From Algiers to London: Abdel Ali Slimani gets an Invasion of the Heart

Algerian raï singer Abdel Ali Slimani released his debut album, Mraya, on Real World Records in January 1995. Mraya, which means 'mirror', reflects the formative experiences of the North African singer as part of Jah Wobble's Invaders of the Heart; and also allows him to look at himself and examine the influences that have brought him thus far on his musical journey.

In many ways, good fortune and self-belief are obviously the main architects of Ali Slimani’s destiny. A small bundle of kinetic Algerian energy, he has been a main player on the underground but highly active Algerian scene in London for some seven years. He has also been instrumental in taking the rebellious pop of Algeria’s youth —called raï, or ‘opinion’— to British audiences.

Ali was born in May ‘62 in Ruisseau, a small town in Algiers. “Taurus— nice people,” he says, with typical, engaging immodesty. “Good family. Not very rich, not very poor.”

His early music performances centred around the local football stadium. “Sometimes I’d go to matches with my friends and they’d get me to sing. We’d take instruments to watch the game, drums play music. It was brilliant— especially if our team beat someone like Oran.”

Abdel as a child.
 

At home music was a variety of traditional and Western. “Chaabi: old style music. Raï wasn’t around then. Sometimes they’d put gigs like Bob Marley, Michael Jackson or big African bands on telly. It wasn’t like England. You hear maybe Elvis, Jacques Brel. Julio Iglesias was very popular.”

Then, at 16, a friend invited Ali to a typical ‘cabaret’ or music show in a tent— a suitably anonymous venue for ‘anti-social’, rebel raï.

This first experience was formative— one of raï’s soon-to-be superstars, Cheb Khaled, was plying his wares. “He wasn’t known outside the cabaret circuit then really. He played the accordion. For me it was like a coup de feu [a gunshot]. Boom! So different to what I’d heard before. People smoking, drinking, belly dancing. And his voice! Brilliant!”

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"For me it was like a coup de feu [a gunshot]. Boom! So different to what I’d heard before. People smoking, drinking, belly dancing. And his voice! Brilliant!" Abdel Ali Slimani on Cheb Khaled's music

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“He had songs about love. Problems in the family. I especially remember a song when everyone was drunk: ‘Give me more more more’ —talking to the barman! It was really rebellious.”

The diminutive livewire began playing percussion himself at weddings. “But one song takes maybe fifteen minutes. You’d be very tired, I’m telling you. Good experience, though.”

At 18 National Service, fortuitously taking him to Oran, unofficial capital of the new youth music, encouraged Ali in his new ambition to be a musician. But opportunities were limited.

Photo credit: John Sleeman

Resolving to try his luck in Europe, Ali found himself in Paris in the early ‘80s and strayed for a few years, enjoying the melting pot culture of the barbesse. One day, he was strumming guitar outside the Sacre Coeur.

“I was playing this song ‘Mraya’ [title track of his album]. It’s my favourite song. I always loved it. I’d sing it round the house to my mum. And I met this English girl who told me to come to England.” The idea appealed.

England was hard work. “Very nice country, very quiet,” he recalls. “But I don’t speak English at all: ‘I love you’, ‘yes’ and ‘no’….”

“We went to Piccadilly: no Algerians— what are we going to do? For years we never met another Algerian.” Ali married and settled down with an English woman, quietly building up his collection of raï, sent from home. Living in London exposed him to reggae too.

Then the Algerians started to show themselves. Pretty soon, a couple invited Ali to mix a raï session for their wedding, and news spread that here was an Algerian DJ who knew his stuff. Hawking his wares around London’s world beat club nights, Ali’s big break came in 1989, when he was invited to spin the tunes at the Empire Leicester Square for the phenomenal debut of raï legends Chaba Fadela and Cheb Sahraoul.

Ali said to his friends, “’This is my best chance. I need to do it nice, or else it’s finished.’ I practised at home all week beforehand.” The sensational show —and DJ Ali’s raï mix— was a watershed for Algerians in the capital, but for wide-eyed Londoners too.

Abdel Ali Slimani on stage with Jah Wobble's Invaders of the Heart during the 1993 WOMAD tour of the USA. Photo credit: Chris Cuffaro.

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“I might not have been a musician, but it was something,” he smiles. “Then I got a phone call from David Jaymes.” Jah Wobble’s manager sent him the Invaders’ Without Judgement. “I was very surprised. The music wasn’t right for me. I thought, ‘My goodness. I can’t go with this.’ Raï is very cool. This was different. Bass going doo-doo-doo. Guitar grrrooaarr! My wife had to explain to me it was rock, punk. So I agreed to try.”

Ali met Jah Wobble and somehow it started to click. “He was very open. I took a derbouka. Then I just started singing and he said, ‘You’re in.’ “I said, ‘I’m not a professional singer. I’m not a greedy man. I want to learn.’ They said I had my first gig in two weeks time in Canada. I said, “Excuse me!?…”

“Wobble was creating something new. I play derbouka with him. I sing with him . I was relaxing. There’s no bullshit. That’s what I like. I remember once I couldn’t get this note. Wobble said, ‘If you want to be a singer, you need to do it now.’ He said, ‘I’ll give you one idea: one, two, three, four… and then jump, so you reach the note.’ And it worked. I got it. He was brilliant. He understands me.”

As well as recording with Jah Wobble's Invaders of the Heart on their album Take Me To God (1994), Abdel Ali Slimani featured as a guest vocalist on the 12" remix of Sinéad O'Connor's 1994 single 'Fire On Babylon'.

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Ali has since became an evangelist for Jah Wobble’s multicultural creed of music. He remains a Wobble loyalist.

“Two years ago I said I was going to make an album in France: cheap, cassette. Joe [Wobble] said don’t do it, wait for the right time and do it properly with the right money.”

And so the proper time has come. What will people back home will think? “It’s a bit Western”. But I like that. For five years I’ve been with Wobble and this beautiful bass… I’m used to it; I can’t go back to the old Algerian style. And in Algeria they’ve never heard of reverb.”

This unique raï experience was produced by Wobble and Jaymes, but with quality control exerted by the man himself. “It’s important not to lose your style,” he says. “Always Wobble was asking ‘Is it good, Ali?’”

So how would Ali describe this album to a novice?

“If they ask me, I say, ‘This is a great album’,” he avers. “I don’t swear on it; it’s a family album. Positive. Not problems. Politics doesn’t take you far. You say you love Algeria. That’s it.”

“My eyes are open,” he summarises. “I don’t smoke and I don’t drink, so I see what’s happening.”

On another level, the album offers the first opportunity to hear fabled Irish siren Sinéad O’Connor singing in Arabic— and beautifully, too.

Purchase/Stream ‘Mraya’

Featured release

  • Mraya

    Abdel Ali Slimani

    Released 08 January 1996

    Mraya is an assured debut, with Abdel Ali Slimani's Algerian Raï roots finding solid ground in trance-like grooves. The album's theme reflects the emigre looking back at his home to which he cannot return, the music taking Raï to new areas— but retaining the spirit of its desert roots.

By Rick Glanvill

Adapted from Rick Glanvill's original biography of Abdel Ali Slimani written in 1995. Photo credit: John Sleeman.

Published on Thu, 17 January 19

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