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- Posted on Jul 15th 2008 11:00AM by Steve Hochman
"No! Just Rachid Taha. In the whole world."
Well, that's the authoritative word on the matter -- from, uh, Rachid Taha, delivered with a smile, but the kind that carries a sense of certainty. OK, so he might not be the most unbiased party on this. But as the saying goes, it ain't braggin' if you can back it up. And shortly after he made that statement backstage at the California Plaza in downtown Los Angeles, he backed it up with little room for doubt with a show as part of the summer's global-minded Grand Performances series coming midway through a very short North American tour.
The concert encapsulated a 25-year career that itself encapsulates North African traditional music, Algerian rebel rai, Egyptian-rooted classic pop, Arabic disco, arena-scaled rock and outright political punk -- all blended in varying and always-shifting shades, not as compartmentalized stylistic exercises but as part of a visionary continuity, all handled with confidence and creativity. Through the set, the Algiers-born, Paris-raised Taha and his six-man multinational band told the musical story of a region and culture that is as complex and ever-changing as it is locked into traditions. Hakim Hamadouche's mando-luthe (a variation on an oud) and Stéphane Bertin's sometimes wailing/sometimes crunching electric guitar took turns as the head and tail of the musical beast. Rachid Belgacem's Arabic percussion and Guillaume Rossel's drum kit wove intricate patterns with Christian Banet's pulsating bass, while Yves Aouizerate handled pretty much everything else -- including string and horn parts -- from his keyboards and computers.
And then there was Taha, both stern and impish: The first half of the show, he was more of the former, in a red-and-black velvet shirt, a little disconnected with the crowd perhaps as he bit off the sharp, jaundiced social observations of his powerful songs. The second skewed toward the latter, as he stalked the stage in an impossibly green suit topped with a sparkly silver fedora framing his several days of stubble and floppy mop of dark curls, turning the first part of the segment over to Hamadouche's performance of 'Yames' and then bringing out Fella Oudane, an L.A.-based Algerian, for two spirited and spontaneous rai duets. Not only had there been no rehearsal with her, but the two had never even met until right before she came onstage. Yet the performances were nearly flawless and the chemistry between them crackled. That in particular energized both Taha and the crowd, a contingent of Algerian nationals leading the way with vocal ululations and physical undulations.
Even more than on the recent 'Rock el Casbah' anthology album, the material sounded of a piece, from the sinewy 'Ya Rayah' (written in the mid-20th century by icon Dahmane El Harrachi, the song details the emotional pain of exile experienced by so many Algerians) through Taha's rai-revision 'Ida' (a tribute to the great '60s figure Messaoud Bellamou) to his 2004 Arabacized rewrite of the Clash's 'Rock the Casbah' (arguably the way it should have been done originally, an impression furthered by this version with the Clash's own Mick Jones guesting) and his own distinct, steely hybrids. (The only disappointment was they skipped the intense, angry 'Barra Barra,' the lead-off song from his terrific 2000 album 'Made in Medina' and perhaps the epitome of his sound, even though the band had played it without the singer in sound check.)
Through it all, he was ever the rock star in a way that transcends any particular culture or sound -- which is how he wants to be seen rather than as a representative of the Algerian or French-Algerian community (though in that community, he's Springsteen-level big, and his participation with fellow rai superstars Faudel and Khaled in the 1998 '1, 2, 3 Soleil' concert and album project stands as a cultural landmark).
"No, I don't like the community," he said backstage. "For me, the community is the world." And to that end he's on a crusade.
"Yes, I have a mission -- I'm the Saladin of music, referring to the 12th century Kurd who established and ruled a Muslim dynasty spanning the Middle East, while successfully battling European crusaders. "The world is in trouble. So I have a social mission, by music. Je suis ambassadeur."
Again, it's not really empty bragging. The sound he's crafted, in particular once he graduated from his early, frothier pop sound and started working with producer-guitarist Steve Hillage (from the '70s French-Anglo hippie-rock band Gong) is one that not only encompasses all of North Africa but provides an opening for just about anyone who encounters it. His manager Rikki Stein (serving as his French-English translator in the interview) noted that when Taha worked with Brian Eno some years ago on the first of an ongoing series of collaborations, the theorist/producer stated that "he had wanted to get into Arabic music but didn't know where to start, and Rachid provided the bridge."
And he's not done with the bridge work. After the show, charged with a giddy energy, he eagerly shared that recently he'd been called by Eno to come sing on a new project with jazz pianist Herbie Hancock (though it was tough working out the latter name thruough his thick accent: "ayr-BAY ahn-COQUE!"). But before the concert, he dreamily discussed his primary cross-cultural goal:
"Country music! Dolly Parton! I very much want to sing with her!"
(OK, now back to the initial question: Is there anyone else comparable? Beck in an American context? Well, in a way, given his reach from folk-blues to hip-hop to art-experiments, though he has irony and introspection when Taha has politics and social consciousness. Sting? Elvis Costello? They both cover a lot of ground, but they'd need to find a way to do it all at once, from pop to rock to jazz to opera, to approach Taha's integration. The one who might come close, then, is Brazil's Caetano Veloso, who has embodied and personalized a wide range of music both originating in and coming to his culture. In any case, it's an extremely select group.)