Joan Baez sang “where have all the flowers gone?” back in 1964. Forty years later, it’s more a case of “never mind the flowers, where have all the protest singers gone?” In a time of unprecedented global chaos, conflict and anger it seems that rock’n’roll has abandoned its rebel stance, taken the king’s shilling and contented itself with dancing the corporate two-step. 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. Come to think of it, who was protesting in ’91, except the Rolling Stones? And who was there in ’82, except Robert Wyatt? Maybe that whole rock rebel stance has been nothing more than a hollow gesture, ever since ‘Street Fighting Man’ slipped down the charts and John and Yoko got out of bed. There was Crass I suppose and the Clash of course. Yes, there will always be the Clash. 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.
“I dreamed of singing about my own nightmares,” was Taha’s succinct answer to my question about the creative genesis of his new album ‘Tékitoi’. 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. ‘Tékitoi’ deals with both types of nightmare. Its lyrics dovetail the personal and the universal, with the gouging power of a hawk’s beak. In the track ‘H’asbu-hum’, a title taken from a slogan meaning ‘Get rid of them’ which Taha spotted on a banner at a protest march in Algeria which he saw on TV, the people responsible for Taha’s outward nightmares are neatly listed, in Arabic of course. Translated, the list goes something like ”Liars, 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.” He follows the list with the words ‘Get rid of them! Bring them to account!”
If ‘Tékitoi’ comprised solely of such lists, mixed in with big boombastic words of vitriol and anger, then it wouldn’t really amount to much more than a kind of emotional enema, in the style of 1980s skinhead ‘Oi’ bands. Thankfully, it’s so much more than that, because Taha has the courage, and even the humility, to confront the other type of nightmare, that’s to say, the dark quick sands of his inner self. Even ‘Tékitoi’, the title of the album, a deft piece of French street lingo which translates as something like “Who the hell are you?”, has a troubled existentialist ring to it. “The song is an attempt to explore the identity of the person in front of me,” explains Rachid. “In order for tolerance to have any hope of existing, you have know who you are, and you have to know who the person you’re dealing with is. That’s what the song is about.” It’s 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. 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 ‘ordinary’ 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. His stand against the racism and bigotry of his adoptive France, so neatly expressed in anthems like ‘Voilà Voilà’, or the corruption of western governments and war-mongerers, has already been widely hailed and documented. What it less appreciated, is Taha’s 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. 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. For any Arabic poet or musician, to abandon metaphor automatically means to shock. “Metaphors are so dangerous,” Taha asserts. “The problem with a metaphor is that it can usually only be understood by a minority, an educated elite. But I want to communicate directly with the man on the street, even if that means talking in a brutal way sometimes. Too many metaphors lead to war.”
It’s no surprise therefore that Taha has always been a master of the provocative gesture, the act that pulls no punches. Famous early examples were his decision to call his first band ‘Carte de Séjour’, which means ‘Resident’s Permit’. 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 Séjour’s cover of ‘Douce France’, a wistful and nostalgic classic of the French chanson canon by Charles Trenet. Think of Asian Dub Foundation doing a cover of ‘White Cliffs Of Dover’, back in the early ‘80s, and you might get a measure of its provocative value. At the time, Taha also persuaded the renowned French minister of culture, Jack Laing, to distribute copies of ‘Douce France’ to every member of the French parliament. A few years later, on the cover of ‘Olé Olé’, an album whose electronic approach revolutionised North African music, Taha died his hair beach blonde and sported Aryan blue contact lenses. It was a visual v-sign to all the TV producers, Radio programmers and chicken-shit journalists who didn’t dare touch Taha because he was Algerian. 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. Taha himself feels certain affinities with the gay underground “because minorities need to stick together” and has been seen serving drinks behind the bar of his favoured Parisian club ‘Pulp’, also popular with the city’s 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. In an interview, his answers surprise you constantly. 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 “I felt like a rat in a cage, looking for an escape route. But racism wasn’t really a problem because in a village like that, everyone hates each other anyway. Real racism starts in the cities, when you’re older, and you can’t get a job or a flat or anything.”
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. “Communitarianism is the worse possible thing,” he says with emphatic zeal. “It’s the way wars start. When I go out, I see the youth of the same neighbourhood and same origins sticking together. I never wanted that to happen to me. You have to be an adventurer. Staying stuck in your own community comes down to laziness. It’s conformism. It’s great to spend time with your family but the best way to find freedom is to get the hell away from the family. The alienation and racism of the Socialist Party in the 1980s caused young North Africans to retreat back into their community. This breach was then exploited by the National Front and Le Pen. Le Pen isn’t in power but his ideas are. The self-proclaimed fundamentalist Imams and preachers also exploit the situation for their own ends. This reinforces conservatism, laziness and nostalgia rather than curiosity, and a desire to look outwards and understand others. Nostalgia is a kind of pathology. I always want to move forward, and never retreat into nostalgia.”
This forward, outward and upward philosophy is at the core of Taha’s musical approach. 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. In Lyons he started a club for all the people who weren’t allowed into the city’s more established nightspots, called ‘Les Refoulés’, which means ‘The Rejects’ or ‘The Frustrated’. 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. 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. 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, M’hamed Hadj El Anka, Nass El Ghiwane and Leo Ferré. “My music is like a Pakistani corner shop,” Taha is fond of saying. “You can find everything in there.”
The Clash were an especially big influence, mirroring as they did Taha’s taste for revolt and spectacle. Taha went to see the band at The Mogador in Paris in 1982. He met up with them for a brief couple of minutes before the gig and handed over a tape of Carte de Séjour. Although he never heard from them again, Taha maintains that it’s possible that Joe Strummer had Carte de Séjour and Taha in mind when he wrote ‘Rock The Casbah’. Taha’s cover of the song on the new album, which he sings in Arabic and has cheekily renamed ‘Rock El Casbah’, is a tribute to Strummer. “I liked his sincerity and maladroit humour,” he says. “He wasn’t part of that cynical punk thing. The song is very ironic, maybe even racist. It’s seems to be a parody of the west’s view of the Arabic world as an oil pump and nothing more, completely devoid of culture. It was that attitude that lead to the Baghdad museum being sacked whilst troops guarded the oil ministry last year.”
Unlike many other musicians of Algerian origin, who get all excited by the idea of working with a long string of “trophy” 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. Hillage heard Carte de Séjour by chance when he was visiting the offices of Virgin France in Paris sometime in the early eighties. He ended up producing the first Carte de Sejour album. Since then, on albums like ‘Olé Olé’, ‘Diwan’ and ‘Made in Medina’, Hillage and Taha have effectively rewritten the instruction manuals for North African music, by approaching it with an unabashed spirit of modernity and excellence. On ‘Tékitoi’ 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 Taha’s 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. “Rachid has always had a very consistent vision of where he wants to go musically,” says Hillage. “I remember visiting him in his dressing room after a Carte de Séjour gig in Lyons in 1982. He put on a tape of the famous Algerian chaabi singer M’hamed Hadj El Anka and said, “Hey, listen to this. C’est le blues!” The rock element in the last album, ‘Made in Medina’ was a little bit retro. We’ve evolved and our technique is more advanced on ‘Tékitoi’”
The fusion on ‘Tékitoi’ is sometimes so perfect that it makes a mockery of the word ‘fusion’. On final analysis, it’s just a superb rock album, spiced with a world of flavours, with lyrics in Arabic. If that’s just too hard for blinkered editors and radio programmers to accept, then they need to get out more. It’s also a very dark angry album, a raw and gutsy reflection of a world that’s “going head-on into a brick wall” to use Taha’s own words. Sometimes the gloom of the lyrics is so pervasive that it’s hard to imagine how Taha gets out of bed in the morning. “When 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. Black is almost like the curtain which hides the window. But life is seductive. You have to seduce and be seduced. It’s all about loving life, and all that’s around you. You must never be blasé or bitter. That’s the worse possible thing. After that comes death.” “And is there anything you’re still yearning to do before you depart this life, “ I ask, “like jump out of a plane with a parachute or something like that. “No, that’s not it,” Taha retorts. “It’s jumping from a plane WITHOUT a parachute.”
Andy Morgan. (c) 2009
First published in Songlines – Dec 2009