Rachid Taha is Algeria's answer to Johnny Cash. He oozes rebellious punk spirit from every pore. The fact that he was born in North Africa simply adds to the intrigue of this vibrant performer, whose voice sounds like a rattlesnake gargling on a bottle of Jack Daniel's. He's the antithesis of many cabaret-style rai artists, and one of the few Arabic musicians to promote strong socio-political beliefs in his lyrics.
He arrives late for our interview, at Steve Hillage's studio, in west London. He's dressed in leather trousers and trilby hat, unshaven, his beard nowadays showing grey flecks to complement his lived-in features and piercingly intelligent, dark eyes. He looks tired as he reaches for his cigarettes, and his personal assistant is sent on an errand to find a bottle of whisky. The assistant admits that, most mornings, he doesn't know which hotel room Taha will be in, let alone where he was the previous night.
Taha has put the finishing touches to his latest album, Tékitoi (meaning "who are you?"). It has taken two years of going back and forth between Paris, London and Cairo to complete, and Taha looks more relaxed than his regular cohort, Steve Hillage, who is doing various mixes of the first single, "Tékitoi?".
The duo have known each other for 22 years; Hillage produced Taha's debut solo album shortly after the Algerian left his first band, Carte de Séjour ("resident's permit"), in the early Eighties. "Rachid is kind of special," Hillage explains. "He's not a typical Arab artist, because he's got this punky, bluesy, rocky side, and he's also really into dance music. I'm a guitarist and obviously I can relate to the rock side. I've also been into dance music for a long time."
Taha reiterates many of the points that his friend makes. "For this album, we wanted to smash the walls that are being built up around the world. Since they've taken down the Berlin Wall others have been built in music, culture, and in all aspects of life. There's so much censorship and propaganda. Do you know the biggest wall? CNN. It's an incredible wall because you think you've got freedom but you can't actually say what you want to say. You think you're free but you're not."
Hillage explains that the album was started just a couple of months after September 11, hence the deeply brooding nature of many of the tracks.
"War is everywhere," Taha remarks. "People think it's happening in Iraq, but Iraq is like a football pitch and the war is only there for the moment. It's a travelling game which goes from Iraq to Afghanistan and onwards."
In Algeria, Rachid Taha is seen as the bad boy of the Arabic music scene. "He finds it very difficult to take the whole smiling cabaret thing," Hillage laughs. "There's an aspect to it which he regards in the same way as we'd see Cliff Richard."
Taha believes that, although Arabic music is increasingly popular, there is not enough dissent. "My songs are politicised because people are fed up. In France the tension between the French and its immigrant population has never gone down. Sometimes if the French win a football match it gets better, but when they lose it gets worse again."
"There aren't people of North African descent in the government and hardly any in the political parties. There's no one in the Socialist party, absolutely no one in the right-wing parties, but there is one in the National Front. It's a complete paradox. That's why I feel more political than ever.
"The track 'H'asbu-Hum' was inspired by a demonstration with the lyrics, 'Liars, thieves, humiliators, killers, oppressors, traitors, the envious, the rotters, the diggers, propagandists, destroyers, slavers, the lazy /Get rid of them! Ask them for an explanation!' The song 'Lli Fat Mat' says that what has gone before is now dead, and you have to think of the future. But the future is very dark. I took some text from al-Jazeera because it's the first time a journalist has said that our culture isn't democratic. It says that at home a son can't fight with his father, and at a mosque you can't fight the imam. And in politics the leaders have castrated everybody. We have a one-party culture."
Hillage believes Taha developed his distinctive vocal style at an early age, when he immigrated to France, aged nine. "He was a teenager during the Seventies in France, and he got inspired by reggae and punk rock. He also used to listen to this old Algerian and Moroccan music, from the Thirties and Forties, that his father used to play."
One of Taha's biggest influences was Joe Strummer, and Taha pays homage by doing an Arabic version of "Rock the Casbah". "I loved Joe Strummer," he says, "and this is my tribute to him. It's quite a weird song because you can take the lyrics in two ways. You could even say that it's a racist song if you actually listen to what they're saying."
"We read up on the genesis of the song before we started it," adds Hillage. "I'd read the Joe Strummer biography and the first line, 'now the king told the boogie men, you have to let that raga drop', was a joke about their manager. Then Strummer read an article about someone in Iran being whipped for listening to music, so the general thrust of the lyric was about music being suppressed by Islamic fundamentalism, or any dictatorial fundamentalist culture.
"When I was in Cairo recording the string section there were a couple of players who were seriously religious and I was quite worried. I thought they would get upset about the shareef [lawmakers] not liking the music. But the bloke in the studio said, 'Oh, don't worry, they'll agree with the shareef, they'll love it!'"
'Tékitoi' is out on Wrasse records on 20 SeptemberReuse content