When he passed away in 2018, French-Algerian singer Rachid Taha left behind a storied legacy. Outspoken in his opinions (he spoke up against the evils of both the Bush administration and French filmmaking), he was just as bold in his sounds, mixing urban chaâbi with punk rock, as inspired by the Clash as by Maghrebi pop. The posthumous release, Je Suis Africain, stands as one final display of his musical dynamism. It’s an album noteworthy not because it’s particularly spectacular, as Taha’s music goes – there are, in his nearly decades-long catalog, more memorable, more sharply bombastic tunes than these – but because it shows his monumental creativity.
Eclecticism was and is the hallmark of Taha’s work. In his younger years, he layered funk, raï, and salsa, among other styles, as a club DJ. On Je Suis Africain, he operates under much the same philosophy, albeit with more of his own material. The opening track, “Ansit”, has a loose rock and roll swagger to it, with Taha’s voice and Toma Feterman’s electric guitar adding a compelling roughness to swirls of kaval and violin. On “Aïta”, crisp percussion – north African drums and castanet-like karkabas – leaves space for rapid motion.
Melancholy “Minouche” is something of a shift, Taha’s voice a strange mismatch for straightforward, sentimental Andalusian sonics. From this lull, though, he launches into the title track, embracing a pan-African identity through both lyrics and composition. Taha calls out the names of African and diasporic figures as wide-ranging as Mandela, Kateb Yacine, Jimi Hendrix, and Angela Davis, among many others. Meanwhile, West African musicians and instruments abound, including but not at all limited to Lassana Diabate on balafon, Sekou Bah on bass, and Assaba Dramé on ngoni). A high-energy chorus of “Africain!” resounds as Taha embraces his entire birth continent over layers of highlife-infused rock.
Multi-instrumentalist Toma Feterman is key to the next two tracks, his nimble trumpet particularly stellar on “Wahdi”, which also features the dulcet tones of Swiss-Algerian artist Flèche Love. That same trumpet, in conjunction with Feterman’s tuneful whistling, makes “Insomnia” sound delightfully like the opening of a spaghetti Western set on the south side of the Mediterranean, with kavals, cümbüş, and electric guitar creating a lush backdrop for the complexities of Taha’s delivery.
“Andy Waloo” has an electric punk vibe with none of the cynicism, while “Striptease” sings a tongue-in-cheek blues. “Like a Dervish” adds Balkan party vibes as Taha sings what he declares at the start to be his first song in English, crafting patchwork words to make his rhymes. An airy “Happy End” closes the album, heavy on strings (violin, viola, and especially the mandola typical of Taha’s work) and sincere declarations of love – uplifting sounds and words from Algeria’s consummate rock star. In the context of his death, it’s bittersweet. In the context of his life, it’s an unpretentious celebration.
Je Suis Africain is a display of skill and craft. Rather than showing Rachid Taha at his loudest, his most intense, it paints a multidimensional portrait of his creative mind, exposing the subtler aspects of his work while continuing to showcase his iconic charisma. Taha was an artist who knew no limits in his art, and Je Suis Africain is undeniably meaningful in continuing his innovative work of embracing new styles in constant redefinitions of rock and roll.