced to acknowledge the standing ovation Mami received by awarding him second prize.
Cheb Mami was spotted by Boualem, the producer of the Oran label, Disco Maghreb, and the cassette waltz began.Metro Times - Music: Rai rebel RFI Musique Biography of Cheb Mami
It was in 1985 that Mami came to Paris and found his musical niche. Raï fused blues, funk, salsa, reggae, hip hop and Algerian rhythms, while integrating touches of his idols Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding and French rapper MC Solaar.
Cheb Mami made his first official public appearance at the First Oran Raï Festival in 1985, which marked the official recognition of the genre by the Algerian authorities.
He was in military service for two years in Algeria but was an entertainer on army bases. After that, in May 1989, Mami returned to Paris at the Olympia, rejuvenating raï music. He began making recordings and performing in cabarets in the Paris suburb of Barbès. He also toured the United States, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Scandinavia and England.
Mami's music is a blend of Mediterranean and Western influences including Turkish, Flamenco and Greek music as well as Latin music. His voice is tinged with Andalusian accents, and his music is an amalgamation of the traditional and the modern styles of singing and creation of music.
In 1999, Mami 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 raï, and introduced throngs of young new audiences to raï. This song explores the racist issues between Arabs and French and the challenges of identity.
When Sting's album Brand New Day was released in 1999, the pair's duet, "Desert Rose", appeared on singles charts around the world, and led to television appearances on Saturday Night Live, the Today Show, Jay Leno, David Letterman, the Grammy Awards telecast and even a live performance at the Super Bowl.
Soon after his collaboration with Sting, Mami's released perhaps his most successful recording, the album Dellali, produced by former Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers. The album's lead single was "Le Raï C'est Chic", on which Sting returned the favor by providing backing vocals.
These successes fulfilled Mami's long-held dream of internationalising raï sounds, and has led him to be called the "Prince of Raï". Although Mami has been able to be recognized by mainstream media in the United States, Americans often equate his raï music genre with rock in the US during the 1950s and 1960s. Americans believe raï to be "North African punk," a genre of music for the purpose of rebelling against the government and resembling the music of ‘young rockers’ in the US, when in reality this music plays a very different role in the life of the North African diasporic community in France. Although raï does include narratives of the various struggles of this community against "the Algerian state or against the forces of ‘tradition’", it is also the "music of the racialized Other" which chronicles struggles with racism and identity of North African people in France.Cite error: The named reference RFI_Musique_Biography_of_Cheb_Mami was invoked but never defined (see the help page). Cite error: The named reference autogenerated1 was invoked but never defined (see the help page). Rosenberg, Dan. (2001). "Cheb Mami." Afropop Worldwide. Accessed on 19 March 2008 from http://www.afropop.org/explore/album_review/ID/1032/Dellali Rosenberg, Dan. (2001). "Cheb Mami." Afropop Worldwide. Accessed on 19 March 2008 from http://www.afropop.org/explore/album_review/ID/1032/Dellali. Gross, Joan, David McMurray, and Ted Swedenburg. "Arab Noise and Ramadan Nights: Rai, Rap, and Franco-Maghrebi Identities." Diaspora 3:1 (1994): 3- 39. [Reprinted in The Anthropology of Globalization: A Reader, ed. by Jonathan Xavier and Renato Rosaldo, 1
Arrest, imprisonment and release
Mami was under an international arrest warrant after being indicted in October 2006 for "voluntary violence, sequestration and threats" against an ex-girlfriend, and failing to answer a court summons on 14 May 2007. He was accused of having tried to force Isabelle Simon, his former girlfriend and a magazine photographer, to have a forced abortion. During a trip to Algeria in the summer of 2005, the victim Isabelle Simon was locked in a house belonging to one of Mami's friends, where an abortive procedure was attempted on her. Back in France, however, she realized the fetus was still alive; she later gave birth to a daughter. Mami had accused his manager Michel Lecorre (a.k.a. Michel Levy) of organizing the abortion plan; Michel Levy was later sentenced to four years for plotting and organizing the assault.
Mami was arrested in France several days before his trial; he was taken into custody by officials at a Paris airport as he arrived into the country from Algeria on 22 June 2010. The following July, a Paris court found him guilty of drugging and attempted forcible abortion, and sentenced him to five years in prison.
On 21 September 2010, his lawyers applied for conditional release, a request that was turned down on 12 October 2010. Upon a second appeal however, the French court agreed for his conditional release on 23 March 2011.Afrik with El Watany: L’avocat de Michel Lévy répond à Cheb Mami (in French) Daily Telegraph article: Cheb Mami sentenced to five years in forced abortion case "Arrest warrant issued for Algerian singer" (accessed 29 May 2007) "French issue international warrant for Algerian singer Cheb Mami" (accessed 29 May 2007) « Cheb Mami retourne devant le tribunal », Peoplestar.tv, Retrieved on 2008-10-16. "Rai star, forced French abortion" (BBC News, Tuesday, 30 June 2009 BBC report: Rai star jailed for abortion bid Le Parisien: Cheb Mami, la star du raï, reste en prison (in French) Le Figaro: Cheb Mami est en liberté conditionnelle (in French)