An obituary for the iconic Algerian singer who stood up against war and racism
Over the years I helped organise a few gigs, first when I worked for War Child and later, for the Stop the War Coalition. Nothing quite measures up to 27 November 2005, when Rachid Taha headlined a Stop the War gig accompanied by Brian Eno and Mick Jones, at the Astoria in Charing Cross Road, Today, sadly buried under Crossrail.
There are no adequate words to describe that gig, but it was thrown out into the audience by Rachid’s musical talent and presence. Rock the Casbah almost brought the house down as an early present to Crossrail and his Ya Rayah removed the last bricks.
Born in 1958 near the port city of Oran in Algeria, at the height of the war of independence, slaughter stalked his country. Many readers will have read Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and/or seen Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers.
His father moved the family to France when Rachid was ten, where he became, in his son’s words, ‘a modern slave’; working in a Lyon textile factory.
This was not a happy time for North Africans in France. The Algerian war was a recent memory and the right-wing were agitating for the return of their north African colony. Only a few years before the family’s arrival in Lyon, Maurice Papon, Paris police chief and a senior policeman in Nazi-occupied France, organised the killing of between 100 and 300 Algerian demonstrators, many of them thrown into the Seine.
The precariousness of the North African experience in France continues to this day with the racism and deprivation haunting the big city banlieues.
At age seventeen Rachid worked in a power station, was a house painter, dishwasher and encyclopaedia salesman. As for many living at the sharp end of life, music was the passport to a better world and Rachid started performing a mixture of Algerian rai music, rap, salsa and funk.
He formed Carte de Séjour (Residency Permit) inspired by the Clash and Linton Kwesi Johnson. His lyrics dealt with working life and racism and, of course, celebrated a musical eclecticism which was lost on racists. It was certainly lost on the French music establishment who, for many years, ignored the Maghreb musicians in France who were offering an excitement which embraced their ‘host’ country, even when it rejected them.
Rachid dealt with all this with humour. The French Right were infuriated when he released his version of Charles Tenet’s sentimental Douce France, with drums and bass pulsing to a punk rhythm.
Recognition was ponderous and arrived on the slow train. After a few years running a nightclub, Les Refoulés (The Rejects) he broke out into the mainstream in the 80s, with albums produced by Steve Hillage, the former guitarist for Gong. Collecting around him musicians performing on oud, drums, buzugs, sintirs and ribabs alongside western lead and bass guitars he released Ya Rayah, followed by Migra, performed by Santana and then Rock el Casbah, a collaboration with Mick Jones, and later with Brian Eno.
In 2007 he and David Albarn staged Africa Express at Glastonbury where they were joined by Baaba Maal and K’naan. Their intent was to encourage African and Western musical collaborations. He went on to play at many other Africa Express events and Albarn said that Taha “was at the heart of what we did”.
In 2013 he released Zoom. Produced by Justin Adams, it included Brian Eno, Mick Jones and a North African treatment of Elvis Presley’s Now or Never.
He recorded a new album earlier this year, as yet untitled, but due for release in 2019.
Rachid called his music ‘rock ‘n rai’ or, as he liked to joke, ‘It’s all ‘Rai Cooder.’ But for me, Rachid’s genre is best summed up, again in his words, as ‘Western music read from right to left.’
Was Rachid a ‘political artist.’ Over to him. “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.”
My favourite album is the 2005 Tekitoi. As always he has a verbal explanation for this work. He said the album condemned
liars, thieves, humiliators, killers, oppressors, traitors, the envious, the rotters, the diggers, propagandists, destroyers, slavers, Get rid of them! Ask them for an explanation!
David Albarn described him as “a beautiful person, very naughty, impish and with bright eyes and generous with his time. I just loved him and always enjoyed performing with him.”
His UK manager, Rikki Stein told me, “He was an angel – our angel.”
When he sang in 2017 on Goran Bregović album Three Letters From Sarajevo, Bregović said, “You thought he will not survive, he’ll die before the second verse.” I felt this about him when we met all those years before. Perhaps we are lucky he survived so long!
Rachid Taha suffered from a disease diagnosed in 1987 where the lower part of the brain pushes down into the spinal canal. “I’m tired of people thinking I’m a drunk on stage. These are the symptoms of Arnold Chiari disease. I’m stumbling because I’m losing my balance. I’m wavering.”
The stumbling along with the music came to an end on 12 September 2018 when he died in his sleep of a heart attack.
So sad you are longer here, Rachid, with your words, humour and music. But like all great music it will not have died with you. Orkod Fe Salam.