Among the various Algerian artists who distinguished themselves in fusion style two famous name often come to minds: the band Gnawa Diffusion and Rachid Taha.
The first word I associate with Rachid Taha is “audacious”. This term may sound overused but I sincerely think that the way he married different kinds of music was quite audacious and startling, leading the listener to feel an instant jubilation or a deferred delight when the song requires several listenings to be properly appreciated. In short, Rachid Taha’s mix of genres causes sparkles like fire emerges after rubbing two different stones.
This is, undoubtedly, due to his being influenced by the Punk scene, and especially the English band The Clash of whom he covered in Arabic the song Rock the Casbah. He has also collaborated, several times, with Mick Jones the guitar player of the legendary British music group.
Many have appreciated the pieces where Taha married edgy guitar chords and sophisticated middle-eastern melodies, highly influenced by Oum Kelthoum, the famous Egyptian cantatrice. Indeed, songs like Nokta, Fokt Fokt, or Zoum sur Oum can be considered to be the “trademark” of Rachid Taha. Nonetheless, it’s the piece Bonjour that really impressed me in the first place, revealing Rachid’s ability in combining sounds apparently originated from different horizons.
That song is a duet with Gaetan Roussel, the leader singer of the French band Louise Attaque. It opens on the tunes of a usual French rock ballad, with some chords on acoustic guitar, then comes the enthusiastic and contagious voice of Rachid Taha, joined by the mandolute of Hakim Hamadouche, his faithful partner, thanks to whom the chaabi melody slips finely in the song, with the grace of detachment, enabling even a punk/rock acceleration of the rhythm in the last part of the song.
We can also hear that subtle mix of chaabi and western sonorities in other pieces of music like Wesh (N’amal) where Country music meets Algerian tunes, as though they were made to encounter, in a skillful play of lights and shadows.
The same effect can be felt in the more recent song Baba, a duet with the band La Caravane Passe, which mingles here tzigane music and chaabi, a genre that Taha has widely contributed to make known throughout the world with his covers of Dahmane El Harachi : Ya Rayeh, Ach Dani and Kiffach Rah of which Rachid managed to underline the rock or even punk aspect in the intro.
Oen cannot speak about Rachid taha without evoking Rai music which he has also adapted in his own fashion, like in the song Djamila (about forced marriages) where electro keyboards seem to get lost in cosmic labyrinths, on a falsely naïve melody, sounding a bit like Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground that the Algerian artist quoted as one of his major influences.
In the same Rai register, there is the punchy Ida, with its heroic trumpets and powerful groove, backed-up by a solid rhythmic section (drums and bass).
There are, of course, other songs that reflect the creativity of Rachid Taha. I cannot forget the magnificent Stenna and its atmosphere close to U2, beside a great vocal performance of Taha of whom the voice ton can remind us, here, of Bono. Some will doubtless underline that Rachid Taha’s producer was none other than Brian Eno, who also produces the Irish group.
By the way, Brian is on he video clip of the single taken from Rachid Taha’s posthumous album Je suis Africain. The video, in itself, shows how the deceased singer could gather people coming from different horizons, ranging from Zebda or artists from British Pop to personalities of rock music or French cinema, beside Catherine Ringer and even…Benjamin Biolay. That diversity reflects the wide musical range of Rachid Taha of whom I chose here my selected songs, without chronological order nor classification according to albums, as the reader may have noticed, but with the strong will to share what I like in that artist who defined himself as a rocker, above all.
Yes, a rocker singing in Arabic dialect.
Rest in Peace “comrade”.