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The artful black and white photograph that adorns the cover of Rachid Taha’s latest album shows the singer in a state of happy dishevelment. His coal-black hair is a tousled mop his dark stubble at beard level. And though his mouth forms a wry smile, his eyes carry a message of what seems to be philosophical resignation. It’s tempting to see this portrait as someone very comfortable with himself, someone saying, “This is me, take me or leave me.” But if Taha is confident about his own identity he seems—if the album’s title, Tekitoi?, a bastardization of the French for “Who are you?” is anything to go by—less sure about ours.
“The new album is a continuation, or perhaps I should say a progression,” he says of the new project. “When we’re young we’re very much controlled by our egos, but as time goes by a kind of serenity begins to creep in. This album does have melancholic overtones for me. A bit like sitting in the waiting room, waiting for the train to come, but it never does and never will. What I mean by that is that I found myself thinking a lot about Algeria and the situation there and beginning to understand why my parents left and knowing that I’ll never be returning there to live.”
The provocative title is pure, confrontational Taha. Born in Oran, Algeria and raised in France, as a schoolkid he had unpleasant racial experiences and was re-located to a Catholic convent school by his father. Upon leaving, he worked in odd jobs—literature salesman, dishwasher, factory-worker—before meeting musicians Mohammed and Moktar and becoming the controversial frontman of politically charged band Carte De Sejours (Residence Permit).
“We were a bunch of guys working in a factory in Lyons with the same interests and the same feelings,” remembers Rachid. “We started making music together and the thing just grew. We made a couple or three albums and had some success, but as time went by began to discover that we didn’t always feel the same about everything and gradually went our separate ways. That’s life.”
Carte De Sejour’s most poignant moment, or at least the moment that made them famous, was their controversial cover of Charles Trenet’s “Douce France,” a chanson classic re-recorded with a subtle but distinct Arabic twist. The record was an overt response to the anti-Arabic atmosphere prevalent in France at the time, and established the band as an integral part of the pro-immigrant milieu.
Taha went solo when the band broke, but retained many of the characteristics that made his former outfit a success: anti-racist rants, political angst, rockist, punkish moods, all blended with his signature bitches brew of rock, dance, hip-hop beats and Middle Eastern, raï-influenced sounds.
In 1991, Taha put out Barbès, which coincided with the Gulf War, giving radio an excuse to censor the songs. In ’95 he followed with an eponymous project, produced alongside Brit Steve Hillage (a former member of the progressive rock band Gong), who had worked on the debut album of Carte De Sejours. The album featured the radio-friendly hit “Ya Rayah.” Taha then joined Hillage again for Olé Olé, a more aggressively electronic LP that incorporated Arabic zithers, Cajun accordions and Mexican mariachi music. For 1998’s Diwan he delved into his roots, quite unexpectedly for someone so dedicated to updating, reinterpreting Middle Eastern classics by the likes of Dahmane El Harrachi and Mohamed el Anka.
In 2001 Taha dropped the guitar-heavy Made In Medina, which included guest appearances from all-female Moroccan group B’net Marrakech and Louisiana band Galactic. And now Tekitoi? A listen is enough to convince that, after nearly 15 y
Rachid Taha Discography
Ark 21 (2002)
As good as Taha’s albums are, he’s got to be seen to be believed. Onstage he’s a crackling ball of energy who alternately stalks the stage like a wildman and emotes like a beur Bill Clinton. This amazing live disc was recorded at a 2002 gig in Brussels and captures him and his band at their best. A must-have for Rachid Taha fans.
Made In Medina
Ark 21 (2001)
Yet another collaboration with Steve Hillage, Made In Medina was Taha’s masterpiece. A perfect marriage of rock and raï that exudes buckets of afterhours cool, Made In Medina also demonstrated Taha’s maturity as a singer, able to inject a newfound emotion and power into his lyrics. It also marks a more fully-realized integration of electronica and dance music into Taha’s sound. The record also included “Ala Jalkoum,” a duet with Afrobeat heir-apparent, Femi Kuti.
1998’s Diwân was Taha’s breakthrough, where he hit just the right balance of Parisian club cool, raw Algerian soul and rock and roll fury. Also produced by Steve Hillage, Taha finally brings the oud to the forefront and lets his roots show by reinterpreting several Maghrebi classics. “Habina” and “Ach Adani” are rootsy, gutbucket Algerian funk—just don’t call it raï.
This was Taha’s first international release, produced by ex-Gong guitarist Steve Hillage. Musically adventurous and restless, Olé Olé finds Taha trying on a dizzying variety of styles and sounds restlessly experimenting as if in search of a winning formula. If at times it seems like he’s trying too hard to please, there are also gems like “Kelma” and “Jungle Fiction” that point to great things to come.
This reissue of Taha’s 1990 Algerian debut shows just how far he’s come from a brash young punk to the self-assured performer he is today. Still, the seeds of greatness are there in tracks like “Je Le Sais” and “Lela.”
Rachid Taha & Carte De Soujour
PolyGram International (1998)
This disc collects Taha’s work with his old band Carte De Soujour: the Mano Negra to Taha’s Manu Chao. Like Mano Negra, Carte De Soujour was a scruffy, streetwise Parisian outfit from the wrong arrondissements that blended immigrant traditions with punk rock fury. But where Mano Negra drew on Spanish, Latin and reggae sounds, Carte De Soujour drew on raï and North African pop styles for their potent musical mashup.
Taha, Khaled, Faudel
PolyGram International (1999)
This live 1999 set is a tour de force performance from three of the biggest Arabic-language stars living in France today. Recorded at Paris’ massive Bercy stadium, the show brought Taha together with young Algerian pop sensation Faudel and the king of raï, Khaled. A best-seller in France, the album’s success marked a watershed moment when Algerian immigrants realized their considerable economic and cultural clout in contemporary Europe.