Shocking the Casbah: The Maghrebi-Noir of Rachid Taha

A furious mix of hip-hop beats, Arabic primal screams and punk-rock guitars, Taha brilliantly battles against the ideologies of both Western and Arab traditions.

Above: Press photo. Photographer unknown.

A furious mix of hip-hop beats, Arabic primal screams and punk-rock guitars, Taha brilliantly battles against the ideologies of both Western and Arab traditions.

Rachid Taha has always been somewhat of a troublemaker. Many Europeans may remember his sneering rendition of Charles Trenet’s “Douce France”, a version he recorded with his previous band, French-Algerian punkers Carte de Séjour. Decades later, their version of the song still rings with bitter irony, at once a commendation and admonishment of French societal idealism.

In the wake of Carte de Séjour’s disbandment, Taha was left in a space of contemplation. He had railed against injustice and racism with his fellow band mates – but now what? Left to his own devices, was he even expected to do something by a public who hadn’t even paid much notice when he was backed by three other musicians in solidarity?

One is a lonely number. But it’s also a profound point at which to begin a reclamation and rediscovery of self and roots. At the bitter end of the ’80s, just when things were looking down, the Algerian punk from France pressed his thumb on his last bit of luck for the wide-spanning, sound-defining career he’d been chasing for years. A move to Paris from his home city of Lyon in 1989 would grant Taha the preliminaries needed to begin.

Don Was, notable for his work with the Rolling Stones, was one of the very first producers to step on board with Taha for a project that would culminate in the singer’s first solo album. After a spell writing his first album in Oran, Algeria, the singer would meet Was and fellow producer Godwin Logie in Los Angeles, to create what would eventually become his debut, Barbès (1990).

Delivered with buckets of bold, naïve charm, Barbès was a skitterish mix of shiny pop-funk, jubilant raï rhythms and dance-rock grooves. A self-made man out to prove himself to a big, wide and unrelenting world of pride, ignorance and impossible dreams, Taha came up short; the album would be lost in the howling void of chest-beating Western patriotism, its release shunned and dismissed in the wake of the Gulf war.

What Barbès did do was announce the arrival of a new talent who was pushing for a collective-consciousness of global rhythms and styles, one who sang in the Arabic language but communicated on a worldly level. Barbès was very much an album about the streets – snatches of conversations and street noise articulated as pop music; dance rhythms for alleyway gatherings. Taha’s self-titled sophomore release (which quietly appeared in 1993), took those conversations to the dance clubs.

Rachid Taha upped the ante on the Arabic grooves and electronic beats. Steve Hillage was invited as producer (already having produced the first Carte de Séjour album) and gave the album’s sound a more exploratory force associated with Britain’s ever-changing club culture. Slow-burning grooves meshed with dubby basslines (courtesy of bass-maestro Jah Wobble) and rippling Arabic percussion to edge the brazen singer’s potent mix into a precarious cross-cultured future. Songs like the luxuriant, dusky rumble of “Yamess” ushered Taha into a world of bass culture; the reverb of sound and emotion echoing across dancefloors and eons of cultural history to last an eternity of sonic progression.

The singer’s reworking of “Ya Rayah”, an Arab traditional, would earn him a new respect among his Maghrebi peers as well as much of the European world, which was just beginning to open up to the unique Arabian musics of raï and chaabi. With the burgeoning sonic blend of North African sounds and club beats, Taha’s music would soon begin to unfold within dance culture’s four-on-the-floor rhythms across Europe. The album may have been the artist’s answer to the stodgy, uncompromising structures of grunge-rock, taking its cues from the shape-shifting culture of underground dance music that relied on innovation and speed.

In 1995, when music and technology was just on the brink of merging during the rise of the Internet and rave culture, Taha transported golden-age Arab culture into the far-flung future of digital beats and virtual reality with Olé, Olé, a braver exploration of electronica, encompassing jungle, trip-hop, house and trance. Cobblestoned with the pained and earthy hand-drumming of Middle Eastern percussion, the album called upon an aesthetic unfamiliar with Western club-culture; the beats from a darbuka drum rivaled those from an 808 machine.

The Arabic influences on the album became the most human component pulsing from the roboto-mix of dance beats, demonstrating the fact that reinvention cuts both ways; ancient and contemporary sounds revitalized by each of their elements combined. “Valencia”, a voluptuous mid-tempo groove draped in the fuchsia haze of keyboard atmospherics, recalled the hot, dusty shanty towns of North African cities. Taha inscribed his numbers with the narrative command of a raconteur, his dirty, sensual rasp etched into each recording like blood-ink on parchment. Songs like “Baadini” and “Comme un Chien” broke up the club-land monotony with the heavily exotic pressure of his wayward voice.

A startling feature to these measures was Taha’s new look for the album; body-wrapped in leather and his tussled hair dyed blonde, the singer flouted the conventions of Arab masculinity. His look was also a subversive nod toward gay club culture while keeping ties with the traditions of his cultural roots, a culture that had its own distinctive vision of gender-politics. Taha was battling convention on all fronts, against the ideologies of both Western and Arab traditions. And like his first two efforts, Olé, Olé was a losing battle on the account that the world hadn’t completely awoken to the singer’s trials with radio and dancefloors.

Diwân (1998) was the pivotal point for both Taha and modern Arabic music. A powerful reclamation of traditional Arabic songs, the singer had finally struck the precise balance he had been striving for on his last three recordings. Now the pieces all fit and the Middle Eastern elements no longer had to jostle for space with the Western influences. Not only did he perfect a seamless blend between the two cultures, but Taha also explored the more exuberant ends of electronic music, one that allowed the North African and Middle Eastern instruments to breathe freely in the storming mix.

The thunderous tribal slam of “Bent Sahra” shook hard the walls of dance clubs as much as it did the Western preconceptions of world music. The soft and dusty hypnotic loop of “Bani Al Insane” opened up a sound so full of texture, you could almost touch the song as if it were dry soil. At turns the singer practiced the brute force and tenderness inherent in the rustic music of the Maghreb, the tonal fluctuations allowing for a moodily rich palette of worldly sounds. The evidence was clear: Taha could rock harder than Led Zeppelin on a schooner during a sea-storm and he could also serenade your grandmother at the Sunday brunch picnic.

Now that the singer had captured a good portion of the world’s attention, he could test the more experimental waters of rock and club culture, blurring genre lines and cultural boundaries as he moved forward in his career. With Hillage still on board as producer since 1993, the French-Algerian now explored other musical cultures. Along with the more familiar ingredients, Taha flavoured 2001’s Made in Medina with Latin Music and harder-edged punk-rock.

Single “Barra Barra” became an instant favourite with both long-time fans as well as new listeners who discovered the song in the film Black Hawk Down, in which it was predominantly featured. Beginning with the simple, rough rhythms of the darbuka drums, “Barra Barra” erupted in a fury of heavy hip-hop beats, Arabic primal screams and harsh punk-guitar. Silkier gems like the gentle, supple “Hey Anta” brought Taha’s mannerism down to a level of placidity, allowing the singer greater command over his dangerously unpredictable and searing vocals.

Tékitoi (2004) may just be the pinnacle of Taha’s experimental achievements. Shrouded in a dark and brooding atmosphere of paranoia and lust, Tékitoi is an album of heavy, volcanic beats, serpentine-funk and hand-drummed erotica. Combining hip-hop, raï, chaabi, punk, desert blues and electronica, the artist fashioned a forbiddingly sensual sound one might call “Maghrebi-noir”. In Tékitoi, Taha produced a throbbing box of dark delights which compelled the listener to open at risk; it was dangerous but seductive, luxurious but rough, and it stood apart from any other effort made in the name of world music.

Here, the singer evoked images of shisha bars, dusty alleyways, Arabian cafés and the mysterious labyrinths of Algiers’ Casbahs on numbers like “Dima”, “Stenna” and “Meftuh”. With their pummeling beats, midnight air of secrecy and storied romances of lonely nighthawks and political revolutionaries, the songs of Tékitoi recalled ’30s Algiers in the midst of passion and unrest. To date, it remains Taha’s most uncompromising and celebrated effort, a lustrous dark jewel that continues to shimmer even a decade after its release. Its inclusion of an astonishing cover of The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” (an Arabicized, punky hip-hop rendering), received high praise from both critics and members of The Clash who have concluded that Taha’s cover remains the song’s most definitive version.

After the riotous Arabic dance-punk of Tékitoi, the singer reclined into the soft and lush grooves of Diwân 2, the second chapter in Taha’s cover albums of traditional Arabic songs. No longer in the mood for storming both the streets and dancefloors at night, the artist brought his music into the comforts of the home, providing the optimal soundtrack for sunny afternoon lounging.

Diwân 2 is an album of traditional songs that the singer grew up with. A swirling bath of rich blue funk and gently shuffling trip-hop grooves, the album shows a mellower side to Taha, one that prefers the nostalgia of a childhood spent before a turntable, spinning records bearing the legendary names of Umm Kulthum and Farid el-Atrache.

Still lost in the dreamlike haze of childhood memories and swooning pop-song reveries, Taha returned with 2009’s Bonjour, his most commercial effort to date. A far sweeter and brighter collection of work (as evidenced by the sugar-shocked pink of the album cover), Bonjour aimed squarely for the radio. The pointed messages of Arab and Western relations were still present, but they were now buried a little deeper underneath the blanket of a hummable tune and a delectable beat.

Older, wiser, but still infused with the spirit of punk-rock rebellion, Taha had now perfected his vision of self: a French-Arab living in the interstitial realm created by conflicting identities – the culture of being caught between two separate cultures. In fact, Taha’s entire existence could be summed up in a series of identities, each self explored and subsequently realized with each successive album.

His most recent work, 2013’s Zoom, finally internalized this battling of cultures. Now the singer took his song of Maghreb to the American South, where he would explore the interpolations of country and western culture. Toying with other genres like surf rock and tango, he also found a fitting structure for his Arab sounds within those various styles, which were worlds away from the streets of Algiers. Even Umm Kulthum made the acquaintance of a James Dean rockabilly riff, via sample form.

Rachid Taha didn’t so much create a world music consciousness as he radically reinvented an already established one. With grand designs on drastically changing the West’s perception of Arab culture, the singer managed, in long leaps and bounds, to create a certain aesthetic, and set an ironic example that could never be followed. These have now become designs to dance to, think to, reframe, contemplate and redress.

Even Taha’s notions of identity are up for question, evidenced by his chameleon-like transformation from reclusive troubadour to brash, stadium rocker – the Algerian in the Casbahs and the Frenchman in Paris. Perhaps the deed in shaking up false senses of cultural equilibrium is to Taha what the guitar was to Hendrix: he doesn’t so much want to rock the casbah as shock it into a state of enlightenment.