The man that pulls no punches, from Algeria's far west (First published in Songlines, 2009)
Joan Baez sang âwhere have all the flowers gone?â back in 1964.Â Forty years later, itâs more a case of ânever mind the flowers, where have all the protest singers gone?âÂ Â In a time of unprecedented global chaos, conflict and anger it seems that rockânâroll has abandoned its rebel stance, taken the kingâs shilling and contented itself with dancing the corporate two-step.Â Â Â No doubt there are voices of dissent out there, but you have to be either very hip or very persistent to know anything about them.Â Â Come to think of it, who was protesting in â91, except the Rolling Stones?Â And who was there in â82, except Robert Wyatt?Â Â Maybe that whole rock rebel stance has been nothing more than a hollow gesture, ever since âStreet Fighting Manâ slipped down the charts and John and Yoko got out of bed.Â There was Crass I suppose and the Clash of course.Â Yes, there will always be the Clash.Â But before we all decide to slit our wrists or go down to Wall Mart to shop and forget, it might encourage us all to know that musical protest, not diatribe, but sincere self-questioning protest with soul, still lives and thrives in the strangest of places.
âI dreamed of singing about my own nightmares,â was Tahaâs succinct answer to my question about the creative genesis of his new album âTĂ©kitoiâ.Â Â For most of us, there are two types of nightmare, the introspective type, in which our inner loneliness and doubt suddenly become monstrously scary, and the external type, in which the potential dangers of the world haunt us to the marrow of our bones.Â âTĂ©kitoiâ deals with both types of nightmare.Â Its lyrics dovetail the personal and the universal, with the gouging power of a hawkâs beak.Â Â In the track âHâasbu-humâ, a title taken from a slogan meaning âGet rid of themâ which Taha spotted on a banner at a protest march in Algeria which he saw on TV, the people responsible for Tahaâs outward nightmares are neatly listed, in Arabic of course.Â Translated, the list goes something like âLiars, thieves, people who humiliate others, murderers, oppressors, traitors, the envious, the corrupt, diggers, propagandists, destroyers, slave drivers, the lazy, the racists, the undecided, the ignorant, the preachers, the profiteers, the boasters, the dirty.âÂ He follows the list with the words âGet rid of them!Â Â Bring them to account!â
If âTĂ©kitoiâ comprised solely of such lists, mixed in with big boombastic words of vitriol and anger, then it wouldnât really amount to much more than a kind of emotional enema, in the style of 1980s skinhead âOiâ bands.Â Thankfully, itâs so much more than that, because Taha has the courage, and even the humility, to confront the other type of nightmare, thatâs to say, the dark quick sands of his inner self.Â Even âTĂ©kitoiâ, the title of the album, a deft piece of French street lingo which translates as something like âWho the hell are you?â, has a troubled existentialist ring to it.Â âThe song is an attempt to explore the identity of the person in front of me,â explains Rachid. âIn order for tolerance to have any hope of existing, you have know who you are, and you have to know who the person youâre dealing with is.Â Â Thatâs what the song is about.âÂ Â Itâs worth noting that these slices of angst are fried on a backing track that makes you think Cramps, Clash and North Africa simultaneously, without any visible joins in between.Â The album then dances and moshes onwards, throwing up more questions than answers, coming back again and again to the bleak and dirty victory of experience over innocence, the wilful corruption of the world versus the desperate attempt of the individual to find some kind of goodness in their lives, the anger and frustration which Taha himself shares with the âordinaryâ man in the street all over the world.
Taha has long been recognised as a perceptive thinker and a courageous mental guerrillero, but what is really astounding is that he has always been fighting a war on two fronts.Â Â His stand against the racism and bigotry of his adoptive France, so neatly expressed in anthems like âVoilĂ VoilĂ â, or the corruption of western governments and war-mongerers, has already been widely hailed and documented.Â What it less appreciated, is Tahaâs struggles with his own Arabic roots, with his inherited North African culture and especially with the age-old tendency to metaphorise musical or poetic discourse in the Arabic world.Â Taha considers this metaphorical muzzling to be a product of a generalised puritanism and lack of democracy, which has always been the scourge of free thinkers form North African or the Middle East, like himself.Â Â For any Arabic poet or musician, to abandon metaphor automatically means to shock.Â âMetaphors are so dangerous,â Taha asserts.Â âThe problem with a metaphor is that it can usually only be understood by a minority, an educated elite.Â But I want to communicate directly with the man on the street, even if that means talking in a brutal way sometimes.Â Too many metaphors lead to war.â
Itâs no surprise therefore that Taha has always been a master of the provocative gesture, the act that pulls no punches.Â Famous early examples were his decision to call his first band âCarte de SĂ©jourâ, which means âResidentâs Permitâ.Â Â As a moniker for a bunch of young North African immigrants, singing in Arabic and French, this was as neat and succinct a piece of provocation as any. Then there was Carte de SĂ©jourâs cover of âDouce Franceâ, a wistful and nostalgic classic of the French chanson canon by Charles Trenet.Â Think of Asian Dub Foundation doing a cover of âWhite Cliffs Of Doverâ, back in the early â80s, and you might get a measure of its provocative value.Â At the time, Taha also persuaded the renowned French minister of culture, Jack Laing, to distribute copies of âDouce Franceâ to every member of the French parliament.Â Â A few years later, on the cover of âOlĂ© OlĂ©â, an album whose electronic approach revolutionised North African music, Taha died his hair beach blonde and sported Aryan blue contact lenses.Â It was a visual v-sign to all the TV producers, Radio programmers and chicken-shit journalists who didnât dare touch Taha because he was Algerian.Â But it was also an attempt to rib the macho prejudices of North African manhood, to whom the very idea of homosexuality and gender bending, are a complete anathema.Â Taha himself feels certain affinities with the gay underground âbecause minorities need to stick togetherâ and has been seen serving drinks behind the bar of his favoured Parisian club âPulpâ, also popular with the cityâs gay and lesbian community, on a regular basis.
The real joy of Taha is the unpredictability of his thoughts and opinions, and his refusal to conform to any rigid and reductive dogma.Â In an interview, his answers surprise you constantly.Â Talking about Epargnes sur Vologne, the idyllic little village in the eastern French province of Alsace, where his parents moved to in 1968 when they left their home near Oran in Algeria, Taha says âI felt like a rat in a cage, looking for an escape route.Â But racism wasnât really a problem because in a village like that, everyone hates each other anyway.Â Real racism starts in the cities, when youâre older, and you canât get a job or a flat or anything.â
Leaving and home and community for Lyons, and a crap job in a heating appliances factory, was a decisive journey for Taha, and a prerequisite for the kind of intellectual development he yearned for.Â âCommunitarianism is the worse possible thing,â he says with emphatic zeal.Â âItâs the way wars start.Â When I go out, I see the youth of the same neighbourhood and same origins sticking together.Â I never wanted that to happen to me.Â You have to be an adventurer.Â Staying stuck in your own community comes down to laziness.Â Itâs conformism.Â Itâs great to spend time with your family but the best way to find freedom is to get the hell away from the family.Â The alienation and racism of the Socialist Party in the 1980s caused young North Africans to retreat back into their community.Â This breach was then exploited by the National Front and Le Pen.Â Le Pen isnât in power but his ideas are.Â The self-proclaimed fundamentalist Imams and preachers also exploit the situation for their own ends.Â This reinforces conservatism, laziness and nostalgia rather than curiosity, and a desire to look outwards and understand others.Â Nostalgia is a kind of pathology.Â I always want to move forward, and never retreat into nostalgia.â
This forward, outward and upward philosophy is at the core of Tahaâs musical approach.Â Even though he was born in Oran, and raised in the nearby town of Sig, Taha has always felt either bored or alienated by the excessive nostalgia and barely disguised tendency to ape Julio Iglesias in the pop-rai music of Khaled, Mami et al.Â In Lyons he started a club for all the people who werenât allowed into the cityâs more established nightspots, called âLes RefoulĂ©sâ, which means âThe Rejectsâ or âThe Frustratedâ.Â There he would spin everything from Oum Kalthoum to Kraftwerk, and spend many absorbing hours creating little samples of Arabic or rock music to run over beats stolen from some other sources.Â During the day I spent with him recently, Taha made allusion to an impressive list of musical heroes and influences, thereby hinting at a deep musical curiosity and open-mindedness.Â These included Led Zeppelin, The Clash, The New York Dolls and Johnny Thunders, The Who, Bo Diddley, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Giorgio Moroder, The Meters, Dr John, Suicide, Laurie Anderson, Farid El Atrache, Mâhamed Hadj El Anka, Nass El Ghiwane and Leo FerrĂ©.Â âMy music is like a Pakistani corner shop,â Taha is fond of saying.Â âYou can find everything in there.â
The Clash were an especially big influence, mirroring as they did Tahaâs taste for revolt and spectacle.Â Taha went to see the band at The Mogador in Paris in 1982.Â He met up with them for a brief couple of minutes before the gig and handed over a tape of Carte de SĂ©jour.Â Although he never heard from them again, Taha maintains that itâs possible that Joe Strummer had Carte de SĂ©jour and Taha in mind when he wrote âRock The Casbahâ.Â Tahaâs cover of the song on the new album, which he sings in Arabic and has cheekily renamed âRock El Casbahâ, is a tribute to Strummer.Â âI liked his sincerity and maladroit humour,â he says.Â âHe wasnât part of that cynical punk thing.Â The song is very ironic, maybe even racist.Â Itâs seems to be a parody of the westâs view of the Arabic world as an oil pump and nothing more, completely devoid of culture.Â It was that attitude that lead to the Baghdad museum being sacked whilst troops guarded the oil ministry last year.â
Unlike many other musicians of Algerian origin, who get all excited by the idea of working with a long string of âtrophyâ producers at the behest of their record companies, Taha has sustained a remarkable 22-year long bond of creativity and friendship with the English producer Steve Hillage, a man whose love of North African and Arabic music was already well advanced by the end of the 1970s.Â Â Hillage heard Carte de SĂ©jour by chance when he was visiting the offices of Virgin France in Paris sometime in the early eighties.Â He ended up producing the first Carte de Sejour album.Â Since then, on albums like âOlĂ© OlĂ©â, âDiwanâ and âMade in Medinaâ, Hillage and Taha have effectively rewritten the instruction manuals for North African music, by approaching it with an unabashed spirit of modernity and excellence.Â On âTĂ©kitoiâ their collaboration scales new peaks, forging a totally original sound with Arabic melodies sparring against rock riffs and north African percussion skirmishing with deftly programmed rhythms and sequences, all crowned with Tahaâs ruff neck and percussive Arabic vocal, which are close in style and texture to the voices of the cheikhs, or male singers of rural roots rai.Â âRachid has always had a very consistent vision of where he wants to go musically,â says Hillage.Â âI remember visiting him in his dressing room after a Carte de SĂ©jour gig in Lyons in 1982.Â He put on a tape of the famous Algerian chaabi singer Mâhamed Hadj El Anka and said, âHey, listen to this.Â Câest le blues!âÂ The rock element in the last album, âMade in Medinaâ was a little bit retro.Â Weâve evolved and our technique is more advanced on âTĂ©kitoiââ
The fusion on âTĂ©kitoiâ is sometimes so perfect that it makes a mockery of the word âfusionâ.Â Â On final analysis, itâs just a superb rock album, spiced with a world of flavours, with lyrics in Arabic.Â If thatâs just too hard for blinkered editors and radio programmers to accept, then they need to get out more.Â Itâs also a very dark angry album, a raw and gutsy reflection of a world thatâs âgoing head-on into a brick wallâ to use Tahaâs own words.Â Sometimes the gloom of the lyrics is so pervasive that itâs hard to imagine how Taha gets out of bed in the morning. âWhen I have black moments, I try to say to myself that black is a colour, despite everything, and that the colour black is made up of all the other colours.Â Black is almost like the curtain which hides the window.Â But life is seductive.Â You have to seduce and be seduced.Â Itâs all about loving life, and all thatâs around you.Â You must never be blasĂ© or bitter.Â Thatâs the worse possible thing.Â After that comes death.âÂ âAnd is there anything youâre still yearning to do before you depart this life, â I ask, âlike jump out of a plane with a parachute or something like that.Â âNo, thatâs not it,â Taha retorts.Â âItâs jumping from a plane WITHOUT a parachute.â
Andy Morgan.Â (c) 2009
First published in Songlines – Dec 2009