If Khaled and N'ssi N'ssi introduced Khaled and incorporated rai into the hip, global dancefloor mix, the gleaming production and lush arrangements on Sahra leave no doubt that French pop mainstream is the target here. It worked -- "Aïcha" was a breakthrough pan-European pop hit, and even though the disc jumps around from song to song and style to style, it still basically hangs together. The lack of flow is understandable because it's a total patchwork effort -- three tracks produced by Clive Hunte in Jamaica with reggae session heavyweights, three songs produced by Don Was in L.A. with high-priced session heavyweights, one with Marseilles rappers Iam, and the rest by Frenchmen Jean-Jacques Goldman and Philippe Eidel. The credits make it seem likely that the overseas tracks were recorded there and then shipped to Paris for final touches. Real strings add an Arabic touch to the convincing title track, while "Oran Marseille (Oran Mix)" starts with kazoo, of all things, and winds up as kind of a high-tech, tweaked roots rai with a pronounced Jamaican organ. Written by Goldman/Khaled and sung in French, "Aïcha" sports a magnetic hook carried by Khaled's vocal charisma over a nice mid-tempo trot and atmospheric keyboards. After that reasonably cohesive start, Sahra goes all over the map. The strings on "Hey Ouedi" are more light Euro-classical than Arabic pop majestic (not surprising since the players are French), while "Detni Essekra" is almost old-style Europop lounge music with tinkling piano, rich accordion, and Bernard Paganotti's acoustic bass. The synths alternating between Arab strings and galloping prog rock sounds make the chic, upscale Euro-disco set the likely target for "Le Jour Viendra." Mexican rocker Saul Hernandez sings Spanish verses on "Ki Kounti," a nondescript Saharan sirocco-meets-SoCal-Santa-Ana-desert reggae tune. The tentative "Haya Haya" shows the pitfall of attempting Khaled's style blend -- you hear the L.A. musicians haven't gotten the feel down, and the song suffers. But the flip side is just as apparent on "Mektoubi," where the Jamaicans nail down the groove, Dean Fraser lets loose with an unusually rowdy sax solo, and Khaled fits his vocals in perfectly. Sahra is slick international pop Khaled, with his Algerian roots used mostly as flavoring. He's pretty much taken his Western pop influence right to the limit of where the watered-down crossover criticisms he receives become valid. It's calculated and slick and not the place to start if you want to hear where he came from, but the music stays on the right side of overdone...just barely.
AllMusic Review by Don Snowden
feat: Saul Hernández