Rachid Taha’s Rock El Casbah is ostensibly a greatest hits collection. But a one-disc song compilation to sum up this guy and everything his volatile, razor-edged music stands for? If you’ve seen Taha in concert action — something that’s becoming thankfully more frequent for American audiences since his 2005 album Tékitoi — you get why the idea is absurd. Well-intentioned, certainly, and maybe even necessary for first timers, but I’d just as soon take them to see a Taha show and watch them get caught up in the foment, regardless of whether they understood a single word sung by the manic frontman with the spit-covered microphone.
“Like the Clash” (OK, fine), with Taha you need take the whole product: the gold, yes, but also the false starts, the experiments, the unbridled mess, and not just a burnished one-disc-er, convenient as that may be. Taha’s gift is how he radiates — that charisma, that persuasion, that force — and that’s what probably prompted Luce Strummer to not only present Rachid his BBC Radio 3 Award for World Music (Middle East/North Africa category, won for “Casbah”), but to have also (allegedly) requested to do so in the first place. You look at some of Joe Strummer’s other “heirs” — Eddie Vedder, Billie Joe Armstrong, and Ben Harper come to mind — and there’s no comparison in the balls-out gravitas department. Not even the inflections of Taha’s mandolute — the hybrid of guitar and oud, as intense as its descriptor implies — can match his own resolve when he and his band are hittin’ the note.
Learning about Taha’s music means a crash course in raï, an Algerian pop flavor that links punk, hard rock, a little reggae and friendlier pop strands and emerged in the late 20th century to crystallize regional interest in Western music and production values. Wrasse Records, which releases Taha’s albums, including Rock El Casbah, is the de facto authority for most Western markets, boasting a portfolio that includes raï and raï-related artists like Souad Massi and Faudel, and also a panoramic world-music glut that includes everyone from Boubacar Traore and Tinariwen to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Femi Kuti, Angelique Kidjo and other latter-day giants of African music.
Taha has described the aggression in raï as what attracts him and his raï has the cosmopolitan flavors of French pop and the bite and crunch of alternative rock, but also the ancient sounds of Algerian-style Chaabi, the North African strain that favors orchestral arrangements, themes of love and loss, and, with the right singer, plenty of angst. “Ya Rayah”, which appears on Casbah, is a version of a song by Algerian master and Chaabi legend Dahmane El Harrachi, and while hardly a punk song in its original form would lend itself comfortably to any halfway aggressive treatment. The rudiments are there, and the roots go deep, and it was Taha’s big crossover song in 1993 for a reason.
Rachid Taha – Voila Voila
But an academic analysis of Taha’s music is the first mistake; so much of it is about feeling and loud, thumping heartbeats, and that’s also the reason why his cover of “Rock the Casbah” — the title track, and to these ears rightly revered — is also the least interesting song of the 15 on the compilation. Why? It leaves very little mystery, especially when compared to a song like “Kelma” — which Taha describes as the word one can’t come up with when searching for a perfect descriptor of a nagging feeling or buoyant idea — or “Voila Viola”, a pro-immigration invective, or “Habina”, by the Lebanese oud savant Farid El Atrache, which is decidedly upbeat and probably deceptively so. Even the touchstones are mysterious. “Jungle Fiction”‘s origins stretch back to 1930, because despite the title, yes, that is “Misirlou” you hear (Dick Dale’s 1962 surf rock treatment, used in Pulp Fiction is the best-known version). Taha’s take is brawny dance-punk, with a healthy layering of drum-and-bass.
So what’s missing? Well, for fanatics, more from Taha’s 1983-1989 French-Arabian rock crew Carte de Sejour — don’t worry, Taha’s version of Charles Trenet’s acidly ironic “Douce France” is here — and also cuts from his 2001 live effort Rachid Taha Live, which really goes off the rails. Trading that kind of esoterica in favor of more recognizable lends creedence to anyone who’d call the album “safe” — that is, a cursory expose of Taha’s best-known songs and filling a void for Stateside and other fans who before now have had to rely on bootlegs and squirrely mp3s to hear much of the rest. Therefore Rock el Casbah the record sits as a totem: something to appreciate and, as necessary, glean from. And see Taha live. You’ll be grateful you did, and understand why even an impressively compiled best-of disc like this one is hopelessly slight, despite 15 tracks that are all takeaways.