Rachid Taha 1958 – 2018

 

© Wrasse

 

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been cranked up to eleven, so that it was now sung in Arabic and the original’s cascade of piano, bass and drums had been replaced by a barrage of North African strings, percussion and flutes.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.

 

Nosferatu in North Africa

 

When I first moved to Tunisia in 2010, the country was under the heel of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.  However, just three months after my arrival, the Arab Spring was triggered in a truly unforeseen manner, by the self-immolation of a poor street trader called Mohamed Bouazizi, outraged at the brutal and off-hand way he’d been treated by Ben Ali’s police.  There ensued a month of chain-reaction protests that climaxed with Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and a squad of her family members fleeing the country for Saudi Arabia.

 

Ben Ali seemed to be everywhere during my first few months in Tunisia – his last few months in Tunisia, as it turned out.  From roadside and street-side billboards and from framed portraits on the walls of public offices and private businesses, his visage beamed down at me.  He was supposedly long in the tooth by then and many Tunisians whispered that, physically, he was ailing badly and was kept near-comatose on medication administered by his wife.  (This situation suited the Lady Macbeth-like Leila Trabelsi nicely.  She was reckoned to be the one calling the shots anyway – and most of those shots seemed to involve money being siphoned out of the Tunisian economy and into the pockets of her mafia-like relatives.)  What made those ubiquitous portraits of Ben Ali grotesque were the efforts that’d obviously been made to keep the old fellow young-looking.  His hair seemed to have been pickled in Grecian 2000 and his features were caked in make-up.

 

He put me in mind of a certain movie-star, though probably not the movie-star that his hair stylists and make-up artists had been hoping for.  I took one look at him and thought of Bela Lugosi, playing the title role in the 1930 Universal Studios production of Dracula.  Which I suppose for the long-suffering Tunisians was appropriate, considering what a bunch of bloodsuckers he and his in-laws were.

 

From aswat.com

(c) Universal 

 

Anyway, I’ve just spent a month in Algeria, where I felt a strange sense of déjà-vu harking back to those early days in Tunisia.  An election was coming up (and was held two days ago, on Thursday, April 17th), and the current incumbent in the presidency, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was running for an unprecedented fourth term – he was only supposed to stay in office for two terms but in 2008 he changed the constitutional rules to prolong his presidential tenure.  I heard familiar-sounding mutterings about corruption, ruling cliques and rigged election-results.  The fact that the 77-year-old Bouteflika was wheelchair-bound following a recent stroke did not inspire faith in the country’s political future, either.

 

That said, I’d be surprised if the Arab Spring, which claimed Ben Ali as its original victim, made a belated appearance in Algeria.  During the 1990s the country witnessed a civil war between Islamist militants and the army that left 100,000 people dead.  Seeing the potential arise for a similar, devastating militants-versus-military conflict in Egypt, the biggest and powerful country to have experienced the Arab Spring, must seem to Algerians like a reminder of a hideous nightmare.

 

And yes, it felt like Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s face was everywhere in Algiers too.  And again, whenever I saw his ravaged features on billboards and in framed pictures, I found myself thinking of another actor in a well-known drama about vampires.  This time, this particular North African Arab leader made me think of the elderly James Mason, playing the villainous Mr Straker in the 1979 TV-miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling vampire novel, Salem’s Lot.  Here are pictures of the two old fellows – can you tell which one is Abdelaziz and which one is James, aka Mr Straker?

 

From la-croix.com

(c) CBS

 

However, at this point, experts on Stephen King’s fiction will no doubt interject and point out that in Salem’s Lot Mr Straker was not actually a vampire.  He was the evil human familiar of the even-more-evil vampire mastermind Mr Barlow, who eventually vampirised the whole population of the town of the title.  In the TV miniseries, Mr Barlow was depicted as a sinister, skeletal-faced, bald-headed creature and was played by the strikingly-featured character actor Reggie Nalder.

 

Actually, Mr Barlow in Salem’s-Lot-the-TV-show reminded me of a politician too, though not a North African Arab one.  I always thought he was a dead ringer for the sinister, skeletal-faced and bald-headed Norman Tebbit, who was Margaret Thatcher’s take-no-prisoners Secretary of State for Employment and who once, notoriously, instructed the United Kingdom’s unemployed to get on their bicycles and to keep pedalling until they found work.

 

From cash4chaos.com

From eyevee.wordpress.com

 

The white city on the hill

 

 

After three years of living and working in Tunis, I packed my bags and headed home last August.  And I assumed I wouldn’t be returning to the Maghreb region, not for a long time at least.  Oops!  Assume nothing!

 

Because funds in my bank account were dipping dangerously low, I lately accepted the offer of a temporary job in Algiers, capital of the world’s tenth largest country, Algeria.  Thus, unexpectedly but briefly, I find myself back in North Africa.

 

Downtown Algiers is reminiscent of downtown Tunis, where I’d spent those three years living in a crumbling old French-colonial-era apartment.  However, the white-painted colonial architecture in Algiers is on a grander scale, with more storeys and bulkier facades.  It’s also slightly less dilapidated-looking than that in much of Tunis.  Mind you, it’s still a bit dilapidated, but I like that – a degree of dilapidation gives a city character, in my opinion.

 

 

While we’re on the subject of appearances, the Algerian garbage-collection service seems to be more thorough than its Tunisian counterpart, though there’s still a fair amount of refuse lying on the streets.  Also, Algiers seems to have a smaller cat population, meaning there are fewer feral moggies roaming about and tearing the uncollected garbage into messy pieces.

 

 

The other thing adding to Algiers’ personality is the fact that the central city is built on a hillside overlooking the port area and the Mediterranean.  This gives the climbing, winding streets with their many buildings a cluttered and higgledy-piggledy look but again, to me, that makes the place seem more interesting.  My only regret is that I’m here for just a month.  If I had a year in Algiers, I reckon, I’d be able to master the labyrinthine network of short-cuts – steps, staircases and steep narrow alleys and passageways – that make walking from the seafront up to the city’s higher levels less tiring.

 

 

Incidentally, this drearily concrete block of flats, which juts from the hillside outside my hotel window, has none of the city’s faded old French-colonial charm at all.  But I’m taken by the giant lady they’ve painted up the side of it.

 

 

Expect more Algiers-related posts soon.