Can Rachid Taha rock the Casbah?

The French-Algerian rocker Rachid Taha tells Andy Morgan why he despairs of his contemporaries but remains in love with life

My gaze is glued to one of today's most eccentric rock'n'roll rebels as he stalks the stage in front of the flirtatiously grand Mairie de Paris like a demented scarecrow, a defrocked undertaker, a panto miscreant of the kind that haunts young children's dreams. Rachid Taha is probably the most recognizable person on that bursting stage in the collective eye of the 18,000 strong French crowd, who are both tired and ecstatic after a six hour orgy of African and western musical coupling under the hot Parisian sun.

"Weeee don't laaahhk it!!!! ROCK DA CASBAH! ROCK DA CASBAH!!!" Taha's voice whines atop the rousing racket, like the white spume on a towering wave which teeters and totters but somehow manages not to crash. Pork-pie-hatted Damon Albarn leads the charge together with Taha. Behind them storm a mob-happy crowd of musicians, all rat-arsed on the 90 per cent proof joyousness of the moment. I can see Jamie T, Romeo and Michele from the Magic Numbers, the Kooks, Patrick Wolf, the Kick Horns, too many to register in those incalculable seconds of unity. Africa Express, Rachid et Damon, you, me, white, black, Africa, Europe, roots, pop, rock'n'roll, altogether now... "ROCK THE CASBAH!!"

A few sobering months later, Taha is grudgingly going through the motions of yet another promotional stint for his new album, Bonjour. So hey, let's warm the conversation up over the flame of those sweet memories of the Africa Express gig in Paris.

"It was a sort of Rotary Club gathering, but it didn't go far,' he says. 'In fact, to begin with, what is Africa Express? What's it for?" Erm... to promote African music to a wider audience. Come on, Rachid, mate, you can go along with that can't you?

"Well it isn't the case at all pal!" My skin turns a chicken texture. "Nothing's really changed. I don't see many African artists making it in France right now, or Arabic ones. We're still in the era of the West and America holding on to their role as the arbiters of pop music, of Africa and everything else, even the economy and life itself. Africa is just left to die, just as African culture is just left to die too."

Taha has never gone in for cosy certainties or hippy-hugging harmony. He is a strange growling Franco-Algerian Stetson-wearing rock 'n' roll animal embodiment, of the outlaw archetype.

Those with only a shallow knowledge of Franco-Algerian complexities are prone to misunderstand Taha. They call him a rai artist, alluding to the grinning Algerian pop music style that has dominated the North African diaspora for three decades. It's a bit like calling Iggy Pop a New Romantic. The misclassification used to irk Taha, but not any more apparently.

"I couldn't give a toss, I'm beyond that now," he says. They miscast Taha as a defender and proselytiser of Algerian and North African culture. In fact, a bit like John Wayne in the desperate low-point of one of those John Ford westerns, Taha is an intellectual loner firing his Winchester at smug hypocrisy and half-baked platitudes on all sides. He despairs of most of his fellow North African artists, regarding them as little more than the lazy pilferers of a great musical tradition. He insists that the likes of Khaled, Cheb Mami, Faudel and other pin-ups of the Maghreb make him feel sad rather than angry.

"There's no infrastructure in North Africa equivalent to the one in the west," he explains. "Over there, you don't record a cassette, you just fill it up. Singers are still considered buffoons. There's no real intellectual or cultural interest in what they do, so they're content to just sing for important personages and nothing more. And when they become stars, they bourgeoisify themselves very quickly."

Taha went back to Algeria, a country which he left with his parents at the age of 10 to live in a village in eastern France, for a series of concerts in 2006.

"They were in French cultural centres. It's always frustrating to play in places like Algeria. I always come back dissatisfied, with a suitcase full of pain. Either it's all very intellectual and bourgeois, or you go popular and play in stadiums. Or it's nothing at all, except weddings perhaps. But can you see me playing at barmitzvahs and weddings?"

You might have expected all these brain-burning struggles and disillusionments to turn Taha into a moody, cynical man. But the opposite is true. He protects himself by staying on the eternal offensive, shooting from the hip with little regard for the consequences and remaining determinedly in lust with life.

Back in the late 1970s, when Taha was in his early twenties and working in a heating appliance factory in a suburb of Lyon, he started a club called Les Refoulés ("The Rejects") where he would splice bits of Oum Khalthoum and other Aarbic pop classics onto Led Zeppelin, Bo Diddley and Kraftwerk backbeats. His first serious group, Carte de Sejour ("Resident's Permit") was a kind of Maghreb-punk shock machine who stuck it to the French Man with a remake of Charles Trenet's classic "Douce France". Imagine Asian Dub Foundation gobbing out "The White Cliffs of Dover" in the early 1980s and you should get the feel of Taha's talent for upsetting cosy collective sanctities.

Then came hits such as "Voilà Voilà", a flame-fisted techno-rant against the rise of the extreme right in France, and a rocking cover of "Ya Rayah", a classic elegy on emigration written by the great Dahmane El Harrachi. Taha's version remains one of the most popular hits of modern North African music. Both these songs, and a clutch of revolutionary albums, were the product of Taha's 22-year association with the British producer Steve Hillage, a marriage that recently ended when Taha decided to work with Gaetan Roussell, a close friend and the lead singer of the massive French rock band Louise Attaque.

"You have to leave home at some point, you have to kill your daddy," Taha says about the breakup. "I can thank that relationship for where I am today, but to be honest, I was totally fed up. I think of Steve from time to time, and maybe I'll go back to him one day, but I don't look back. Nostalgia is not for me."

But where exactly is Rachid Taha today? With the success of "Voilà Voilà", "Ya Rayah", and his participation alongside Khaled and Faudel in the epic 1-2-3 Soleil concert at the Bercy stadium in Paris, which yielded a million-selling live album, Taha was definitely a big star in France in the 1990s. But he never bothered to capitalise on that status. Commercial strategies and speculations just bore him frigid. When I ask Taha about the collapsing recorded music industry in France he just quips, "hang on, I'll pass you my Financial Director and you can talk to him." Ok, 'nuff said.

The truth is, Taha is on the same solitary road that he's always walked. Bonjour is an optimistic album, with songs of love, respect, hope and, yes, a little anger too, riding astride his signature pounding rockabilly beats and Bo Diddley stomps, all meshed together with swirling Arabic riffs and motifs. One remarkable song called "Selu", exhorts all of us, and no doubt Taha himself, to "consult the angels", who he then proceeds to list: Khalil Gibran, Mahmoud Darwish, Naib Mahfouz, Cheikh Hamada, Youssef Chahine, Blond Blond, Kateb Yacine, Frantz Fanon and Camaró*de la Isla.

I ask Taha about de la Isla, the doomed poet-hero of Spanish Flamenco. "He was the greatest singer of all time, alongside Elvis Presley," answers Taha. "He was also the last punk." I almost say, "except you Rachid, except you," but I just keep schtumm. We can't all be honest outlaws.

'Bonjour' is out now on Wrasse records

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee