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  


Lisa Bell, 3 Pairs of Boots, and More: Sounds Like Who?

Sometimes the music business reminds me of trying to find a teaching job in the humanities. Even if you’ve already done noteworthy things, how does one attract attention in a crowded field? In music, one way is to invite comparisons to someone who has already made it. Joy Williams and Brandi Carlile are common comparisons.  

Carlile is hot right now, so let’s kick off with notes from a paste project of hers. NoiseTrade/Paste Magazine has released four tracks from an August 30, 2012 performance. It’s the voice and energy that dazzle more than instrumental trickery. Listen to “100” and you’ll hear Carlile’s poppy sense of phrasing. “Hard Way Home” uses plinky keys to set the table for a mix of pop, sass, and cowgirl. She’s more introspective in thinking about work and the PR machine on “That Wasn’t Me.” Even 7 years ago it wasn’t hard to tell that Carlile was special.

Lisa Bell gets the Carlile treatment, as well as mentions of Bonnie Raitt and Norah Jones. Huh? How’s that work? Better than you might think. It helps that Bell is no kid; she’s a Boulder, Colorado mom whose brood has grown and flown the coop. Like Lori McKenna, she brings maturity and real-life experience to bear on her new release Back Seat. In the title song Bell directly addresses her life’s new direction: I’m not willing to take a back seat/While my dreams pass me by. Bell sings with burnished maturity while a rolling organ and electric piano play in the background. And, yes, it’s the sort of jazz/pop amalgam that Norah Jones might do. You’ll hear loads of diverse instrumentation on this record–everything from keys and guitars to ukes and saxophone. “Meet Me in the Space in Between” is cool jazz, the kind of song one might expect from a performer who has covered the old chestnut “Skylark.” “I Can’t Stand the Rain” is another from the same mold, though as a featured single from the LP it’s catchier than “Space in Between.” There’s a nice soulful hop to the way she scans the lines: But I can’t stand the rain/Clouding my vision/It takes it all away/Can’t make a decision. There’s also a dramatic electric guitar bridge. “Get in the Flow” has more of a folk vibe; “India” is ambient; and “Always Chasing Darkness” has a memorable repeating refrain that pops out of the moody wrapper of the rest of the song. “The Road is Always Longer” has blues rock colorings that makes me see the Bonnie Raitt evocations, but damned if I hear any Brandi Carlile. Lisa Bell doesn’t need to be compared to anyone. Call her a better-late-than-never revelation in her own right. ★★★★★

The band name 3 Pairs of Boots intrigues in that it’s actually a country duo, so one wonders where the third pair of boots factors in. Laura Arias and Andrew Stern are based in the Bay Area, but their hearts are more Austin than Oakland. They cite The Byrds, The Smiths, Buffalo Springfield, and Tom Petty among their influences, but because Arias handles lead vocals there are inevitable evocations of The Civil Wars’ Joy Williams. Ignore them if you run across them. 3 Pairs of Boots is definitely more country. “Hey I’m On My Way” is a honky-tonk styled road trip across Route 66 and is populated with hard drinkers, fighters, “star-crossed lovers,” and a (partly apocryphal) explanation of how Tucumcari, New Mexico got its name. “It Ain’tEasy”jordan whitmore has a moral; in this case, that one should always do the right thing, not the easy one. “He Lost My Number” feels like country folk grafted to an early 60s pop song and a Laurel Canyon-style chorus. Remember Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game?” Give it some twang and “Slipping Away” evokes its child moving through life sentiment. And it doesn’t get more country than songs like “Always Loved Cowboys,” the can’t-catch-a-break “Gone South,” or the girl who loves a poor boy “Dollar Store.” And, no, I don’t hear any Joy Williams in Arias’s voice. This band is exactly as it bills itself: country music crooned by Arias and solid guitar work from Stern. ★★★

Jordan Whitmore draws Carlile and Williams analogies. Also Sheryl Crow and Shawn Colvin. Strange given that Good Things is her 5th record. I can only think that’s because her repertoire is hard to describe. “Something Different” is a country/rock blend that puts her desire for change upfront. I really like the slight catch in her voice on this one. “All My Might” is a spacey love song and there’s hint of Hawaiian guitar in “Changing Your Mind.” “Good Things” invokes a spare blues rock feel. Similarly, both “What If” and “I Wish You Would” feel like power ballads that stop short of crossing the line. Frankly, I don’t hear much of Crow, Williams, Colvin, or Carlile on Good Things. Whitmore has a nice voice, but it sometimes lacks clarity. Her songwriting, though sincere, veers too close to pop phrasing to stand out. It might be time to consider a shift in direction. ★★ ½

Short Cuts:

Joseph is a three-sisters band­–Allison, Meegan, and Natalie Closner (Schepman)–from Oregon. Their handle is that of the town in which they grew up. Good Luck Kid is their second full-length album–they also have an EP­–and it’s decidedly in the pop vein. The Closners attracted quite bit of buzz with their previous release and are actively promoting their new single “Fighter.” The title track is a bit grittier, but most of the tracks I sampled follow the same basic formula: basic electric guitar with lots of reverb and perhaps some percussion backing, but the songs are rooted in three-part harmonies. I liked their energy but their vocals are too chipmunk-like for my taste. ★★

Aviva Chernik sings songs from the Sephardic tradition and once fronted the band Jaffa. La Serena is her first post-Jaffa solo project, though Chernik is hardly alone on her debut. Justin Gray adds splashes of jazz and Indian music, and world music artists Maryem and Ernie Tollar also appear. The album also pays homage to 92-year-old Balkan Ladino artist Flory Jagoda. Chernik is like the album’s namesake siren, except she leads us to good places. Check out the meditative grooves of the title track; you will hear the jazz influences in that one. “Adon Olam” is a poem set to a Yemeni melody that starts slowly, begins to sway, and then settles into a liturgical space. “Kol Dodi” takes its lyrics from the Bible’s Song of Songs, which celebrates carnality. And, of course, there are songs from Ms. Jagoda. ★★★★    

Rob Weir


The Blackhouse: A Great Mystery from a Great Writer

The Blackhouse (2009 in UK/2012 in North America)
By Peter May
Quercus Books, 430 pages.

Do you read mysteries for the thrill, or for their elegant prose? Why not have both? I have recently discovered/devoured the works of Scottish writer Peter May. The Blackhouse is the first book in his Isle of Lewis trilogy and it’s a juicy one. It should also be read first so that you get to know its main character Fin Macleod.

Sea stack off the coast of Orkney
Fin is a conflicted man. He is approaching the middle of middle age and is still haunted by a combination of tragedy and bad decisions the befell him: the early death of his parents; driving away the love of his life, Marsaili (“Marshally”); failing to prevent a sea stack catastrophe during a guga* roundup; and hastily marrying Mona, a dead relationship in more ways than one. Three of these events occurred on his native Lewis, which Fin fled to put distance between himself and his past.

Gray clouds followed Fin to the University of Glasgow, where he failed to matriculate, and on to Edinburgh, where his young man’s dreams mutated into a career with the polis—as Scots spell police–where he has risen in the detective ranks. Fin’s pretty good at his job, though he finds little joy in it. He’s one of those people who is more clear about what he doesn’t want than what he does. He sure as hell doesn’t want anything to do with Lewis.

This means that, of course, he will end up there. Fin worked on a grisly unsolved case in Edinburgh and now there’s one with the same MO (modus operandi) on Lewis–in his wee village of Crobost no less. His superior is having none of Fin’s excuses not to go; after all, how many native Gaelic speakers are there in a police force? Just 1.1% of Scots still speak it and–just Fin’s luck–many of them are on Lewis.

Fin isn’t exactly welcomed with open arms upon return. The local polis–with the exception of Detective Sergeant George Gunn–look upon him as a city slicker, their supervisors are offended that he’s there in the first place, and his old pals on the island regard him through lenses of suspicion, detachment, resentment, and barely disguised envy. To make matters worse, Fin once knew the murder victim, Angus Macritchie. He and just about every other male at the island school was once bullied by Angus. Adulthood did not improve Angus. Pretty much everyone on the island is a suspect. Can it get any worse? Yes. Marsaili is married to his old school mate, Artair, and they are living a quasi-bohemian life that feels “off” to Fin.

Peter May is a fine writer with a gift for evocative language that makes you imagine gunmetal gray clouds, the smell of peat smoke, and the starkness of the landscape. Years ago, when my wife and I were on the joined islands of Harris and Lewis, she remarked that much of the scenery looked as if the glaciers had just left the week before. It put us in mind of how Leon Uris once described Ireland: “a terrible beauty.” May’s Lewis is one whose very austerity makes it an uncomfortable mix of creeping modernity and lingering traditionalism, parochialism, and shopworn values. Fin is haunted by ghosts, but he’s not a godly man. May describes island religion thusly:

The Church of Scotland. The United Free Church of Scotland. The Free Church of Scotland (Continuing)–the wee Frees, as the free churches were universally known. Each one was a division of the one before. Each one a testimony to the inability of man to agree with man. Each one a rallying point for hatred and distrust of the other.

Blackhouse with grass now growing on roof
As you can infer from such a passage, Peter May murder mysteries are not just–or even primarily–about crime-solving. He uses the blackhouse as a metaphor for the tug of war between the present and the past. Some islanders still reside in (updated) crofter** cottages that were dubbed blackhouses because they had no chimneys–a section of the thatched roof was pushed aside so that smoke from the open-pit fireplace could escape. Much didn’t, hence the ceilings were covered in soot. Fin’s life is certainly stained with dark patches, but his is not the only one. The Blackhouse is about the things that never rub off, things that can be repaired, things that maybe can be repaired, and things that are irreparably broken.

May tells his tale in alternating chapters set in the present and the past. He paints a vivid picture of Fin’s childhood and youth and we get the message that, his protests notwithstanding, Fin is Lewis and Lewis is Fin. He professes a desire to leave, but also finds it a joy to converse in Gaelic, can’t shake his abiding attraction to Marsaili, and is coming to grips with how Lewis has deep hooks in him.

The Blackhouse is one of the best mysteries I’ve read in some time. I admired Fin as a flawed central character. The messiness of his private life and his inner doubts feel much more real than what one gets in detective novels in which the investigator possesses special insights that stagger his lessers. Fin often gets things wrong and on occasion he’s slow to add 2 + 2.

I also admired that May makes the Isle of Lewis a character in its own right, not through some hokey veiled personification tactic, but by putting hard people in the midst of a harsh landscape. I recommend that you read the book before you go to Google Images to see what Lewis looks like. My guess is that you’ll be surprised at how well your mental picture matches the real Macleod (as it were). 

The Blackhouse made me hunger to read the remaining books in the trilogy, so stay tuned. But, again, read this one first. The next two are continuations of what could cheekily be subtitled The Reeducation of Mr. Macleod.

Rob Weir

* Guga is the chick of a species of gannet. They are a delicacy for Western Isles peoples and are hunted on dangerous sea stacks that are often located miles out to sea. The guga hunt is likely a remnant from days when protein was scarce.

** A crofter is a small farmer (5-12 acres) engaging in subsistence mixed agriculture. In Scotland, many of the crofters were renters and thousands were evicted during the 18th and 19th century Highland Clearances when their lairds (lords) decided to graze sheep on croft lands.