The Joe Strummer of Algeria (The Telegraph, Filed: 10/02/2005)
Combative North African star Rachid Taha tells Mark Hudson why he's taking his music into gritty rock and roll venues as part of the African Soul Rebels tour .
'Personally, I couldn't care less how people categorise my music," says Rachid Taha. "But I want at least to try to challenge this image of the North African in the desert with his camel." That's rather an understatement for what the Algerian singer has done.
With thick stubble and an air of elegantly bemused exhaustion, Taha cuts an exotic, gypsy-like figure. His hoarse, growling voice and provocative political opinions have made him a prominent figure in France, yet British record-buyers have found his taste for staccato electric guitar and rowdy, microphone-swinging performance more difficult to accommodate. We seem to have an attitude over here that it's not quite decent for the representative of a radically different culture, which draws on millennia-old poetic traditions, to be quite so blatantly… well, rock and roll.
This attitude is precisely what's driven Taha on to the British touring circuit in the company of acclaimed Tuareg nomad guitar band Tinariwen and Radio 3 Award-winning Senegalese rappers Daara J in an enterprise called the African Soul Rebels Tour. The idea is to get world music out of the soporific "establishment" concert halls that have become its customary habitat, and into grittier, stand-up venues. And if there's one world music star who's capable of competing with, say, the Libertines on their own terms, it's undoubtedly Taha.
Yet he is far from being a mere North African rocker. "My music always has the smell of Algeria in it," he says. "But that's only one of many things. And it's certainly not world music. That for me is a nonsense term."
Algeria is the birthplace of rai – the rebellious youth music whose fierce, declamatory singing and driving rhythms have come to dominate our musical perceptions of North Africa. But although Taha was born in Oran, the port city where rai began, his approach has been radically different from that of rai stars such as Khaled or Cheb Mami – whose wailing tones made Sting's Desert Rose a hit. And this is largely because his formative experiences came not in the backstreet cabarets of Oran or Algiers, but in Lepange sur Vologne – a village in the Vosges mountains, where he lived from the age of 10. It inspired the young Taha in only one direction. "If you live in the country and you are young, there's only one thing to do: escape."
The opportunity came when his father, a textile worker, moved to Lyon, and Taha became aware of New York punk bands such as Television and Suicide. He formed a band with local French and North African youths, and while their name Carte de Séjour ("resident's permit") was deliberately provocative, Taha's political perspectives were limited."When you start out, you're not thinking about politics. You're full of energy and you're raging against everything. But when you get some success and people start interpreting what you do, you're forced to look around you. I saw that 70 per cent of the prison population in France are of North African origin. In France, justice is a luxury for the rich."
He began running a club for young North Africans barred from Lyon's nightclubs, where he pioneered Arab electronica, mixing classical singers over Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder – nearly two decades before this approach became fashionable.
His breakthrough came with 1995's Ole Ole, which took rai into hardcore techno. Taha bleached his hair and wore blue contact lenses to confound what he saw as the racist expectations of French record-buyers. He also utterly confused the British world music audience, who couldn't get away from the earthy archetype of the rai singer, with its Islamic echoes. Taha – needless to say – wasn't in the least bothered.
"I'm not making North African music," he protests. "I don't understand why you keep asking me about rai."
Which might seem a touch disingenuous, given that his next album, the highly acclaimed Diwân, is a tribute to the gritty progenitors of rai – casbah crooners and rustic growlers, such as his hero Cheikh Mamachi, who he discovered through his father's record collection. "This is the real rai," he says. "The North African blues."
Taha transposed these singers' guttural delivery and rhythmic drive into a rock context, punctuating his declamations with stabbing guitar and underpinning the buzzing bendir percussion with techno grooves. It makes for uproarious live shows, but the approach received its most bracing expression on his most recent album Tékitoi, which includes a euphoric tribute to the Clash's Joe Strummer, entitled Rock el Casbah.
"I loved his sincerity and humour. He was never cynical. But most important, he expressed himself directly – his music says exactly what it means. One of the problems with North African music and Arab culture in general is that everything is expressed through metaphor. But these metaphors can only be understood by an educated minority. This is why there is no real democracy in any Arab country."
Indeed, despite the virulence of his assault on French complacency, Taha is equally happy to lambast his own community. "I'm against communities on principle. They thrive on suspicion of others and false nostalgia. When I was a kid and saw young North Africans only mixing with others from their community, I swore I'd never be like that. You have to go towards other people. You have to be an adventurer."
It's disconcerting then to learn that Taha's slightly shambling stage persona is due in part to a degenerative bone disease. It undoubtedly contributes to his desire to embrace so many musical challenges while he still can.
"You have to love life and everything around you. You must never allow yourself to become blasé or bitter. That's the worst possible thing."