Punk on Raï
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Rachid Taha makes violent music. It’s the music of the French-Algerian underclass, the dispossessed. His latest release, Tékitoi, features a cover of The Clash’s Rock The Casbah, It’s a world music classic, insists Chris Nickson.,
Who says Arabic music can’t rock? Certainly not Rachid Taha. The Algerian-born, longtime French resident has spent his entire career putting bass, guitar, and backbeat into the maqams and giving them a dose of punk energy. With his new album, Tékitoi, he’s found his perfect expression.
“I’ve been consumed with finding what works just right,” he explains. “I think it’s the best record I’ve made – at least the best since the last one! I think we got the sound just right.”
But it’s something he’s been working towards since the 1980s, when, as a teenager, he formed his first band, Carte de Séjours (Residence Permit) in Lyon. Heavily punk-influenced, it was also a first step into Taha finding his identity, which was neither French nor Algerian. The band caused an uproar when they released a harsh version of the patriotic song Douce France – a sensation akin to Hendrix’s glorious feedback version of The Star-Spangled Banner.
After the band broke up in 1990, Taha began working with producer and former Gong guitarist Steve Hillage, releasing a trio of albums that pushed into the trend of dance beats with their Arabic-techno-funk. Finally, however, Taha started to really find his groove with Diwân, where he revisited and updated classic Arab songs, including the anthemic Ya Rayah. Taha characterised it as “my version of John Lennon’s Rock’n’Roll album; covers of the Arabic singers and writers that inspired me to make music when I was young. I chose songs for their strong rhythms and the political poetry of their lyrics. Arabs in France are like blacks in the U.S., integrated yet separate. Music may be the best way we have to come to a real understanding of each other.”
While most Algerians (and French-Algerians) were playing the music called Raï, Taha was forging his own path. The two styles came together at the legendary 1, 2, 3 Soleils concert in Paris in 1998, when Taha shared the stage with the King and Prince of Raï, Khaled and Faudel.
With 2000’s Made in Medina, Taha came much closer to realizing his iconoclastic fusion of Arab-rock, still working with Hillage, who considers his music to be a natural evolution of the Arab tradition.
“The Moors ruled Spain for 600 years,” Hillage notes, “and the guitar is descended from their oud - so you’re talking about something that’s very close to the source of rock music.”
But Tékitoi hits the nail squarely on the head. There’s an open rawness to his singing on tracks like Safi and the title cut, while the band plays with a barely contained fury. Even Brian Eno contributes to a pair of tracks, mostly notably Dima!
“He presented us with some great musical ideas, and he’s a superb producer. He brought something different, and took us out of ourselves, and made us look at the music a little differently.”
It’s a record where nothing is held back. Egyptian strings flail, bringing an exotic sweetness, while percussion creates dense layers of polyrhythms, and guitars crunch in the best punk fashion.
Where it all comes together – certainly for Western ears – is on Rock El Casbah, which reinvents the Clash’s biggest hit, Rock The Casbah.
The Clash, with their uncompromising political stance, were a huge inspiration to the young Taha, and this is his tribute to the late Joe Strummer. The two had originally planned to work together, until Strummer’s sudden death late in 2003.
“It would have been wonderful to work with him,” Taha says with a sigh. “It would have been perfect. I’ve been an admirer of his for so long. But he died, and I was so sad when I heard. So instead I did Rock The Casbah.
As it is, Taha runs with what he has, turning the song upside down. The lyrics are delivered in scathing, guttural Arabic, and the chorus (in English) is delivered like a soccer chant. To hear it is to be forced to re-evaluate the piece. In short, it’s a classic of world music, powered by a sizzling bendir drum Taha calls my favorite traditional instrument. It is the ancestor of the snare drum! Because you can hold it with one hand, you can play it and sing at the same time, and dance as well.”
And much is true of the rest of the disc. It takes risks, often turning dark and brooding. But that’s exactly what Taha was aiming for. It’s the music of the underclass, the dispossessed. It’s the sound of the Algerians in France, the beurs as they’re derisively called, who’ve made their home in the land that colonized their country. It’s world music, but it’s much, much more, and unashamedly political, as on the title cut.
“It means we don’t exist without each other,” Taha notes. “You are me and I am you. It’s a dialogue between two people. One is a young French guy and one is a young Algerian saying to each other ‘Who are you?’ If you start to recognize that we are the same then you don’t want to do something bad to someone else.”
And sometimes it’s deliberately abrasive in a very punk manner, in your face and violent.
“Violent?” he asks quite seriously. “Yes, because I think life is violent, and sometimes very violent. All I’m doing in my music is reflecting that.” 04/22/05
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