News Pop / Rock 31/01/2005

Algerian Rocker Rachid Taha Shocks The Casbah And Demands To Know 'Who Are You?'

NEW YORK (Wrasse Records) The last time Algerian rocker Rachid Taha made waves with a cover song, it was banned on French radio. He recorded Charles Trenet's "Douce France" (think French Bing Crosby and you will get the picture), spitting it out in such ironic punk fashion that had France in an uproar. A leftwing politician seized the moment, delivering a copy to each French member of Parliament.

Taha's latest release, Tékitoi (Wrasse Records), features "Rock el Casbah," an Arabic translation of the famous Clash song. And though the world has had over two decades to digest this song's lyrics, it takes on new meaning when sung by a French Algerian who cut his teeth in the punk movement. Though Rachid's mix of sounds is one-of-a-kind, it's not surprising given his life path.

"I grew up in Algeria listening to Bollywood, Arabic music at weddings and in the hamam (baths), and trance music from the gnawas who traveled up from Guinea," Rachid recalls. "And when I was 20 living in Paris, I went to a Rock Against Fascism concert with all these punk bands and Linton Kwesi Johnson. This scene was very popular with young Algerians."

On Tékitoi, Rachid embraces all streams from his past, with the hard-edged punk foundation and everything from a full Egyptian orchestra on the song "Safi" to the use of oud (Arabic lute) and darbuka (hourglass drum) on every track. "I take Western music and read it right to left," Rachid proclaims, implying that he is coming at the music in the direction that the Arabic language is read, in the opposite direction of most Western languages.

While Tékitoi's electronic, rock, and punk sounds are easy for Western ears to spot, Rachid also draws on Arabic instruments like the bendir and mandolute throughout the album. "The bendir is my favorite traditional instrument," says Rachid. "It is the ancestor of the snare drum! Because you can hold it with one hand, you can play it and sing at the same time, and dance as well. And the mandolute is a mix of guitar and oud; a mix of West and East, very Mediterranean. It's got so many sounds inside it that it reminds where I come from and where I'm going."

The title track translates as "Who Are You?" though the way he sings it, you might think it is "Who the hell are you?" "It means we don't exist without each other," says Rachid. "You are me and I am you. It's a dialogue between two people. One is a young French guy and one is a young Algerian saying to each other 'Who are you?' If you start to recognize that we are the same then you don't want to do something bad to someone else. Asking 'who the hell are you' is part of the healing process." The second voice is provided by Christian Olivier of popular French band Les Tetes Raides, known for their poetic, intelligent radical music.

Rachid describes his latest album as having a head, body, and legs. "The head is the song 'Mamachi.' It is the song that takes me back to Africa. The body is 'Safi,' which connects me to the West, because after all is said and done, I am a Western boy," Taha says with a smile. "And the legs are 'Stenna,' which is a song to the child that I made: my son."

"I was watching Al Jazeera and there was a journalist talking, obviously following the party line," explains Rachid. "It's such a common trait in Arabic countries. There isn't anything called democracy in those countries. It was obvious the guy was not saying what he wanted to say. That's when I wrote 'Safi,' talking about that issue, people not being able to express themselves, by virtue of having to contain themselves within the party line. A situation I consider to be unacceptable. And the same thing applies too in Western politics. All of the guys out there doing it come from the same privileged background. Is that really a democracy?"

Upon first listen, Rachid's rock instrumentation and electronic beats may appear to be the most Western element of his music. But read a little deeper and you will hear him trade in the tradition of speaking in metaphor for this kind of in-your-face, punk outspokenness, the strongest legacy from his immersion in the West.

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