posted on August 20, 2007 11:09
This weekend’s Festival of World Cultures in Dún Laoghaire (24-26 August) doesn’t feature any music we’d normally consider as being French – no bal de musette or Piaf-style torch songs or even Parisian DJs stepping two-by-two off the nearby ferry.
However, Algerian-born traditional singer Rachid Taha has spent much of his life in the former colonial centre, is enormously popular there – and he was present at one of France’s seminal musical events (of which more later). In many ways Taha represents an important aspect of French culture today.
Traditional Maghreb music from north Africa, the wailing vocals and swirling rhythms that soundtrack holiday programme reports from Tangiers and Tunis, is known as rai – but Taha, always scornful of genres, wittily deflects such talk by referring to himself as Rai Cooder or Rai Orbison.
Like Tinariwen and Toumast, the Tuareg bands of the Mali Sahara, Taha has electrified the old style with modern punk and electro sounds – and very contemporary lyrical concerns. His songs, sung in Arabic, deal with questions of identity; his excellent 2004 album was called ‘Tékitoi’ (phonetically, Tay Kee Twa), a txt-msg style compression of “T’es qui, toi?” meaning “Who are you?”
Four decades after Algerian independence from France, national identity remains a live issue here. Racial discrimination – casual or official – is still rife: non-whites in Paris live in constant expectation of identity checks and police harassment that whites like your blogger never experience (in almost three years I’ve never been ID-checked). Taha’s first band was called Carte De Séjour, named after the French residency permit. His 1986 punked-up cover version of old crooner Charles Trenet’s ‘Douce France’ was banned from French radio just because of its aggressive attitude and implicit attack on bourgeois France.
(The recent film Indigènes, released in Ireland as ‘Days Of Glory’, exposed the injustices faced by North-African-born French soldiers in World War II; as a direct result of the film’s agitation the unequal pension paid to those surviving Maghreb veterans was brought up to the same level as for French-born soldiers. France’s huge ethnic-origin population faces such petty racism every day, and one hopes that Rachida Dati, France’s justice minister, can make real progress – she’s the daughter of Moroccan-Algerian parents.)
Whatever about political radicalism, Taha is associated with one of the revolutionary moments of French music – the 1981 five-night residency by The Clash at the Theatre Mogador in Paris. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this series of concerts determined the course of French rock for the following fifteen years. Taha was in the audience, as was young Manu Chao and his future band Mano Negra, members of Les Negresses Vertes (another fine ‘80s band) and other future French rock stars – all were inspired to form bands, mix punk with traditional music… and wear leather trousers. This was the template of nearly all French bands until Daft Punk’s dancefloor revolution in the mid-‘90s.
Some accounts credit Taha with a more central role. After one show he met Joe Strummer and Mick Jones backstage and gave them a copy of his recordings. The following year, The Clash released ‘Rock The Casbah’ – directly influenced, claim the French music community proudly, by Taha that night (There’s no evidence, though, that Taha inspired Strummer’s epic Paris disappearing act the following year).
This blast of French pride would seem to be borne out by subsequent events. Taha recorded his own Arabic version of the Clash hit, retitled ‘Rock El Kasbah’, for the ‘Tékitoi’ album – and Jones and Paul Simenon have joined him onstage to perform the song, most recently at Taha’s April 2007 London concert.
Check out Taha’s music at his Myspace page and make sure you catch him FOR FREE at Newtownsmith Green in Dún Laoghaire next Sunday (26 August) – his live show is thrilling, the trousers are still leather and even his cover of ‘Rock The Casbah’ stands up favourably to the original. Here he is performing it with Jones on French TV show ‘Taratata’: