For my musical education, I owe a lot to Rachid Taha, the Algerian singer-songwriter and musician who sadly passed away on September 12th. He was the person who alerted me to the fact that beyond the parameters of the English-speaking world there are countless types of music, especially types of traditional music, that are well worth listening to.
Before hearing Taha’s records, my only exposure to such music – which in some British and American record shops is still patronisingly labelled ‘world’ music, which suggests that (a) the UK and the USA aren’t actually part of the world themselves, and (b) all the hundreds of musical genres from all the countries outside the Anglosphere can be lumped together under one simplistic heading – had been through the dabblings of certain Western rock musicians. For example, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s 1994 album No Quarter was choc-a-bloc with musicians from Egypt and Morocco.
My musical tastes should have been more internationally savvy earlier on, because I’d spent my younger days living in places like Japan and Ethiopia. But I never really developed an interest in traditional Japanese or Ethiopian music at the time because there was just too much going on around me and too many other things competing for my attention.
One day, though, somebody gave me a compilation CD and on it was an exotic but tantalisingly familiar-sounding tune. It took me a minute to realise I was hearing a version of The Clash’s 1982 classic Rock the Casbah – a Rachid Taha version, renamed Rock El Casbah. The song’s Arabic references had been cranked up to eleven, so that it was now sung in Arabic and the original’s cascade of piano, bass and drums had been replaced by a barrage of North African strings, percussion and flutes.
All in all, it was a brilliant reworking of the song – though if you were to believe Taha, you could understand him having a special affinity for it. Apparently, he encountered The Clash in Paris in 1981 and presented them with a demo tape of his then band, Carte de Séjour, whose sound was a fusion of punk, funk and Algerian Rai music. The Clash politely accepted the tape but never got back in touch. However, when Rock the Casbah was released a year later, Taha had a sneaking suspicion that they’d not only listened to it but they’d maybe pinched a couple of his ideas. Not that there were any hard feelings. A couple of times during the 2000s, The Clash’s Mick Jones got up and performed with Taha when he played Rock El Casbah on stage.
After hearing that I listened a lot to Taha, as well as generally taking much more interest in music from outside my English-speaking bubble. Taha’s songs were an irresistible brew of Algerian Rai and Chaabi music, plus rock, funk and techno. They could be infectiously dance-y, like 1993’s Voilà Voilà or 1997’s Indie. They could be relentlessly and hypnotically intense, like 1995’s Nokta, 1998’s Bent Sahra or 2000’s Barra Barra – that last song turned up on the soundtrack of Ridley Scott’s 2001 film about cack-handed American military intervention in Somalia, Black Hawk Down, which I can’t imagine Taha being very happy about. (For TV viewers, it might be more familiar as the music in the adverts for the computer game Far Cry 2). Occasionally, they just had a toe-tapping, overwhelmingly hummable joie de vivre, such as 1993’s Ya Rayah or 1998’s Ida.
The swaggering, raffish Taha passed away at the age of 59, which strikes me as a tragedy. By rights he should have had a few more decades ahead of him in which to further explore his creativity and make more records. His musical curiosity and love for experimentation and collaboration were inspiring. And it has to be said that his politics (“Black and white – the same. Arabs and Jews – the same.”) meant he was a cultural ambassador whose loss in these paranoid, distrustful times is one we could really have done without.