wed 19/09/2018

'I read French from left to right and Arabic from right to left': remembering Algerian rebel rocker Rachid Taha | reviews, news & interviews

'I read French from left to right and Arabic from right to left': remembering Algerian rebel rocker Rachid Taha

'I read French from left to right and Arabic from right to left': remembering Algerian rebel rocker Rachid Taha

Recalling a night out drinking in Paris with the Algerian rocker who died this week

Rachid Taha RIP

Rachid Taha, rockeur and provocateur, died this week of a heart attack. He was one of the last of the rebel rockers, a devotee of both The Clash and Oum Khalsoum. He brought rock and Algerian music together in a fabulously invigorating way. And while many younger rockers do yoga and sip herbal tea, he was committed to the Rimbaudian derangement of the senses and was great fun to get trashed with - I spent a few memorable all-nighters with him in Paris. Apart from general sadness, reactions range from those mourning the loss of someone so young, at 59, and those impressed that he lasted so long with his bacchanalian lifestyle.

Born in Algeria but living in France since he was 10, Taha was always passionately outspoken in his songs both against what he saw as the West's racism and unjust wars, and the Arab world's dictatorships and religious fanaticism. Here's a short list of some of the things he hated, from his song “Hassbouhoum”: "Liars, thieves, people who humiliate others, murderers, oppressors, traitors, the ignorant, the preachers, the profiteers."

He was a provocateur since his first group, Carte de Séjour ("Immigrant's Permit"), having appeared on a cover with dyed blonde hair and blue contact lenses, and recorded controversial versions of songs such as “Douce France”, a classic French patriotic song by Charles Trenet.

Taha's music, a cleverly crafted and highly effective mix of punkish rock and Arabic music, built him a solid audience. Not all his songs were rants. His album Tékitoi (Algerian street-slang for "Who the hell are you?") had an introspective side alongside its outspoken politics, and his album, Diwan 2, featured classic Algerian love songs.

As well as keeping his drinks bill low, the club was also a workshop for trying out ideas.He was always committed to nightlife, going out most nights, for most of the night. A decade ago, I arranged to meet him at 6pm at the Bataclan in Paris where he was performing (and his spirit was the utter opposite of those who committed that terrorist outrage there), only to be told he was still asleep. "Rachid was up all last night, as usual," said his tour manager.

I went backstage after a storming two-hour show, where he was sipping champagne and smoking, before we went off to one of his favourite haunts, the Baron club. He was not a desperate drinker as I thought he might be, but a genial one. We were ushered to the best table, and more champagne appeared, constantly, courtesy of the management. There was a uniquely Parisian and enjoyable mix of intellectuals, fashion types and artists, all of whom seemed to know Taha. He held court like a king of bohemia. He got up on the small stage and performed some improvised numbers with a couple of musicians. For Taha, as well as keeping his drinks bill low, the club was also a workshop for trying out ideas.

I met a professor of oriental languages who translated the Clash's “Rock the Casbah” into Arabic for Taha's version, “Rock el Casbah”. "It is quite a racist song, actually, full of clichés about oil and minarets. Paul Simonon [of the Clash] apologised for it, saying they were very young when they wrote it.” Nevertheless, the Clash and Joe Strummer in particular, were a revelation when Taha saw them in 1981 (along with a whole generation of French bands like Mano Negra).

The Clash's Mick Jones appeared at a Taha concert that same month I met him in London. Brian Eno sung backing vocals for Taha, and Taha sang with Patti Smith at the South Bank's Meltdown.

He may have been chaotic, but he had a seductive charm, and it's not hard to see why such celebs sought him out - perhaps partly because he reminds them of how they used to be.

Taha's conversations about music jumped all over the place - from the Algerian singers of Fifties and Sixties Paris such as Victor Leed, who had to "apologise for their existence", to the great Arabic singer Oum Khalsoum. He thought the Beatles were "a cabaret act, music hall. George Martin's background was in comedy records like Peter Sellars - everyone thought they were selling caviar but they were selling fish and chips." (Taha prefers the Animals and the Who.) He was a canny namedropper, weaving in both celeb friends and intellectuals: "Jacques Derrida, the philosopher, told me that France has yet to digest the reality of Algeria."

There were actually few Algerians at his concert at the Bataclan; instead of the alienated youth who rioted in the Paris suburbs in 2005, the audience were what Parisians call Bobos (bourgeois bohemians).

Taha told me that the Algerians do not have a tradition of speaking out politically in songs, always using metaphors, "whereas I prefer to speak directly", and that in the Arab world "most singers are really prostitutes, doing what they are told by people with money". Most poor or oppressed people, I suggest, might prefer a good, fun night out than songs about politics. To which he said, "Actually, I hate performing. I hope to become a writer - I'm working on a book."

He was a mercurial figure and it was tricky to work out when he was being serious. When I asked if he got depressed he said "I have black moments like everyone else - but I try to remember black is just another colour."

When I asked about his family background, he mentions that his Muslim parents have never seen him perform. "That would be like them seeing me make love to a woman."

At five in the morning, Taha took his leave to go to his next nocturnal appointment. What of the question he asked on his album Tékitoi - who the hell is he? He refers me to the mandolute, an instrument halfway between a guitar and Arabic oud: "It reminds me where I come from and where I'm going. I always say that I read French from left to right and Arabic from right to left"

He is survived by Véronique Pré, his longtime partner, and by their son, Lyes.

Rachid Taha, 18 September 1958 - 12 September 2018

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