Rachid Taha too is a child of Oran, Algeria. Unlike fellow townspeople who emerged on the Parisian music scene at more or less the same time, however, he does not sing rai -- a genre to which his contribution (the best known of which is the hit titled 1,2,3 Soleil, in trio with rai icons Cheb Khaled and Cheb Faudel) is remarkably modest.
In fact, Taha is adamant about the place he occupies in the musical arena. "I play rock 'n roll," he says, repeating the sentence in English -- with a jocular emphasis on rolling his letters in stereotypical rock 'n roll fashion. And here as elsewhere one can easily guess that, notwithstanding the depth of his position on such issues as fear, complacency, ignorance, racism, poverty and deceit -- such human and political commitments, which come through in his lyrics, were still discernible during the few moments of the interview he gave Al-Ahram Weekly at the French Cultural Centre this week -- Taha is a man with an almost clownish sense of humour. The expression of his eyes did remain inaccessible behind dark sunglasses, but a subtle curl at the corner of the lips combined with the occasional, extremely engaging little buffoonery to place his disposition for light-hearted hilarity beyond any doubt.
Modest, he certainly is not. But a rebel? Absolutely: Taha knows he has a message to deliver and, perhaps more importantly, he realises that he does so with good reason. The artist's sensibility in relation to the suffering of those who are subject to others' tyrannies is compounded by his own experience as an immigrant in France. Following his family moving from Oran, Algeria, to Lyons in 1968 -- he was only 10 years old at the time -- Taha experienced the nippy marginalisation suffered by the vast majority of North African immigrants to the Gaelic provinces. A decade later, while he traversed the country selling French literature at people's doorsteps, he found himself gathering the sights and sounds of a very different culture.
A number of menial jobs -- including dishwashing and factory work -- preceded the formation of his band, called Carte de Séjour (Residence Card) in the 1980s; and this was to become the platform whence the future musical pioneer launched his career. Coinciding with the emergence of the first generation of French- Algerians, Taha's arrival on the music scene gave him the means to cry out against discrimination and racial violence. Years go by and the Algerian dissenter finds himself back in Oran, where he will draw from numerous emotional sources to finally release, in 1991, his first solo album, Barbes -- the name of a deeply hybridised (and largely Arab) district of the French capital. It is the year of the Gulf War, and his album is kept far at bay by French radio stations. But happily this is not the end.
A flair for musical experimentation, and a deep-rooted sense of cultural dualism, took Rachid Taha from rock 'n roll to punk, techno and back again, never without the assistance of Arab musicians who support his Western rhythms with the clarity of traditional Middle Eastern melodies -- played on home-grown instruments. He was once quoted as saying that the bendir -- ancestor of the snare drum -- is his favourite traditional instrument: since it can be held with one hand, it allows him to play, sing, and dance all at the same time. As for the mandolute, an instrument combining the sounds of both guitar and oud, it represents for Taha a cherished mix of West and East: "it reminds me of where I come from and where I'm going."
Now a top star in France and the Western world, Taha finds Egyptian audiences just as responsive to his music as their European counterparts -- if not more so, in reality, for the simple reason that "they must have a scorching thirst for something different," as he says. "The Egyptian public wants to dance, to have fun, and to change the world -- like all publics. There is such pain around that the need to let go in music is always present," he explains. The reaction of Middle Eastern audiences to his brand of rock is, according to Taha, of unquestionable importance. Why, then, is he not more generous with live appearances in this part of the world? "I would love to go everywhere," he retorts with passion. "Then again, countries without real democracies and real structures do not give us a chance. In Tunis for example, my work does not appeal much to Mr [President Zine Al-Abidine] Ben Ali." His shrug bears a hint of anger.
Any possible duos with Arab artists in the near future, though? "In order for me to work with someone there needs to be a philosophical, spiritual and political complicity," he asserts. Taha's spontaneity may well be misconstrued as scornful or condescending; yet it sounds a genuine note here. "There might be some very interesting artists around that I just don't know about," he explains, adding, "but speaking of those that I do know, and regardless of how big they might have made it, they simply do not engage my interest on any level of musical dialogue."
When it comes to musicians, on the other hand, every song on his repertoire makes use of Arab instrumentalists; they endow his music with the traditional undertone he insists on retaining. For his latest album released in September 2004, in fact, he has collaborated with an entire orchestra of Egyptian musicians. Titled Tékitoi, ("t'es qui toi?" -- best translated as "and who the hell are you?") the album combines tribal beats with Andalusian harmony, electric guitars and oriental string instruments.
The success of this album's songs when performed this week to Egyptian audiences solicits an interesting question. Once Taha asks it, however, it pops right back in his face: "I am French on all days, and Algerian always," he smiles. "These are not my words. They are the words of a child I once heard speaking, and they perfectly encapsulate how I feel about my identity," he explains. "There is no contradiction in me in this regard. Nor am I in-between," he chuckles with a puff on his cigarette. "I've simply expanded the chair on which I sit so it will fit me."