Pandemonium erupted as soon as Cheb Mami took the stage at Lisner Auditorium Tuesday night, but rhythmically the Franco Algerian singer's music is not especially rabble-rousing. His version of the Algerian-rooted style known as rai enlists rock, funk and ska beats, yet despite the efforts of a drummer and a traditional percussionist, the music was rarely as vigorous as Anglo American rock or dance music. Although the diminutive vocalist danced a bit during the nearly two-hour set, he never saw the need to take off his jacket.
Backed by a Franco African sextet that played mostly rock instruments, Mami downplayed sinuous Arabic melodies in favor of a smooth world-beat style that incorporated elements of Afro-pop, reggae, flamenco and even--when one of the keyboardists switched to fiddle--Celtic jigs. Buoyed by the singer's high, sweet tenor, such songs as "Meli Meli" were consistently agreeable, if seldom urgent.
The concert was Mami's Washington debut, and dozens of rapturous admirers took the opportunity to hop onto the stage, hugging and kissing the amiable singer while their friends took snapshots. The audience's devotion energized the evening, although it did sometimes seem as if the fans had more passion than their idol.