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By David Honigmann
The Algerian singer Rachid Taha walks the tightrope between east and west. To all appearances a Bohemian Parisian who, he says, likes baked beans and likes couscous, he came to fame as a singer of rai, the truculent, opinionated café music of the Maghreb. He is a strong opponent of US foreign policy (“a cynical, perverted game”) and has played in support of the Stop the War coalition, with Brian Eno on keyboards. But he scorns facile anti-Americanism and is equally disdainful of Islamic fundamentalism.
Taha’s signature style incorporates 1970s western rock and R’n’B into the mix. Made In Medina, from 2000, seethed with rock guitar chords, screaming and crashing. He is not shy about his influences. “Led Zeppelin,” he insists firmly. “They’re an Arab group.” Tekitoi, in 2004, included a cover of the Clash’s “Rock the Casbah”. “I thought it was important,” he says, “that someone who came from the Casbah should sing about the Casbah. During the first Gulf war, the marines used it as their song. It wasn’t made for that – it’s a song about freedom, not a song about war.” Both Mick Jones and Robert Plant, it should be noted, reciprocate Taha’s admiration.
But at the same time Taha honours his north African roots. Diwan, from 1998, was relatively quiet: it looked back to the early masters of rai and chaabi. The follow-up, Diwan 2, was released on Monday; it includes frenetic mandolin work from Hamid Hamadouche and sweet,
diving strings from the
Cairo String Ensemble.
“I made it a bit for my son, whose mother is French,” he says. “I wanted to show that music isn’t forbidden in Islam, and here’s the proof.”
Taha sees himself as fighting against puritanism “on both sides – from the west as well as from the east. And in the west it’s stronger and stronger.” “Gana El Hawa”, from the new album, was first recorded by the Egyptian heart-throb Abdel Halim Hafez. Taha remembers seeing it in a film in the late 1960s. “There was a long, long kiss on the lips . . . I grew up with all that, all those Egyptian musical comedies.”
The album opens with a cover of Mohamed Mazouni’s “Ecoute-moi camarade”, with a woozy, rasping muted trumpet line. Taha had unearthed a copy of the song in his parents’ attic, but claims its seedy chanson atmosphere for his own.
There is also room for a cover of “Agatha” by Francis Bebey, the Cameroonian singer. “Bebey,” says Taha, “wanted tolerance, multi-racialism; he carried the voice of French Africa to the French people. It was as if Shakespeare were played better by a Pakistani than by an Englishman.”
According to Taha, a Johnny Cash fan since his childhood, his next plan is a country album. “It’s very similar to north African music,” he claims, tongue perhaps partly in cheek. “All that banjo.”
Taha plays games with his image, as well; on the cover of Olé Olé he sported a bleached-blond haircut and blue eyes. He has a fatal weakness for hats. On the cover of Diwan 2 he is pictured with an Arabic headdress and western jacket and shirt. “That’s typically Algerian, that mixture. When my son saw it, he said, ‘c’est grandpère!’ ” A cultural transmission from grandfather to grandson in which this rebel revels.
‘Diwan 2’ is released on Wrasse Records