The octogenarian Empress of Raï goes back to Oran, the birthplace of Algerian pop, for her long-awaited return. I guess you’re entitled to a six-year break between recordings when you are the 82-year-old “mother of Raï” and a living legend with a 50-year career behind you. But this feels like a long-overdue follow-up to her masterpiece Nouar, and it’s a heady brew of seductive North African dance grooves and Cheikha’s alluring tenor.
That celebrated coarse vocal style — an influence on so many Algerian pop stars from Cheb Khaled to Chaba Fadela and all points in between — is spoilt somewhat at times by the intrusive use of vocoder, and the programmed beats can occasionally veer towards the monotonous. But at her best, she serves up irresistibly hypnotic street music — there’s a gritty, down-home feel to the recording, in keeping with the clubs and bars in which Cheikha cut her musical teeth.
Swirling synthesised strings join the electronic mix, merging with more traditional instruments such as the gasba flute, accordion and violin, all brought together in a hip-swaying series of trance-like repetitive paens to the uncompromising diva’s favourite subjects: the pleasures of sex and alcohol, the perils of poverty and the sadness of losing loved ones. Kyani is the track that best exemplifies the addictive nature of much of the best work on the album, Cheikha rapping to a catchy refrain over groovy beats with jaunty accordeon and organ accompaniment, it’s an engaging six-minute funky sing-along that’s well worth the price of admission alone.