Until September 11, it looked like 2001 was going to be a banner year for Arabic pop in the United States. A new album by Algerian singer Cheb Mami was positioned to exploit his cameo on Sting's hit "Desert Rose." Mondo Melodia--the world music imprint of Ark 21 Records, owned and operated by former Police manager Miles Copeland--was throwing unprecedented amounts of money and time into releases by Mami, Rachid Taha, Kazem Al Saher, Amina, Faudel, Ragheb Alama, and Simon Shaheen. And a national tour by Algerian rai star Khaled and Egyptian shaabi singer Hakim was planned for the fall--but they, along with dozens of other artists scheduled to play Chicago's World Music Festival, canceled. (Arabic music's foothold in this country has been unstable ever since; that Khaled and Hakim rescheduled their tour is an encouraging cultural development.) Khaled, who fled Algeria for France in the mid-80s, has long been hailed the as the king of rai, the highly syncretic pop music of Algeria, and on his most recent album, 1999's Kenza, he strikes the perfect balance between traditional and modern. Early rai, which underscored Arabic scales with Western synthesizers in a celebration of low pleasures like sex and booze, was a rather chintzy hybrid, but though the material on Kenza, some of which dates back to before Khaled left his homeland, doesn't forsake the funk, pop, and salsa of his earlier recordings, it also incorporates real, rich Arabic sounds. Half the album was produced by former Gong guitarist Steve Hillage, who brought in an Egyptian string orchestra to give the songs the stately grace of classic recordings by Umm Kalthoum. Even the tracks produced in New York by Lati Kronlund, leader of the acid-jazz group Brooklyn Funk Essentials, reveal a deep understanding of rai's Arabic elements. Khaled, who's fronting a nine-piece band, hasn't toured the U.S. since 1993 and has never performed in Chicago; in fact, I'm fairly sure this is the first rai concert held here since the duo of Chaba Fadela and Cheb Sahraoui performed at the Cubby Bear in the late 80s. Hakim, who specializes in the working-class Egyptian pop style called shaabi, came to the Chicago area last spring on the U.S. tour that yielded the recent The Lion Roars: Live in America. It's surprisingly good for a live recording; his 16-piece band cooks, weaving dense polyrhythms and snaking countermelodies, but his elastic, deeply soulful voice is the most riveting thing of all. Thursday, February 14, 7:30 PM, Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine; 773-275-6800 or 312-559-1212. Khaled also plays Wednesday, February 13, at 12:30 PM at Borders Books & Music, 150 N. State; 312-606-0750. Hakim also plays Tuesday, February 12, at 7 PM at Borders Books & Music, 830 N. Michigan; 312-573-0564.