IT'S MIDNIGHT, AND I'M DRIVING AROUND PARIS WITH A FEW Americans, several French Algerians, and Mohamed Khelifati, a 35-year-old musician better known as Cheb Mami. It's his first night back from Oran—a city on Algeria's Mediterranean coast that's considered the capital of that country's popular music, or raï—and he has plans. The music is on loud in his silver sedan; it's a cut from a sound track he's working on, and when Mami starts to sing along with himself, the car is filled with a beautiful, high-pitched longing that silences the rest of us. It's in Arabic, but as Mami says, you don't need to understand the words, since everyone understands the feeling. And now the articulation of that feeling seems to transform the entire city moving past us. The Paris that was there a moment ago—the Louvre, the shops along Rue de Rivoli, the Tuileries—seems remade in the image of the Obélisque du Luxor, a gift from a 19th-century Egyptian viceroy that stands in the center of the Place de la Concorde. Mami taps in time on the steering wheel and turns to us.
"This," he says, "is how to listen to raï."
Mami, one of France's few pop superstars, embodies the country's current vogue for all things North African. Those under 40 have no experience of France's former holdings in the Maghreb (Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco); they embrace Arab culture with passion and more than a little nostalgia. It's a fascination dense with contradiction: North Africans are the main targets of racial discrimination in France, yet there's more of a Maghrebian flavor in French culture than ever before.
Our first stop is 404, a lively Moroccan restaurant in the Third Arrondissement, where we're given a balcony table. The crowd is mixed—half African, North and West; half hip white Parisians from the fashion and media worlds. While everyone recognizes Mami when he walks in with his manager, Michel Lévy, only the North Africans call out his name and greet him warmly. Especially the women. Mami is handsome, more so when he smiles. His smile is so guileless that it emboldens even the most reserved; he's often asked for his phone number. Is this how he spends his nights, giving out decoy phone numbers?
"No, no," he laughs. "I get recognized, but usually very respectfully. I have a normal life. I go out to dinner with friends, or a friend—sometimes here, sometimes at Mansouria. I'll go to a nightclub to dance. I love salsa." As much as raï?
"No, I love raï more than anything," Mami says. "I go to the cabarets all the time, like the Hammam Club. It was one of the first places where I performed in Paris. We'll go there later." (The Oriental cabarets, as they are known, date to the early part of the 20th century, when Algerians, displaced by French settlers, first came to Paris and Marseilles in large numbers.)
While our food is served—a hot Moroccan soup, assorted couscous dishes, a couple of bowls of harissa—Mami, Lévy, Nidam Abdi, a journalist and record producer, and Abdi's cousin Abdelkrim Tchikou sketch a history of raï.
However distinctly Maghrebian in origin, raï, like so much that issues from the joint history of France and Algeria, is a hybrid. Over the past 20 years or so, Western beats from rock and disco have been added to raï's own rhythms. And thanks largely to Mami—who's touring the United States this summer to promote his new album, Dellali—raï is at last making its way to the mecca of pop music, America.
"Madonna is a big fan of Mami's," Lévy says. "So is Brad Pitt."
But it was Sting, says Mami, "who really opened doors for me in America."