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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

In our yearlong series 50 Great Voices, we've been hearing about singers from around the world who've made a significant cultural impact in their own countries and beyond.

Today, the king of Rai, Algerian singer Khaled. Rai is a kind of North African music with roots in traditional folklore but whose sound and message are very much of today. Rai means opinion in Arabic. And as Banning Eyre explains, Khaled has plenty of them.

BANNING EYRE: It starts with the voice itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "RAIKOUM")

KHALED: (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: Khaled's voice is one of a kind. Robust and burly, reedy and refined, it blurs the line between anguish and ecstasy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "RAIKOUM")

KHALED: (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: Khaled Hadj Brahim was born in 1960 in the Mediterranean port city of Oran - Crazyville, he once called it - a place where Spanish, Moroccan, French, Arabic, American, Berber, Jewish and gypsy ideas and idioms collided.

KHALED: the 1950s war that freed Algeria from French colonialism and the religiously fueled civil war of the '90s. It was perfect timing: in a land driven by intolerance and violence, here was an artist of openness and peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIDI")

KHALED: (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: Khaled was also a bad boy, a playboy, a partier. He rejected the polite traditions of his country's poetry. He once told me that when a traditional poet wants to describe love, he talks about a pigeon.

W: I drink alcohol, I love a woman, I am suffering, I get to the point.

That did not sit well with the growing number of Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria. Khaled's songs were banned from state radio. But cassettes of his music found their way into homes all over the country. And after he performed a concert for 20,000 people in Algiers in 1985, his became the voice of a generation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KHALED: (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: This song says, run away, but to where? A line Khaled's Algerian peers understood as the expression of a young man's desire to avoid obligatory military service.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KHALED: (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: Soon, it became dangerous for Khaled to stay in Algeria. Artists and intellectuals were being killed by fundamentalists. Khaled fled to safety in France.

I first heard him sing at a gig outside Paris in 1992. For a man with such a big voice, he seemed surprisingly small with his bush of curly black hair and his million-dollar smile. The audience was mostly second generation North African immigrants. Many were wary of potential troublemakers in their midst. But when Khaled took the stage and released his defiant, gut cry, fear gave way to exuberance and joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIDI")

KHALED: (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: Khaled's 1992 song "Didi" became his ticket to international fame. He even sang it at the opening concert for this year's World Cup.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIDI")

KHALED: (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: Khaled has never really shaken that mischievous bad boy image. He's been in French courts more than once over domestic disputes. He's publicly railed against Muslim fundamentalists who he says have the mentality of the Stone Age. His collaborations with Jewish and American artists have irked even some moderate Muslims. But Khaled hews fiercely to his message of peace, love and personal freedom.

In the combative milieu of North Africa and the Middle East, those, too, can be fighting words. It doesn't bother Khaled. He just keeps smiling and singing, and damn the consequences.

NORRIS: Banning Eyre is senior editor at Afropop.org. There's more music from Khaled and the other 50 Great Voices at nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KHALED: (Singing in foreign language)

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