Ali Slimani was born and raised in El Anasser, a quiet and neatly respectable suburb of the Algerian capital Algiers which is home to the huge football stadium where the young Slimani used to power the chants on the terraces with his darbuka. Although his parents wanted him to become a doctor or lawyer, Ali Slimani developed a passion for music and the sounds of Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Alpha Blondy, Boney M and the Bee Gees.
He also inherited a deep love for the heroes of the popular traditional music of Algiers, which is called chaabi (also known as shaabi), men like Dahmane El Harrachi and Mohammed El Hadj El Anka. Then of course there was rai. Like every other Algerian teenager Ali fell under the spell of the plain speaking, tough living heroes of rai music from Oran: Cheb Khaled, Cheb Hamid, Cheikha Remitti and Cheb Abdelhak etc. ”The words were so important,” Slimani explains. “With rai you can sing about what you want, problems, women, love, no job. For my family the words were very bad and out of respect I couldn’t listen to rai music at home at that time. We used to go off with my friends to the beach to listen to it instead.”
Whilst busking near Sacre Coeur in Paris during a summer holiday in the early 1980s, Ali Slimani got chatting to an English girl who inspired him to go to London and after a two year stretch of military service in the Algerian infantry, he finally made it to the English capital. It was a very strange choice of destination for a young Algerian at that time.
Life was hard at first, with menial jobs and language problems, but eventually Slimani started to make himself an envious reputation as a rai DJ, with regular slots at the HQ in Camden and the Orange Club in west Kensington as well as plenty of work in the North African wedding party circuit.
As his notoriety grew he was asked to audition for Jah Wobble’s Invaders Of The Heart, who were looking for a percussionist and singer to replace Natasha Atlas. Percussion wasn’t a problem but Slimani had never thought of himself as a singer. But something clicked and Jah Wobble was seduced by his skills and easygoing manner.
For four headlong years, Ali Slimani became part of the epoch making Invaders of the Heart, touring the globe, taking globally flavored dub inspiration to the corners of the earth and eventually recording of Mraya, a landmark of modern rai-dub in which the whole Invaders of the heart crew: Jah Wobble, Sinead O’Connor, Justin Adams et al played their part. In the wake of the album’s success, Ali Slimani was asked to contribute vocals to Sinead O’Connor’s hit ‘Fire On Babylon’ and even appeared on Top of The Pops with the baldhead Irish diva, the first Arabic singer ever to penetrate this bastion of British Pop.
The real test of Ali Slimani’s mettle as a musician came when he went solo after The Invaders of the Heart. There’s no denying that times were tough and that Slimani needed all the survival instinct in his bones to keep carrying on. But all those years of hard work, hard touring and hard searching paid off with the release of Espoir. ”I think it’s better that I waited,” says Slimani. “I found the right people to work with and that’s important. When I met the producer Veronica Ferraro I said, ‘Ok, we’re going to do this album and we’ll do songs in nearly all the different styles from Algeria so it’ll be for everybody! That way it’ll be nicer.” Sure enough, Espoir features a myriad of different styles from Algeria, all of which have been given an modern and unashamedly electronic makeover.
Most of the material on the album was composed by Ali Slimani himself in partnership with other long-time musical collaborators like fellow Algerian Yazid Fentazi from the group Fantazia, a multi-instrumentalist, music obsessive and all round creative genius or the guitarist and producer Justin Adams, who is currently a cornerstone of Robert Plant’s new band. There are songs rooted in the urban chaabi tradition of Algiers like ‘Lirah’ and ‘Oulah Manansak’. There’s a song called ‘Elho’ from the Berber region of Kabylia, arranged by Slimani and Fentazi who is a Kabyl himself. ‘Sur La Route de Tamanrasset’ is inspired by Saharawi music from the deepest Sahara but was recorded in deepest Hackney, London. ‘Moi et Toi’ is a rai song about cultural conflicts in man-woman relationships. ‘El Arabia’ is an Arabic dub song co-written with Slimani’s long time friend Rootsman from Bradford.
Peace, hope and cooperation…these aren’t joke words, especially if you come from Algeria. Ali Slimani has brought together some of the greatest talents in North African music -Natacha Atlas, rapper Clotaire K, Yazid Fentazi, and singer Selma, whose husband was a victim of Algeria’s civil violence- to help him make an album that celebrates hope for a brighter future and for basic human understanding, rare commodities in these darkening times. ”When I look at Algeria in the last ten years, if you wanna know the truth, I feel bad,” he says. ”I cry, cry for my country. But hopefully it will get better, because it’s God’s will. Algeria will come back.”
[Edited from an original text by Andy Morgan. Courtesy of Nadia Chaouchi, Manager for Ali Slimani Abdelati.
Mraya (Real World Records, 1996)
Espoir [Hope] (2003)
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.