Ask any musician what genre they play and you’ll likely hear some high-minded or possibly defensive guff about how they don’t like to be pigeonholed.
But the Algerian-born French raï-punk-dance star Rachid Taha, who died yesterday, less than a week before his 60th birthday, really would grab whatever beats, tunes, and instrumentation were at hand to start the party, bring the noise, and make his point. At the core of his sound was always raï, the Algerian wedding music that became the unlikely soundtrack to revolution in the ’50s. But to the end Taha rocked like the DJ he began his career as in a Lyon nightclub, when he was mashing Egyptian diva Oum Kalthoum into Zeppelin and Kraftwerk.
Raï was Taha’s birthright. Both he and the musical style were born in the Algerian coastal town of Oran, which Taha left with his parents at 10 for France. The jobs for immigrants sucked, as jobs for immigrants will, so Taha formed a band the first chance he got, which he and his Arab mates named Carte de Séjour after the “resident cards” that marked their outsider status. They spent the ’80s melding styles, especially raï with punk, and generally pissing off the right people.
Taha’s gruff yet ingratiating vocals were the big draw, and a solo career was inevitable. But it took much of the ’90s for Taha to define himself: He scored a dance hit but still gravitated toward rock; he wrote songs but he also developed a knack for roughing up older Arab tunes without damaging them. He found his footing on the slamming 2000 raï-rock masterpiece Made in Medina.
Then, as so often happens, “world music” found him. After 9/11, American liberals began scouring “the Arab world” for musical edification. For those of us who had something tougher in mind than Sting duetting with Cheb Mami, Taha was made to order. He was secular, he was punk, and, above all, he was a hell of an entertainer. His 2001 First Avenue show was phenomenal, and when I caught him a few years later, at a criminally underattended show in Philadelphia, he was only a notch or two below that.
As a pathetically monoglot American, I always felt like much of Taha’s cultural nuance eluded me. The language barrier was only the half of it—Taha’s music was embedded in an unfamiliar context, surely emitting resonances more perceptible to Arabs, to the French, and especially to French Arabs. But whatever I got wrong about him along the way (a bunch, no doubt), his general approach to art and politics was pretty hard to miss. He loved the old songs not because they were priceless antiques but because they were catchy motherfuckers, and he suspected if we all sang them together and started dancing we might be surprised what happened next.
In short, Rachid Taha was that impossible 21st-century globalist ideal—a rooted cosmopolitan.
Here are 10 standout Taha tracks to get you started. There’s a lot more where these came from.
“Douce France” (with Carte de Séjour) (1986)
Imagine the Sex Pistols desecrating the original “God Save the Queen” rather than writing their own—with, say, a Pakistani-born Johnny Rotten on the mic—and you’ll get a sense of the ruckus this band of excluded immigrant punks caused by sneering through Charles Trenet’s iconic French patriotic anthem.
“Ya Rayah” (1993)
Dahmane El Harrachi first popularized this Algerian traveler’s lament in 1970, but Taha made it his own, recording it multiple times over the course of the ’90s as a song for immigrants and refugees.
Though he’d begun to make his name as a songwriter, Taha focused on reinterpreting Arabic pop songs on Diwan; this is one of two songs he composed himself on the album. And with the horns and the drums vying for your attention, it’s maybe the catchiest recording of his career.
“Menfi” (with Khaled and Faudel) (1998)
Rebel though he was, Taha agreed to team up with two far-smoother raï superstars for a colossal concert event at the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy in Paris, which was recorded and later released as 1.2.3 Soleils. With a full orchestral arrangement (and two additional singers), this Taha composition swells and soars.
“Barra Barra” (2000)
This is Taha’s best known original song, if only because it was used in Black Hawk Down, somewhat dubiously, to import a vague sense of Arabic spookiness. But on its own terms this Made in Medina cut is an apocalyptic masterpiece, showcasing Taha at his bleakest. Lyrics like “There is neither good, nor happiness, nor luck anymore/There are no trees left; the birds stopped singing/ There are neither nights, nor days left; darkness only/Desolation, hell, there is no beauty left” might make even Nick Cave tell Rachid to lighten up a little.
“Voilà Voilà (live)” (2001)
I return to Rachid Taha Live, the most brutal and joyous distillation of Taha’s artistic spirit, more often than any of his other great albums. A dance hit in the early ’90s, “Voilà Voilà” hits particularly hard live, even as lyrics such as “Foreigners, you are the cause of our problems” mockingly quote the sloganeering of French nationalist bigots
“Rock el Casbah” (2004)
That’s right—the old Clash song, which Taha sometimes claimed to have inspired by handing the band a Carte de Séjour tape in the early ’80s, and he steals it just as confidently as he once swiped “Ya Rayah.” The lyrics’ message of hedonism in the face of fundamentalism rings out more righteously in Taha’s Arab translation, making this the finest example of the decolonized reappropriating their poppified culture since Cornershop recorded its Punjabi language version of “Norwegian Wood.”
"Écoute Moi Camarade" (2006)
Diwan 2 was the rare sequel that not only lived up to but surpassed the original. Taha’s singing had only grown more confident with age, all the better his stamp on another collection of Arabic pop, and his sense of rhythm had gotten more limber to boot.
After a quarter-century of recording with British guitarist/producer Steve Hillage, Taha cut Bonjour with Frenchman Gaetan Roussel; its sprightlier, less guitar-wallopped sound led some critics to accuse Taha of losing his edge. But we know better than to trust critics like that. The title track, which begins “Hello Kitty, Bonjour Violent Femmes,” is so footloose you almost suspect Taha wants to be Manu Chao when he grows up.
There are plenty of standout moments on Zoom, Taha’s final album, produced intelligently by Robert Plant’s guitarist Justin Adams. There’s a bilingual “It’s Now or Never,” a tribute to Oum Kalthoum that samples her voice and rhymes her name with the title “Zoom Sur Oum,” even a Brian Eno version of “Voilà Voilà.” And then there’s “Jamila,” a grooving, tuneful diatribe against forced marriage.