Rachid Taha: October 2019 Artist of the Month (Posthumously)

Rachid Taha
Je Suis Africain
Believe Records

Trust me. The stripe is bluer on the CD!
Je Suis Africain is the 11th album by Franco-Algerian musician Rachid Taha. It completes his oeuvre; Taha passed away on September 11, 2018–just days before his 60th birthday. Taha, who had long suffered from a brain/balance disorder called Arnold Chairi Disease, labored hard with Balkan punk artist Toma Feterman to complete a record that released posthumously.

The cover of Taha’s CD is a full-face portrait swathed in dark orange with a grey-blue stripe crossing his eyes and the bridge of his nose as if he were a tussled haired Lone Ranger. It’s an apt way of looking at Taha’s life and musical career. He was born in Oran, Algeria, the birthplace of raï music, a form of folk music favored by the poor–especially those we might dub Muslim modernizers–that often addressed social justice issues. His family moved to France when Taha was ten, and it was from Lyons and Paris that his musical career was launched. He had a day job when he was in his teens, but his nighttime DJ gigs was of far greater interest. He later ran a nightclub that featured Arabic remakes and reinterpretations of rock classics. Soon, he too was caught up in making music. Eclectic is almost too tame to describe his interests. Taha was the ultimate mashup musician, one who dabbled in rock, R & B, punk, raï, country, Sufi music, and chaabi, the last of these traditional Northern Africa music once associated with hash bars that mutated into popular-for-all-occasions songs. His exuberance (and maybe a demo tape) were said to be the inspiration for “Rock the Casbah,” a hit for The Clash.

You’ll hear bits and pieces of Taha’s multiple influences on Je Suis Africain. Its very title is cheeky. Taha spent 50 of his 60 years outside of Algeria, but France’s complicated (and often tragic) colonial relations in Africa has long relegated Algerians to a perpetual outsider status–much as Latinos are often viewed in the United States. He sings the title track in French, but it doesn’t exactly wave Le Tricolore. “I am African,” he proclaims. “God has the same skin.” In this song (and several others) he drops names of those he admires: Malcom X, Mandela, Angela Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Jacques Derrida…. Strong beats frame vocals, casbah-like strings, and desert blues guitar. “Andy Waloo” is another name dropper. The title invokes Andy Warhol, which is repeated as a chant, but everyone from Picasso and Gibran to Johnny Cash and Patti Smith gets a mention. Taha mostly sang in Arabic and French, with the occasional foray into Spanish, but this album features “Like a Dervish,” his only song in English. You can hear hip hop and rave influences in this one, as well as chaabi as it might have been redone for a wedding party. “Minouche” is another identity song; in it Taha sings of his love for a black woman in a tune that approximates a North African take on a French torch song.  

Songs such as “Ansit” and “Aïta” are rock/chaabi blends, the first sporting more growl in Taha’s voice, the second with more bite in the bass and a faster pace. “Wahdi,” borrows Gnawa rhythms–Sufi trance music–for Taha’s duet with Swiss-Algerian singer Flèche Love. Her naturally beautiful and octave-spanning voice serves as contrast to Taha’s earthier approach. Taha gets swampy on “Striptease.” Listen for some unusual violin in this one, as well as in “Insomnia.” Both will, if I might, rock the casbah. The Grim Reaper took Rachid Taha too soon, but Je Suis Africain is a pretty good way to exit.

Rob Weir  

No comments: