RACHID TAHA – The Last Punk?

Damon Albarn and Rachid Taha, Africa Express Paris 2009

Rachid with Damon Albarn and friends, Africa Express 2009. Photograph by Simon Phipps.

My gaze glues itself to one of today’s most eccentric rock’n’roll rebels as he stalks the stage in front of the flirtatiously grand Mairie de Paris like a demented scarecrow, a defrocked undertaker, a panto miscreant of the kind that haunts young children’s dreams.  Rachid Taha is probably the most recognizable person on that bursting stage in the collective eye of the 18,000 strong French crowd, who are both tired and ecstatic after a six hour orgy of African and western musical coupling under the hot Parisian sun.

“Weeee don’t laaahhk it!!!! ROCK DA CASBAH!  ROCK DA CASBAH!!!”   Taha’s voice whines atop the rousing racket like the white spume on a towering wave, which teeters and totters but somehow manages not to crash.  Pork pie hatted Damon Albarn leads the charge together with Rachid.  Behind them storm a mob-happy crowd of musicians, all rat-arsed on the 90 per cent proof joyousness of the moment.  I can see Jamie T, Romeo and Michele from the Magic Numbers, the Kooks, Patrick Wolf, The Kick Horns, too many to register in those incalculable seconds of unity.  Africa Express, Rachid et Damon, you, me, white, black, Africa, Europe, roots, pop, rock’n’roll, altogether now…”ROCK THE CASBAH!!”

A few sobering months later, I’m on the blower to Rachid as he sits in the offices of his record label in Paris early on a cold blue-eyed September afternoon, a head tightening hour for a nocturnal incubus like Taha, who grudgingly goes through the motions of yet another promotional stint for his new album ‘Bonjour’.   So hey, let’s warm the conversation up over the flame of those sweet memories of the Africa Express gig in Paris.

“I don’t think Africa Express had much impact you know,” comes the cold shower. “It was a sort of Rotary Club gathering, but it didn’t go far. In fact, to begin with, what is Africa Express?  What’s it for?”

Erm…to promote African music to a wider audience. Come on, Rachid, mate, you can go along with that can’t you?

“Well it isn’t the case at all pal!”  My skin turns a chicken texture.  “Nothing’s really changed.  I don’t see many African artists making it in France right now, or Arabic ones.  We’re still in the era of the West and America holding on to their role as the arbiters of pop music, of Africa and everything else, even the economy and life itself.  Africa is just left to die, just as African culture is just left to die too.”

I should have known better.   Rachid Taha has never gone in for cosy certainties or hippy-hugging harmony.   He lives, he fights, he stumbles and burns bridges for breakfast, all according to Dylan’s famous dictum: To live outside the law you must be honest.  And Rachid is the embodiment, a strange growling Franco-Algerian Stetson-wearing rock’n’roll animal embodiment, of the outlaw archetype.

Journalists with only a shallow knowledge of Franco-Algerian complexities are prone to misunderstand Taha.  They call him a rai artist, alluding to the grinning Algerian pop music style that has dominated the North African Diaspora for three decades.  It’s a bit like calling Iggy Pop a New Romantic.   The misclassification used to irk Taha but not any more apparently.  “I couldn’t give a toss, I’m beyond that now,” he says.

They miscast Rachid as a defender and proselytiser of Algerian and North African culture.  In fact, a bit like John Wayne in the desperate low-point of a John Ford western, Taha is an intellectual loner firing his Winchester at smug hypocrisy and half-baked platitudes on all sides.  He despairs of most of his fellow North African artists, regarding them as little more than the lazy pilferers of a great musical tradition.   He insists that the likes of Khaled, Mami, Faudel and other pin-ups of the Maghreb make him feel sad rather than angry.

“There’s no infrastructure in North Africa equivalent to the one in the west,” he explains. “Over there, you don’t record a cassette, you just fill it up.   Singers are still considered buffoons.  There’s no real intellectual or cultural interest in what they do, so they’re content to just sing for important personages and nothing more.  And when they become stars, they bourgeoisify themselves very quickly.”

Taha went back to Algeria, a country which he left with this parents at the age of ten to go and live in a hick village in eastern France, for a series of concerts back in 2006.  It was a dispiriting experience.  “We did about six dates,” he remembers reluctantly.  “They were in French cultural centres yet again.  It’s always frustrating to play in places like Algeria.  I always come back dissatisfied with a suitcase full of pain.  Either it’s all very intellectual and bourgeois, or you go popular and play in stadiums.  Or it’s nothing at all, except weddings perhaps.  But can you see me playing at barmitzvahs and weddings?”

You might have expected all these brain-burning struggles and disillusionments to turn Taha into a moody cynical man.  But the opposite is true.  He protects himself by staying on the eternal offensive, shooting from the hip with little regard for the consequences and remaining determinedly in lust with life.

Back in the late 1970s, when Taha was in his early twenties and working in a heating appliance factory in a suburb of Lyon, he started a club called ‘Les Refoulés’ (‘The Rejects’) where he would splice bits of Oum Khalthoum and other Aarbic pop classics onto Led Zeppelin, Bo Diddley and Kraftwerk backbeats.  His first serious group, ‘Carte de Sejour’ (‘Resident’s Permit’) was a kind of Maghreb-punk shock machine who stuck it to the French Man with a remake of Charles Trenet’s classic ‘Douce France’.  Imagine Asian Dub Foundation gobbing out ‘White Cliffs of Dover’ in the early 1980s and you should get the feel of Taha’s talent for upsetting cosy collective sanctities.

Then came hits like ‘Voilà Voilà’, a flame-fisted techno-rant against the rise of the extreme right in France, and Taha’s rocking cover of ‘Ya Rayah’, a classic elegy on emigration written by the great Dahmane El Harrachi.  Taha’s version remains one of the most popular hits of modern North African music.   Both these songs, and a clutch of revolutionary albums, were the product of Taha’s twenty-two year association with the British producer Steve Hillage, a marriage that recently broke up when Taha decided to work with Gaetan Roussell, a close friend and lead singer of the massive French rock band Louise Attaque.

“You have to leave home at some point, you have to kill your daddy,” Rachid says about the breakup.  “I can thank that relationship for where I am today, but to be honest, I was totally fed up.  I think of Steve from time to time, and maybe I’ll go back to him one day, but I don’t look back.  Nostalgia is not for me.”

But where exactly is Rachid Taha today?   With the success of ‘Voilà Voilà’, ‘Ya Rayah’, and his participation alongside fellow Khaled and Faudel in the epic ‘1-2-3 Soleil’ concert at the Bercy stadium in Paris, which yielded a million-selling live album, Rachid was definitely a big star in France in the 1990s.  But he never bothered to capitalise on that status.  Commercial strategies and speculations are just bore him frigid.  When I ask Taha about the collapsing recorded music industry in France he just quips, “hang on, I’ll pass you my Financial Director and you can talk to him.”  Ok, ‘nuff said.

The truth is, Rachid Taha is on the same solitary road that he’s always walked. ‘Bonjour’ is an optimistic album, with songs of love, respect, hope and yes, a little anger too, riding astride his signature pounding rockabilly beats and Bo Diddley stomps, all meshed together with swirling Arabic riffs and motifs.  One remarkable song called ‘Selu’, exhorts all of us, and no doubt Taha himself, to “consult the angels”, who he then proceeds to list:  Khalil Gibrain, Mohammed Darwish, Naib Mahfouz, Cheikh Hamada, Youssef Chahine, Blond Blond, Kateb Yacine, Frantz Fanon and Camaron de la Isla.

I ask Rachid about Camarón, the doomed poet-hero of Spanish Flamenco.  “He was the greatest singer of all time, alongside Elvis Presley,” answers Rachid.  “He was also the last punk.”   I almost say, “except you Rachid, except you,” but my skin is still feeling like cold chicken so I just keep schtumm.  We can’t all be honest outlaws.

Andy Morgan.  (c) 2009
First published in The Independent – Nov 2009

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