Rachid Taha (°1957, Algeria) reminds you of Arno. Both of them, with their tousled hair and occasional stubble, cultivated that scruffy punk image for three decades; flouting all the rules but winning all the prizes.
But the comparison ends there, for a number of reasons. Mostly because Taha spent so long working in a factory before he could live off his music. Having grown up in Algeria he moved to France with his family at the age of ten. His father was “a modern slave” in a textile factory, and at seventeen Taha went to work in a power station. He hated it but deejayed in underground discos at night, mixing Arabic music, rap, salsa and funk. He wrote poetry and angry songs. Very angry songs. Around him he gathered a crowd of like-mind people and formed the rock band ‘Carte de Séjour’, sparked by the lyrics of the Clash and work of Linton Kwesi Johnson.
It was hard work. They had no money and no interest from the French music labels, who had no room for Arabic musicians in their stables. So they slipped down into the suburbs, where they wrote raging Arabic punk songs about scandalous working conditions and the way immigrants were treated. At one point they hit the front pages, briefly, with their ironic-oriental interpretation of the classic ‘Douce France’. Rachid Taha dyed his hair ‘Arian blond’ and handed out his lyrics in the French parliament “to confront all the public representatives with the migrant’s perspective”. The song was pulled from the ether not long afterwards.
Carte de Séjour was never successful, nor was Taha’s first CD under his own name, Barbès. There was only so much sympathy for Arabic music at the time of the Gulf War. So Taha had to keep working at the power station, then as a house painter, dishwasher and door-to-door encyclopaedia salesman. His career didn't get off the ground until hippie hero, Steve Hillage, produced his songs.
He used the oud, drums and traditional stringed Arabic instruments to back classical Algerian, Moroccan and Egyptian songs, mixed with contemporary samples and Western pop and rock. ‘Ya Rayah’ was one of the first Arabic songs to be picked up by DJs in Europe and became a hit from Turkey to Colombia. Migra was recorded and released by Carlos Santana, and sold 25 million copies. Mick Jones, guitarist for The Clash, performed Taha’s semi cover ‘Rock El Casbah’ frequently.
He was also a pioneer of rock-’n-rai, a musical style which is rooted in the Bedouin tradition of rai and driven by the melodies of Western rock and pop. An anthology of his repertoire can be heard at the Centre for Fine Arts on 25 November. In Moussem Sounds he pays homage to Umm Kulthum and Elvis Presley, following a concert by Moroccan singer-songwriter Nabyla Maan. He creates pop melodies and trancelike soundscapes in chaabi, an Algerian musical style which rests on the same foundations as blues and rock, says Taha. “It's not rai this time, but Rai Cooder, and I'll be mixing my influences, like Asian Dub Foundation.”