Rachid Taha: Lost chords of the medina

After the success of 'Diwan', Rachid Taha has revisited old Algeria for his new album. Tim Cumming meets the king of rai
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Rachid Taha is sitting in a sleek hotel bar near Marble Arch, nursing a tumbler of amber spirits and a pack of Marlboro. The Algerian-born, Paris-based rai rocker was last seen on these shores nailing "Rock the Casbah" firmly to the floor, with The Clash's Mick Jones playing some of his best guitar in years. This was at the Stop the War benefit with Brian Eno at the Astoria last November, a show that's coming out on DVD later this year.

Eno and Jones are new friends and big fans of Taha's. Patti Smith, who mixed him into her 2005 Meltdown line-up, is another. The man is not short of rock'n'roll admirers. He extends his left hand in greeting, grinning beneath a blue-and-white striped hat, looking just as he does on his album covers - dishevelled, wired in a laid-back kind of way, but always alert to what is happening around him.

Taha is in London to talk about his album first since the highly acclaimed Tekitoi (Who are You?) of 2004. Coming eight years after its predecessor, Diwan 2 once again lifts the blinds on a long-vanished café society that was extinguished by Algeria's civil war. It's Taha's act of homage to the stars of his youth, to the men, and especially the women, who provided a soundtrack for the medinas and cafés and movie theatres.

"It's about a man discovering his feminine side," he says of the album, which includes two of his own songs, "Joséphine" and "Ah Mon Amour", inspired by women singers. "Women's rai is different in that it is more sexy, very direct and sensual. The real rai is the rai of women."

He'd even considered dragging up for the cover, but opted instead for a formal Thirties-style portrait. "The way I stand, the suit, is how they used to pose for pictures in the old days. Very rigid, hands clenched by their sides. My son thought the picture was of his grandfather."

The album is a companion to the first Diwan, recorded in 1998. The original's mix of Middle Eastern classics and innovative musical settings made it one of Taha's most successful releases, not least because of the monster hit he scored with "Ya Rayah", written by the Algerian Berber singer Dahmane El Harrachi, a legendary figure for many French Africans.

As for the method of selection, Taha says: "It was the songs I was looking for, more than the singers." There is the extraordinary "Agatha", by Cameroonian ethnomusicologist Francis Bebey, one of the finest, and funniest, narratives on racism ever put to a chord progression. "It's the best song in the world," enthuses Taha. "It has good humour, and a good message."

El Harrachi, who figured strongly on the first Diwan, is represented by the mournful "Kifache Rah" and the philosophical, admonishing "Maydoum". "He was always like that," comments Taha. "A very deep writer, and a very popular singer. Radio was the thing. Cabarets and cafés, marriages. Social music."

Nostalgic it may be, and awash it is with the strings of the Cairo String Ensemble, and the superlative mandolute playing of Hakim Hamadouche. But Diwan 2 is no mere musical escapology from 21st-century terrors, more a contemporary record that celebrates the past while illuminating the present.

The album opens with a sample of legendary Egyptian singer Oum Khalsoum over some smoky Forties-style cabaret trumpet before the band lopes off into the jagged, schizoid "Ecoute-Moi Camarade", a song that Taha uncovered from a pile of records in his parents' attic. "It's about immigrants telling their story," he says. "They talk about a woman, but it's an allegory for the country they've arrived in. This woman will cause you grief, give you a hard time, make you suffer. It's a warning."

Taha's father was an economic migrant, following the work to France some five years after the end of the Algerian war. "I was 10 when I left Oran, and these are the songs I grew up with in the cafés," explains Taha.

As he talks, he leafs through the lyric sheets of the album, discussing what drew him to particular songs, and the impetus behind making the album. "I did it so it can be heard by a new generation. No one listens to these songs any more. And I did it to show that Arabs, too, like to dance and flirt." His finger hovers over the lyrics of "Mataouel Dellil". "It's about a guy dreaming in his room, thinking of what he could be - a great lover, a hero. A Valentino. But he's only there in his room." He chuckles, and his hand movements say, look, we all dream the same thing. "But it's good to dream. If you don't dream you die."

While Taha is not an explicitly political artist, a strong, oblique political consciousness runs through his work, as it does his conversation. He knows where he came from, and you get the sense that he knows what freedom means. "To be called a political artist is almost to be insulted, but yes I am a political artist. I'm a working-class artist. There's not many of us left."

Taha grew up in exile, first in the mountain region of Vosges, and later in a tough, poor Algerian neighbourhood in Lyon from which he escaped via Carte de Séjour, the band he formed with two other musicians while working at a local factory. "For me it has been completely positive," he says of his exile. "Some people are exiles when they're still at home. I knew where I was going and I went there. It's not as bad as where I came from."

In France, whether it be among his own north African constituency, or those he meets on his regular nocturnal voyages through the bars, clubs and hotels of Paris, he is a hugely popular figure and a role model, albeit a wayward one. Later in the evening, as we sit over a selection of French-Indian dishes that give rise to a discussion of the history of colonialism, his manager Rikki Stein tells a story that illustrates the kind of standing Taha has on the late-night streets of Paris.

"I was with him one night, about one in the morning, and we came across some kids messing about and he stops them and says: 'Come on, get your life together, what makes you think you can act like that?' And they said: 'Oh, sorry Rachid'. He talks directly to them. That's what makes him loved."

Diwan 2 returns a rich musical heritage - poetic, political, philosophical - to those same kids on the street, as well as being a sentimental education for the uninitiated. He once called the first Diwan his version of John Lennon's Rock and Roll album. Diwan 2 is another, probably greater work of love. "I could make many more Diwan albums," he says, and smiles. "And I will. But there will always be a rock'n'roll album in between."

'Diwan 2' is released on Monday on Wrasse Records