The riots that rocked Paris's North African districts last summer were only the most recent chapter in the long and nasty relationship between France and her former colony Algeria. The tension stems from the late 1950s, when the Algerians struggled for independence and the French military committed atrocity after atrocity, which the Algerians answered in kind. Even De Gaulle's ceding the Algerians independence failed to diminish the resentment felt on both sides.
Because of the continually volatile state of Algerian politics, there has been a steady flow of immigrants from the former colony to France almost since the country gained her independence. Elected governments, military juntas, and fundamentalist factions have all contested for, and held, power at one time or another in the last 40 years. With each switch of power another group of people would find themselves forced into exile, as each new authority took the opportunity to clean house of those who might not have been quite as enthusiastic about the change in government as the new rulers would have liked.
On various occasions the exile community has been the focal point of anti-immigrant sentiments by ultra-nationalistic right wing political parties, and racist attacks by neo-Nazis. The majority of Parisian Algerians live clustered together in a few impoverished neighbourhoods, in conditions that offer little hope for the future. They suffer from the usual indignities that blight the urban poor: underfunded and low quality schools, limited health care, and few, if any, opportunities for economic advancement.
Rachid Taha was two years old when his family immigrated, and he has experienced and witnessed the prejudices faced by the Algerian community both inside France and beyond her borders. The joy of being an Arab in today's Europe was driven home to him when an English security official on the Eurostar train blithely informed him that "we are at war against you, the Arabs." Is it any wonder that his music, whether sung in French or Algerian, seethes with more than a little anger and lashes out at a society that can't see beyond the colour of a person's skin?
Rachid has been a fixture on the European music scene for some time now, and not only was his most recent release, Rock El Casbah: The Best Of on Wrasse Records (set for release in the U.S. on June 17), given the BBC Radio 3 Award for World Music in the Middle East/North Africa category, but Luce Strummer, wife of the late Clash leader Joe Strummer, made a rare public appearance to present the award. She had specifically asked if she could make the presentation because she felt that Rachid is akin to Joe in spirit and energy and that Joe would have loved him.
Even if he hadn't included an Arabic cover of the Clash's "Rock The Casbah" ("Rock El Casbah") on this CD it would be easy to see, and hear, how this child of Algerian immigrants could be considered the heir to one of the seminal British punk bands of the 1970s. You don't need to understand the lyrics to hear the passion that feeds Rachid's spirit and drives his music. He proves beyond a doubt that punk isn't necessarily defined by the music you play, but by the attitude you bring to what you play.
Rock El Casbah: The Best Of gathers music from the entire breadth of Rachid's solo career, and gives the listener a great indication of not only his power, but his range. While mainly playing a style of music influenced by Algerian Rai, which he describes as a "brutal, powerful sound", he also digs deep into the roots of African pop music. Many of the songs on Rock El Casbah have been influenced by Chaabi, an old style of North African popular music. The song "Ya Rayah" is an example of this style, and was originally written by an Dahmane El Harrachi, a legendary figure in Algerian pop music.
While some might wonder at Rachid's decision to cover "Rock el Casbah", the Clash's harsh critique of corrupt Arab rulers, those familiar with the corruption of Algerian politics since independence will understand his decision. He's never been one to shy away from controversy, after all. Listen to the way his version of "Douce France" ("Sweet France"), a sentimental patriotic French tune, drips with irony and sarcasm. It caused such a furor in France that it was banned from French radio.
He's not just angry, though. He also shows a philosophical bent, with songs about the nature of truth and love. Yet even here there is an edge, because he looks at the ways in which we can deceive ourselves or skirt the issues that matter. He describes his song "Kelma" as being about the word we can't bring to mind while trying to recount a story or express an idea. The word won't come to mind, he says, because on some level we don't want to tell the story or express the idea because it might prove hurtful to us.
While there aren't any translations provided for the lyrics, all the songs come with introductions. In these, Rachid gives his reasons for writing the song, or information about its history. While in some cases it might have been nice to understand the lyrics, the introductions, combined with Rachid's expressiveness as a vocalist, are usually enough for us to understand the basic premise. It is interesting to note that he hired an Arabic professor to provide an exact translation of "Rock The Casbah"; there are some things just too sacred to be messed with.
Rachid Taha is an amazing vocalist who sings songs of power and spirit, and Rock El Casbah: The Best Of is a great way to get to know him. He will be coming to the States this July, and if they let him in the country, audiences in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and San Francisco will get to experience him first hand. I'm jealous.