Global Rhythm AUGUST 29, 2005 - by Paul Sullivan


The artful black and white photograph that adorns the cover of Rachid Taha's latest album shows the singer in a state of happy dishevelment. His coal-black hair is a tousled mop; his dark stubble at beard level. And though his mouth forms a wry smile, his eyes carry a message of what seems to be philosophical resignation. It's tempting to see this portrait as someone very comfortable with himself, someone saying, This is me, take me or leave me. But if Taha is confident about his own identity he seems - if the album's title, Tékitoi, a bastardisation of the French for Who are you? is anything to go by - less sure about ours.

The new album is a continuation, or perhaps I should say a progression, he says of the new project. When we're young we're very much controlled by our egos, but as time goes by a kind of serenity begins to creep in. This album does have melancholic overtones for me. A bit like sitting in the waiting room, waiting for the train to come, but it never does and never will. What I mean by that is that I found myself thinking a lot about Algeria and the situation there and beginning to understand why my parents left and knowing that I'll never be returning there to live.

The provocative title is pure, confrontational Taha. Born in Oran, Algeria and raised in France, as a school-kid he had unpleasant racial experiences and was re-located to a Catholic convent school by his father. Upon leaving, he worked in odd jobs - literature salesman, dishwasher, factory-worker - before meeting musicians Mohammed and Moktar and becoming the controversial front-man of politically charged band Carte De Séjour [Residence Permit].

We were a bunch of guys working in a factory in Lyons with the same interests and the same feelings, remembers Rachid. We started making music together and the thing just grew. We made a couple or three albums and had some success, but as time went by began to discover that we didn't always feel the same about everything and gradually went our separate ways. That's life.

Carte De Séjour's most poignant moment, or at least the moment that made them famous, was their controversial cover of Charles Trenet's Douce France, a chanson classic re-recorded with a subtle but distinct Arabic twist. The record was an overt response to the anti-Arabic atmosphere prevalent in France at the time, and established the band as an integral part of the pro-immigrant milieu.

Taha went solo when the band broke, but retained many of the characteristics that made his former outfit a success: anti-racist rants, political angst, rockist, punkish moods, all blended with his signature bitches brew of rock, dance, hip-hop beats and Middle Eastern, raï-influenced sounds.

In 1991, Taha put out Barbés, which coincided with the Gulf War, giving radio an excuse to censor the songs. In '95 he followed with an eponymous project, produced alongside Brit Steve Hillage (a former member of the progressive rock band Gong), who had worked on the debut album of Carte De Séjour. The album featured the radio-friendly hit Ya Rayah. Taha then joined Hillage again for Olé Olé, a more aggressively electronic LP that incorporated Arabic zithers, Cajun accordions and Mexican mariachi music. For 1998's Diwân he delved into his roots, quite unexpectedly for someone so dedicated to updating, reinterpreting Middle Eastern classics by the likes of Dahmane El Harrachi and Mohamed el Anka.

In 2001 Taha dropped the guitar-heavy Made In Medina, which included guest appearances from all-female Moroccan group B'net Marrakech and Louisiana band Galactic. And now Tékitoi. A listen is enough to convince that, after nearly fifteen years, Taha has lost none of his force, his authenticity or his relevance. From the urgent, staccato delivery of the opening title track (featuring Christian Olivier) to the hypnotic persistence of H'Asbu-Hum and the hip-hop punch of NahSeb, it's a potent, righteous document that tackles subjects like liars, thieves, humiliators, killers, oppressors, traitors, the envious and the rotters... and that's just on one song, H'asbu-Hum (Ask Them for an Explanation).

As with all Taha projects there are moments of sweet sparseness and melodic poignancy amid the beefy beats, bellicose guitar work and barbarous lyrical assaults. I had the concept spinning around in my head for a long time, of a kind of synopsis of trance, rock and techno, using African, European and American coda, explains Taha. Like most artists I'm never satisfied with my previous work and always want to try and go further. I think that both musically and lyrically I've gone a lot deeper this time.

Included on the album is his renowned cover of The Clash's Rock The Casbah, a tribute to one of his big influences, the English punk band's late front-man Joe Strummer. The song becomes thoroughly Arabicized in Taha's hands, right down to its new title (Rock El Casbah) and its newly Easternized pulse. The lyrics were meticulously translated into Arabic and blessings obtained from The Clash before proceeding.

I did this song, because I love it, offers Rachid, and as a tribute to Joe Strummer and The Clash, whose music has been a great influence for me, right from when I started. As for the lyrics, we went to a great deal of trouble to translate the lyrics exactly as written by The Clash, using professors of Arabic to make sure.

The omnipresent spirit of Hillage can be felt throughout the album, primarily in the guitar, programming and production. Having produced almost all of Taha's work, their relationship is far from formal. When you meet someone who has travelled a great deal and whose music is so in tune with your own you don't want to let him go. I think the same feeling goes for Steve. He's a good friend, a close collaborator with whom I've co-written many songs. It's funny because he brings the Oriental sounds and I bring the rock. We're cross-collateralized, as they say in the music industry.

Tékitoi also features another U.K. veteran, Brian Eno, who plays synth and drums on the track Dima. Though a couple of tracks are sung in French, most of the album is, as usual, in Arabic. I sing in French from time to time because it's my second language. I do find that Arabic is the language which is best for me to do what I do and to express myself. It's a very clear language. Blue is blue and red is red and black is black, whereas when I sing in French I find the colours somewhat diluted. Red becomes pink, black becomes grey and so on.

Many Algerian artists have updated Middle Eastern music from its folk roots, but none have done so with the sheer conviction, determination and force that Taha has. As happy playing live with raï superstars like Khaled and Faudel (with whom he performed in front of an audience of fifteen thousand, in Paris) as he is working in the studio with Eno or Femi Kuti, Taha is a true world musician, someone who sees the globe with a post-modernist outlook. He doesn't see himself as an advocate for Arabic culture as much as an advocate of all cultures, and his ire seems impressively implacable.

My anger comes from what I perceive around me, he says. The increasing deprivation in so many parts of the world, the suffering and division of people, the intolerance and prejudice that still exists in the so-called developed world on both a social and political level. I do believe that it's the artist's responsibility to reflect these issues, to be a witness. In a way I'm angrier now, because I'm less naïve.


Live [2002]

As good as Taha's albums are, he's got to be seen to be believed. Onstage he's a crackling ball of energy who alternately stalks the stage like a wildman and emotes like a beur Bill Clinton. This amazing live disc was recorded at a 2002 gig in Brussels and captures him and his band at their best. A must-have for Rachid Taha fans.

Made In Medina [2001]

Yet another collaboration with Steve Hillage, Made In Medina was Taha's masterpiece. A perfect marriage of rock and raï that exudes buckets of after-hours cool, Made In Medina also demonstrated Taha's maturity as a singer, able to inject a new-found emotion and power into his lyrics. It also marks a more fully-realised integration of electronica and dance music into Taha's sound. The record also included Ala Jalkoum, a duet with Afrobeat heir-apparent, Femi Kuti.

Diwân [1998]

1998's Diwân was Taha's breakthrough, where he hit just the right balance of Parisian club cool, raw Algerian soul and rock and roll fury. Also produced by Steve Hillage, Taha finally brings the oud to the forefront and lets his roots show by reinterpreting several Maghrebi classics. Habina and Ach Adani are rootsy, gut-bucket Algerian funk - just don't call it raï.

Olé Olé [1996]

This was Taha's first international release, produced by ex-Gong guitarist Steve Hillage. Musically adventurous and restless, Olé Olé finds Taha trying on a dizzying variety of styles and sounds; restlessly experimenting as if in search of a winning formula. If at times it seems like he's trying too hard to please, there are also gems like Kelma and Jungle Fiction that point to great things to come.

Barbes [2003]

This reissue of Taha's 1990 Algerian debut shows just how far he's come from a brash young punk to the self-assured performer he is today. Still, the seeds of greatness are there in tracks like Je Le Sais and Lela.

Rachid Taha & Carte De Séjour: Carte Blanche [1998]

This disc collects Taha's work with his old band Carte De Séjour: the Mano Negra to Taha's Manu Chao. Like Mano Negra, Carte De Séjour was a scruffy, streetwise Parisian outfit from the wrong arrondissements that blended immigrant traditions with punk rock fury. But where Mano Negra drew on Spanish, Latin and reggae sounds, Carte De Séjour drew on raï and North African pop styles for their potent musical mash-up.

Rachid Taha / Khaled / Faudel: Taha, Khaled, Faudel [1999]

This live 1999 set is a tour de force performance from three of the biggest Arabic-language stars living in France today. Recorded at Paris' massive Bercy stadium, the show brought Taha together with young Algerian pop sensation Faudel and the king of raï, Khaled. A best-seller in France, the album's success marked a watershed moment when Algerian immigrants realised their considerable economic and cultural clout in contemporary Europe.