Cheb Mami - Biography
Cheb Mami is a French/Algerian raï singer who is probably the best-known raï artist in the world due to his collaboration with Sting on “Desert Rose,” a track from Sting’s 1999 album Brand New Day (A&M). His collaboration with Sting marked the first time a raï singer received mainstream exposure. When “Desert Rose” was used in a Jaguar commercial, the single exploded in Europe and the US. Mami performed the song at the Super Bowl and the Grammy Awards, becoming the first to perform Arabic music at either event.
Mami was born Khelifati Mohamed in Saïda, Algeria. He was already known as a strong singer when he was a small boy and won his first talent contest at the age of five. At the age of 12 he was singing professionally at traditional Bedouin ceremonies, amazing people with his powerful falsetto. By 16, Mami was singing professionally, fronting the group Al Azhar. Raï, which literally translates as “opinion” in Arabic, is a hybrid pop music that was created in the recording studios of Oran. It combines Bedouin folk music with rock, hip-hop, electronica, and other Arab, African, Spanish, and French influences.
Mami made several cassettes between 1982 and 1985 that were successful (some selling hundreds of thousands of copies), but he was paid little for his accomplishments. In 1985, he moved to Paris to pursue his career and was soon headlining the Monseigneur, the Omar Khayam, and the Khaïma — the city’s top Arab music venues. In 1986, Mami became the first raï singer to headline the l’Olympia. In France, he earned the title he used as the name of his first internationally released album, 1989’s Prince of Raï (Shanachie). [Cheb Khaled was the acknowledged King of Raï at the time.] Prince of Raï neatly combines traditional music with pop and uses live musicians instead of the electronic backing tracks that raï usually employed.
1990’s Let Me Raï (Rhythm Safari) was one of the first raï albums recorded in the US, and its slick LA production allowed it to crossover to world music listeners. Unfortunately, the start of the first Gulf War put an end to Arab music on American and French radio for the next few years. Meanwhile, some of Mami’s early songs from Algeria were released as Le Prince du Raï, Vol. 1 (1994) and Le Prince du Raï, Vol. 2 (1994) by Sonodisc in France.
In 1995, Mami regained his momentum with Saïda (Virgin), which was produced by Neneh Cherry and Paula Abdul in Los Angeles, and distributed internationally. Saïda went gold in France, Algeria, and Morocco. He followed up in 1996 with Douni el Bladi (Virgin) and then Let Me Cry (Blue Silver France) in 1998, which was his first album to feature a song in English. In 1997, he co-starred in an Arab musical comedy film with Khaled called 100% Arabica. Turning the tides of fame for Mami forever, Sting asked Mami to collaborate on his song “Desert Rose” in 1991. Mami was an international star by the end of the year. He toured with Sting to support the single and played to sold out crowds throughout the Middle East.
2001’s Dellali — cut for Miles Copeland’s new Ark 21 label with Nile Rodgers producing — brings house, Flamenco, reggae, and African music to the raï party. It features Charles Aznavour on “Viens Habibi,” Ziggy Marley on “Madanite,” and includes the guitar work of Chet Atkins. After the September 11th attacks on New York resulted in another wave of anti-Arab sentiment, Mami’s sales slumped again despite the fact that he had always been a champion of human rights.
Du Sud au Nord (2004 Virgin) returned him to the French charts in 2004. The ambitious album featured collaborations with hip-hop activist K Mel, Ziggy Marley, Aswad, Sting, and Moroccan star Samira Saïd. Mami performed the album live at the Grand Rex and a recording of the date, Live au Grand Rex 2004 (Virgin France), became a hit CD and DVD upon its release in 2006. Layali (EMI France), cut in Cairo and Beirut, features Kadim El Sahir (king of the Arab pop world) and a duet with French rap star Diam on “Non c'sera non.” Layali, released in 2006, was Mami’s most recent and possibly last release as Mami and his manager Michel Levy are currently in jail for drugging and attempting a forcible abortion on Mami’s former girlfriend. Incongruent to Mami’s public image, the scandal could prove fatal to his international career.