Raging at injustice, he rocks the Casbah and beyond

Boston Globe, July 3, 2005


Couched in the truncated urban French of text messages, police stops, and ghetto posturing, the title of singer Rachid Taha’s barnstorming new album poses an urgent existential challenge: “Who the hell are you?”

In-your-face exhortation comes naturally to the Paris-based Taha, who brings his six-piece Arabic rock band to the Paradise on Thursday. In true punk-rock tradition, he has always believed in the power of provocation and is a veteran practitioner of riling up an audience for its own good.

This is, after all, the man who in 1986 loosed a vituperative Arabic remake of the patriotic “Douce France” (“Sweet France”) by crooner Charles Trenet on a French culture tone-deaf to the hardships of immigrant life and unready for multicultural irony. Think Jimi Hendrix deconstructing “The Star-Spangled Banner” or the Sex Pistols vandalizing “God Save the Queen.” The name of his group at the time, Carte de Sejour (“resident permit”) was itself a political statement. expanded his range of targets. He’s taking on racism, repression, and war, along with corrupt Arab governments and the knee-jerk propensity of some activists to blame Third World ills on the West alone.

“What bothers me is censorship, dictatorship, lies, and people killing one another,” the 46-year-old Taha says. “Besides, if you’re the slightest bit human, you can see that things aren’t going very well in the world right now.”

Taha is calling from Bursa, Turkey, where he’s headlining a festival in advance of his US tour. “I’m a bit of a star here in Turkey,” he concedes, as he is throughout the Mediterranean.

At a recent Beirut concert, the local Daily Star reported: “[Taha] managed to work a normally staid Lebanese crowd into a jumping fury of screams and sweating bodies as well as mess with their minds denouncing political assassinations and arguing for a true revolution.”

The idea of a healthy appetite for jangly guitar riffs, industrial beats, and punk-rock stage antics among Middle Eastern and North African youth might clash with Western stereotypes. For Taha, that sort of misunderstanding is nothing new.

“The Western vision of the Arab world has always been more or less the same,” he says. “There’s no real vision, but instead a bunch of cliches. If there were a real vision, we wouldn’t be in such deep [trouble],” he continues, using a more pungent expression.

Taha places little stock in the sort of attention Western governments and media place on the Arab world today.

“For anything good to come of it, the starting point would have to be to respect the culture,” he says. “To have a dialogue, actually talk to one another.”

An inveterate wanderer who travels incessantly on a punishing tour schedule, Taha has been carrying on his end of the conversation with anyone, anywhere, who will take part. Recent high-profile collaborators have included Brian Eno and Femi Kuti.

Most important has been Taha’s partnership with British guitarist and producer Steve Hillage, who emerged with the 1970s band Gong and later founded the eclectic techno unit System 7. After a first encounter in the 1980s, Hillage and Taha have worked together for the past 10 years, developing the music that’s propelled Taha to worldwide acclaim.n” (1998), a collection of traditional songs from Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt. One of these, “Ya Rayah,” a moving chaabi song about departure and loss by Dahmane El Harrachi, was a global hit and has become Taha’s signature tune.

“It’s sort of like my `Yesterday,’ it’s the unavoidable song,” Taha says. He’s pleased that his biggest track is also one of the most traditional. “That it’s written by someone other than me is even better.”

On “Tekitoi,” however, Taha establishes from the outset a fast- paced, angular sound with abrupt breaks, punctuations, and noise interludes, along with segments of out-and-out shrieking punk catharsis. The interplay of instruments from the Western and Arabic traditions bass, guitar, keyboard, drums, oud, and derbuka in Taha’s music, always fascinating, has never been more integrated and accomplished.

The sound supports songwriting that combines indignation with a kind of political lyricism.

“Don’t forget there were others before you, and after you, believe me, there will be plenty more,” Taha sings in French on the title track. “There will be brutality and there will be people up against the wall, and in that pile of garbage, will there be you, will there be me?”

Other standouts include “Rock el Casbah,” a cover of the Clash classic and an obvious statement of purpose for Arabic rock, and “H’Asbu Hum!” (“Call them to account!”), a verbal Molotov cocktail hurled at undemocratic governments: “Liars, thieves, humiliators, killers, oppressors, traitors, the envious, the rotters, the diggers, propagandists, destroyers, slavers, the lazy!”

But for all his anger and agitation, Taha is no less a romantic who can pen and perform a love song, and ultimately a believer in a common humanity.

“When I listen to traditional music, the blues for example, what fascinates me is the origins, to realize that a West African marabout and a northern shaman resemble each other, they both heal pain in the same way.”

He found sustenance for that belief on his previous US tour, which occurred in 2002 with the wounds of Sept. 11, 2001, still raw. He did not encounter hostility, he says, but rather the opposite.

“I felt a bit more of a sense of humanity,” he says. “I felt it in the audience, in people’s smiles. I think that in general, when you actually have a dialogue with people, you always end up getting along.”

“Politicians,” Taha concludes, “should take more inspiration from music.”