It was the year 2000 when I was first introduced to the glory of traditional Algerian raï music and it was through the work of Cheb Mami, one of its most celebrated exponents. The song was a sublime blend of rock and North African melodies, a sweet dialogue between English and Arabian poetry. ‘Desert Rose’ is a song that stands on its own for the way it marries disparate cultures continents apart. That collaboration with Sting was not the first and last time Cheb Mami was stretching the boundaries of raï; his music has always been spiced with Mediterranean vibes as well as Turkish elements. His later projects would even include a collab with Ziggy Marley.
‘Desert Rose’ opened the international floodgates for the Saïda-born crooner and he was soon crisscrossing the globe, offering the world a new musical perspective. American talk show hosts from David Letterman to Jay Leno wanted a piece of Cheb Mami. But going through his discography, you will notice that the man has released nothing new since his 2006 album ‘Layali’. His legal travails began at about that time, when a warrant was issued against him for allegedly forcing a former girlfriend to undergo an abortion. The incident happened in 2005 but French authorities only managed to arrest him in 2010. Even then Mami only stayed behind bars for a few months before being released in March 2011. He was meant to have served a five-year sentence. The musician however expressed deep regret at the incident and begged the woman for forgiveness.
But before long Mami, born Mohammed Khelifati, was back in court. This time it was to face charges of plagiarism. He was accused of having reproduced the words in songs written by Rabah Zerradine A.K.A Cheb Rabah in his own songs without permission. Four out of five verses from one of Cheb Mami’s hits was found to have been copied word for word. In fact the judges even ordered that Rahab be credited as the co-author of Desert Rose in place of Mami. It’s a real come-down for the 49 year-old raï star who, in conjunction with EMI, has to now pay a 100,000-euro fine for costing Rabah his shot at international fame. And another 100,000 euros for copyright infringement. Just so you know Cheb Mami is not the only one to be brought to book for stealing from Rabah. Cheb Khaled, known as the ‘King of raï’ was charged with the same crime in April and had to also part with €200,000.
There are two lessons to take away here. First, don’t try and piggy-back your way into fame; you will be found out sooner or later, just like Milli Vanilli were. Secondly, give credit where it’s due. If you like someone else’s work and want to incorporate it into yours, ask them for permission. If they can make Pharrell Williams pay $7.3 million for sampling Marvin Gaye, they can do the same to you.
Another thing, you can run from the law, but it will eventually catch up with you. That’s why it’s called the long arm of the law.
Miami Based, Internationally Known