Rachid Taha, after two decades of doing little wrong, has finally made a pop misfire.
Rachid Taha is known to bristle at the idea of “world music”, and he should. The Algerian native never asked for his blend of North African folk music, industrial, and hip-hop to get pushed into the same ranks as Peruvian pan-flute bands and abominable post-Marley roots reggae, and the naïve, self-congratulatory appreciation that tends to come with this distinction would have little beyond undiscriminating approval to say when presented with Taha’s confrontational cosmopolitanism. Would the kind of people who buy CDs at Starbucks EVER understand why “Rock El Casbah” rules so hard?
Probably not. It’s one thing to be “moved” by a movement of secular Muslims who undermine the theocratic state with anti-establishment rock ‘n' roll, but it’s quite another to fathom the significance of taking back a song that was similarly inspired 30 years ago. Because Taha never sings in English, I can’t claim to grasp much of what he sings, but I am enough of a fan of the Clash to sympathize with his aim to access an audience that is as sophisticated as it is global.
Which is why Taha’s newest album, Bonjour, is a little baffling. Taha has ditched Steve Hillage, an important element of Diwan, its earth-shattering sequel, the radio-ready Made in Medina and pretty much everything else Taha’s done since the '90s, for God knows what reasons, and opted instead for a slick, major label sound. This level of compromise is usually reserved for the fading dinosaurs of rock, in a desperate stab at continued relevance, but judging by the bounty of YouTube footage documenting Taha’s live persona, and the enormous crowds it suggests, my question is: what’s the point?
Why go for three- and four-minute singles when the six-minute epics never felt too long? Why close each track with stock studio noises that do little beyond establish the library of sounds now at your disposal? Why replace the fierce Egyptian strings and distorted guitars with a clean acoustic and programmed 4/4s? Why make a point of crossing country with chaâbi on “Ha Baby”, when its vocal hook is already great without having anything to do with either genre (and when “Foqt Foqt” already found an intersection of American and Arabic music to much better effect, for that matter)? Why include a refrain of “This is an Arabian song”, when that much is already clear?
These questions are hard to get out of my head while listening to Bonjour, because none of the shifts from Taha’s previous modes of operation strike me as wise. He’s always had an unabashedly arena-sized sound, but on previous albums, it seems that the lute players, trumpeters and percussionists are at least listening to one another, and playing accordingly; here, they play as discrete elements, the left arm having no idea what the right is up to. The studio gloss would be a disappointment no matter what, but when it’s thrown upon such consciously “ethnic” music, it sounds too close for comfort to the middle-of-the-road bullshit that under-exposed pop cultures -- that is, much of the Eastern hemisphere -- put out for “crossover appeal”. It sounds like Taha is finally accepting the “world music” label he so vocally loathes.
I have nothing against the pop sensibility embraced here. It just doesn’t fit the music. Rai -- a punk-inflected version of a traditional Algerian style -- deals in repetitious structures, to some extent, which the polished sheen of Bonjour, with its rejection of organic musicianship, simply cannot handle. If Taha’s previous albums remind me of days of 20-minute songs and fully loaded bongs, this one brings me back to some of college’s less pleasant moments: hearing the overproduced garbage that passed as Israeli rap spewing out of my freshman roommate’s laptop for hours at a time. That, or anything recorded by Enrique Iglesias. There are, of course, diamonds in this rough, scant as they are. “Ha Baby”, even with its insufferable shimmer, is totally irresistible. The title track embodies the indie-pop tenderness the rest of the album can only dream of. The funk guitar of “Sélu” is spot-on, and the children’s choir that supplements the chorus of “Mabrouk Aalik” is a nice touch.
That’s about it, though, and it’s just not enough. If Rachid Taha ends up with his own chapter in the book of rock history (as he should), Bonjour will be his Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One: fodder to be picked over for one or two greatest hits, and then discarded into the impatient annals of pop music history.