PopMatters APRIL 7, 2005 - by Michael Mikesell


Honing 'That Boogie Sound'

The French-Algerian rocker Rachid Taha isn't interested in "crossing over". His view of the world isn't polarised and his music doesn't cater to a single known commercial or radio market. Rather, on Tékitoi, Taha unites his tastes for Algerian raï, chaabi (old-style Algerian and Moroccan pop), punk rock, classic rock, techno-pop, and sundry other styles. This is a rock record, but only because it can't properly be labelled anything else - only rock has the breadth to encompass all the music kicking around in this guy.

One could probably write a fascinating book about Rachid Taha. A European, an Arab, and a Muslim, Taha nevertheless embraces the straight-shooting, unabashed political outspokenness of western musicians like, say, the late Joe Strummer, describing himself at one time as "a North American who thinks that the world is one land and that the Promised Land is promised to everyone". When he was ten, Taha and his parents left Algeria for France, where he grew up. In the '80s he helped start a club in Lyon called Les Refoulés ("The Frustrated", an alternative to the city's openly racist music venues), where he ended up taking the stage with his own band, Carte de Séjour ("Green Card").

Taha's solo career began with the release of Barbès (1991), and it's seen a steady ascent in both notoriety (at home) and fame (with fans in much of the world) since then. His sixth and most recent solo studio release, Tékitoi, was produced, co-written, and co-performed by the veteran prog/avant-rock guitarist Steve Hillage (Egg, Gong, System 7), with whom Taha's been working for more than two decades. It's an album of passion and assimilation in which the singer-songwriter harnesses his stylistic range and pushes beyond any popular music that I'm aware of in his effort to create a music without boundaries.

That it also happens to kick ass must be regarded as something of a bonus. But kick ass it does, right from the opening title track, which means roughly "Who the Hell Are You?" and features lyrics and co-lead singing from Christian Olivier of the French band Les Tetes Raides. The singers rail back and forth about the nature of identity (self/other) over an infectious staccato groove that carries us right into a brilliant cover of the Clash's immortal Rock The Casbah, with verses adapted by Taha in Arabic and the standard chorus in English. It's fitting that a musician with roots in North Africa should bring this song home, so to speak, affirming the positive potential in changes that many would fear might "degenerate the faithful".

This album isn't fusion - one style alongside or atop another - so much as a stewing of styles into something not merely unique but altogether focused, coherent, and very musical. Nothing is off limits. If an explosion of metallic guitar into a bed of raï strings and percussion best suits his desired tone, as it does in Safi ("Pure!"), the album's political centrepiece, then that's what Taha uses. If the tittering electronic bed for a song about seeking answers within, seeking what's pure - and the consequences for lay-person's doing so in a repressive society - needs an Enoesque ambience, then we get none other than Brian Eno composing and playing "Kaoss drums" and synthesizers in Dima! ("Always!"). (Eno also contributes synths and one of many excellent backing voices to Rock El Casbah.) The Egyptian String Ensemble plays on several tracks, including Dima!.

Percussion is a focus on this production, and each song employs some mix of traditional rock drums, electronic percussion, Arabic bendir (a handheld ancestor of the snare drum), and pattering darbuka (hourglass drum). Other prominent instruments include the mandolute (a blend of guitar and oud), qanun (a dulcimer-like descendent of the old Egyptian harp), banjo, and of course the good old electric guitar. The repetitious, groove-based raï and chaabi structures correlate beautifully with repetitious, groove-based rock (and in some cases with electronic dance music), and fans of any of the above genres will likely take to this collection.

Taha claims to be more influenced by chaabi music than raï, and Tékitoi, at least, bears that out. By and large, there's something more traditional-sounding here, and more primal, than most raï sounds to me, despite the album's rock rhythms and colours. To put it more bluntly, there's nothing cheesy about this record, even in its more overtly raï pieces.

A fitting symbol for Taha's character might well be the exclamation point - "!" - a punctuation mark used liberally in both his songs and his lyrics. But it's not his frequent use of the mark that sparked this thought; it's the good-natured, open-hearted excitement that the mark often conveys, that giddy smile that creeps in with it, keeping many of us from using the point (in e-mails, for instance) more often than we should. Two examples will show what I mean while giving a feel for some of Taha's subject matter.

In Lli Fat Mat! ("What is Past is Dead and Gone!") he sings: "Listen to the wise and be modest! / Turn the page! / Share tenderness! / What is yours is his! / Forget the pain, be yourself, and from life, make a poem, a poem...". Better still, in the blunt and pounding invective H'asbu-Hum! ("Ask Them for an Explanation!") Taha growls, "Liars, thieves, humiliators, killers, oppressors, traitors, the envious, the rotters, the diggers, propagandists, destroyers, humiliators, slavers, the lazy / Get rid of them! Ask them for an explanation!" He's critical and he's exhortatory, but he's after understanding and improvement, not merely condemnation. (Interestingly, these two songs take strong exception to envy, an emotion reviled by Islam and one which non-Muslim westerners are probably unaccustomed to considering at any remove.)

In the United States, early editions of the CD include a DVD with a forty-five-minute introductory documentary shot over the course of Taha's March 2004 tour of Mexico. The footage features interviews with Taha and his band-members (Hillage is discussed but not featured) and several live snippets, most too brief and/or too poorly recorded, sound-wise, to convey much of a sense for Taha's shows. We do get to see the band play through most of Rock El Casbah, however, confirming my suspicion that Taha and his band are terrific live. The DVD also sheds light on the inclusion of the second of two U.S. bonus tracks, a Spanish-language version of Voila Voila ("Here It Is, Here It Is"), an indictment of French racism that originally appeared on 1997's Carte Blanche. He adapted the song for performance in Mexico and was understandably delighted with the results.

One other thing that struck me about the DVD was a scene of Taha signing an autograph with an Arabic saying that he definitely seems to have taken to heart: "Don't let your path change your name or your name change your path."