The Age JUNE 3, 2009 - by Liza Power


He reclaimed the Casbah from The Clash and reboots Western rock, with an Arab slant. Rachid Taha speaks with Liza Power.

Algerian rock star Rachid Taha is the sort of shambolic ruffian you might think twice about taking home to meet your mother. Scampering from the lift of a Sydney hotel wearing a fuschia scarf, wry smile and fedora, he slumps into a lime-green armchair and orders champagne before lighting the first of several cigarettes. It's just past noon and fifty-year old Taha is in Sydney to perform on Brian Eno's Luminous playlist for the Vivid Festival. Upon hearing my name, he lapses, by way of introduction, into a serenade of sorts with verses from Cat Steven's Sad Lisa. "I think this song is for you, also I used to sing it to my girlfriend," he smirks endearingly.

This is, quite plainly, not at all how a singer best known, in Eno's words, for his searing "punk Arab consciousness" is supposed to behave. Or perhaps it is, given the grand possibilities of such a term.

Rachid Taha's definition is simple: "It's trying to explain the Arabic culture through music. It's my soul and my weapon. (People in the West) never talk about Arabic culture, they talk about Arabs. It's the picture of an Arab riding a camel or a millionaire sheikh in a limousine - always a cliché or caricature. My music is a way of talking about the reality of being Arab," Taha says in French through an interpreter. "It's lived experience."

Taha was working in a factory in the suburbs of Lyon when he formed his first band, Carte de Sejour (Residence Permit) in 1981 with fellow migrant rockers. Their gritty brand of subversive garage rock found acclaim after their sardonic version of Charles Trenet's patriotic chanson classic Douce France was banned from French radio in 1986. This launched Taha onto the world stage, a stage he has shared, on many occasions, with such luminaries as Patti Smith, Robert Plant, Brian Eno and Femi Kuti.

Taha has often found the most powerful way to bend cliché is to take other musician's songs and infuse them, not simply with his own spirit, but also a dense layering of traditional Arab instrumentation. He calls this process the reading of Western music "right to left", the same direction in which Arabic script is read. In this way, his 2004 rendition of The Clash's Rock The Casbah became not a fawning, rock-laced genuflection, but a symbolic reimagining of the song. Appearing on the soundtrack of Julian Temple's 2007 biopic, Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, it gestured a potent, political "middle-finger" to the American GIs who deployed it as an anthem while their tanks rolled into Iraq.

"It was a song that was disfigured (by the war) and needed to be reclaimed by the people it was sung about," Taha says unapologetically. That its acerbic incarnation found Taha a new Western audience was a pleasant but unexpected trickle-down effect.

No less poignant are the songs collected on Taha's Diwan albums, coined "Dead Poets Societies" by critics for the homage they pay to the North African singers who penned them. Woven with longing and the despair of exile by immigrants who had fled their homelands in search of a better life, they were often performed on makeshift stages in the Parisian arrondissements of Bastille, Nation, and Barbes in the 1950s and '60s. "The songs are love stories in a way, because they were sung by people who had sacrificed everything for the future of their children. Now they remind the second generation what their parents and grandparents gave up for them," Taha says.

In October, Taha will add to his prolific and wide-ranging discography with the release of Bonjour, a collaboration with Gaetan Roussel of renowned French group Louise Attaque. On Friday, Melburnians can get a sample of the songs Taha describes as "Nashville-meets-Cairo-meets-Paris".

Since his first note, Taha has used popular music as a sharp but seductive tool in his battle against racism, social injustice and war. Although he has lived in France since he was ten, he sings primarily in his mother tongue, Arabic.

"In Arabic, blue is blue and red is red and black is black", he has said. "French is my second language, and when I sing in French, colours become diluted - red becomes pink, black becomes grey."

He lifts his hat, one of a hundred-strong collection, many of which he hopes will come in handy when he fulfils his life-long ambition of starring as John Wayne in a John Ford-style western. Crossing forsaken frontiers with a cigarette in one hand and a shiny instrument in the other, you can't see Taha ever waving the white flag.