Rachid Taha (6.6.05)

Posted on July 28, 2008

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Arabic dance-rock for patriotic Americans

Rachid Taha has just landed in Los Angeles on a transcontinental tour bankrolled by Universal Records. Universal is betting on his all-encompassing vision of Arabic-rock dance music—huge in Arabic countries and gaining serious steam all over Europe—finally finding an audience in the States this year. Taha, though, is a little skeptical about his immediate surroundings. “L.A. isn’t real. One day we’ll wake up and it’ll be gone! Ploof!”

If you rewind about 23 years, you’ll find a young Taha handing a demo of his band, Residence Permit (its English translation) to Joe Strummer outside a club in Paris. Taha’s band had been experimenting with mixing different elements of funk and North African sounds and rhythms into punk songs. A year later, “Rock the Casbah” became a smash hit.

Look at things from a different angle, and you’ll see Taha opening a club in Lyon, France, for hundreds of socially outcast North African kids, the lowlifes of the French social hierarchy. The club fast became an oozing, bastardized musical gene pool where Taha led underground musicians to mix folk sounds with electronic beats and samples of classical singers.

Peel away the layers of his sound, and at its core, you’ll have rai music—the stripped-down, exclamatory folk music that originated in his hometown of Oran, Algeria, which has kept up with Algerian youth culture through the massive revolution against French colonialism of the late ‘50s and beyond. Taha isn’t convinced this is real, either—he’s spent his 47 years grabbing the spirit of rai music and throwing it into a wood chipper to watch the pieces fly.

“I don’t play rai music,” he says. “I’m a rocker, although I acknowledge my roots within the music. If rock is read left to right, Arabic music is read right to left. I read rock music from right to left.” Boston is on the short list of cities Taha will be traveling through to see if American audiences are up for it.

At the heart of Taha’s worldview is his current manifesto, Tékitoi, a sprawling festival of sure-footed mutant dance music that mixes up every genre within reach. Arabic, French and Spanish languages are all employed in its flailing attack on everything from traitors to slavers and bores to racists, to paraphrase the song “H’asbu-Hum!” (“Ask Them for an Explanation!”).

Tékitoi (derived from the phrase “T’es qui, toi?,” literally, “Who are you?”) sports dance beats that segue into throbbing Arabic drums and hyperactive finger cymbals that sound like knives sharpening. Soccer chants get pushed around by the Egyptian String Ensemble; dusty-sounding mandolutes rattle through snakey Dick Dale surf guitar lines; and Taha shouts, growls, barks, spits and sometimes sings a string of blunt exclamations, accusations, and calls-to-arms to whomever happens to hear him.

How this whole thing might appeal to Americans is a puzzle. Unless translation sheets are passed out in the clubs, the complete absence of English make the lyrics sort of a non-factor, despite their on-point humanitarian hooks and political claws. The melodies are flurries of Arabic scales that most of us, frankly, have been programmed to associate with the movies—shadowy masked assassins, genies, camels riding over sand dunes. These are some of the less dangerous stereotypes Taha faces in a time when most Americans’ exposure to Arab cultures is limited to pissed-off fundamentalists, terrorists in masks or bleary-eyed villagers trying to reconstruct their bombed-out town under the watchful eyes of our Marines. Picturing dancefloors full of Americans getting down to this is bizarre.

“We have a failure to recognize what we all have in common,” Taha says. “Fear, joys, sorrows and stupidity—these are acute times.” For his part, Taha really seems like he’s been able to scan the mass of pop culture from all angles at once and come up with compositions that make sense instead of forcibly juxtaposing disparate sounds. He throws a rockabilly two-step swing under folksy shout-outs in the title track, and finds a direct lineage between spaghetti Western guitars and tinny Middle Eastern percussion on the blissed-out two minute fadeout of “Stenna (Wait).”

Tékitoi’s secret weapon is a cover of the hit song Taha believes he helped inspire. Sung in Arabic and laced with breezy flutes and jangly drums underlying the big beat and guitars, “Rock el Casbah” still sticks to the original’s cynicism, while Taha matches Strummer’s snotty vocal delivery. Though the song may be the album’s obvious conversation piece and a nod to his unique place in European music history, it’s arguably the least interesting thing on the record. It was, after all, a figment of what Taha was doing decades ago. The rest of the album is the important stuff—the uncharted territory where only years of exploring will tell if this is the work of a visionary or simply a man who knows a catchy tune and an infectious beat, no matter what instrument they’re played on.

[Originally Appeared in Boston’s Weekly Dig 6.6.05]

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