(Originally published: March 13, 2005 By JODY ROSEN)
THE Algerian singer-songwriter Rachid Taha, 46, likes to tell the story about the night he met the Clash. In 1981, when he was the leader of Carte de Séjour ("Residence Permit"), a pioneering band from Lyon, France, that combined Algerian rai with funk and punk rock, the Clash played a concert at the Théâtre Mogador in Paris. Mr. Taha, a huge fan, bumped into the band on the street outside the theater and handed them a copy of his group's demo. He never heard back, but a year later the Clash released "Rock the Casbah," a raucous sendup of Middle Eastern politics with a suspiciously Carte de Séjour-like sound: slashing electric guitar, a dance beat and a lead vocal by Joe Strummer filled with undulating Orientalisms. To this day, Mr. Taha says he believes that his recordings inspired the song. "How else could they have come up with it?" he asks with a grin.
On "Tékitoi," his sixth solo album, he reclaims the song. As a tribute to Mr. Strummer, who died in 2002, Mr. Taha recorded "Rock El Casbah," an Arabic-language version that tricks out the song's familiar melody with swooping, Egyptian-style strings, Moroccan flute, qanun and other traditional instruments. The result - "Rock the Casbah" sung as though inside the Casbah - deepens the song's ambiguities. Is "Rock El Casbah," with its images of sheiks gusting through the desert in Cadillacs and cracking down on "degenerate" disco dancers, an indictment of the oil-choked, religiously fanatical Arab world, or a wry comment on the West's cartoonish vision of the region? No listener to the recording can doubt that it is both, or that in Mr. Taha, a rumpled North African with a buzz saw voice, the Clash has an unlikely heir.
"Rock El Casbah" is just the latest stunt in a career that has been devoted to provocation and musical cross-pollination. Mr. Taha, who has lived in Paris for two decades, is a leader of the current generation of rai musicians, but he is more politically confrontational and sonically adventurous than suave international stars like Khaled and Cheb Mami. To even label Mr. Taha a rai singer is a bit misleading; his fierce blend of rai, arena rock, electronica and agitprop is a genre unto itself - a kind of postmodern North African dance-punk - and his new album is his most ambitious: a suite of songs about the chaos that has enveloped the world since Sept. 11, 2001. "Tékitoi" is among the most eloquent musical responses to that day and its aftermath, certainly the most explicit to emerge from the Arab world. Asked to explain the album's genesis, he said, "I dreamed of singing my nightmares."
Understatement is not one of Mr. Taha's specialties. There may never have been a lyricist quite so enamored of the imperative form; the songs on "Tékitoi" - "Lli Fat Mat!" ("What Is Past Is Dead and Gone!"), "H'asbu-Hum!" ("Ask Them for an Explanation!"), "Safi!" ("Pure!") - are packed thick with exhortations and aphorisms, which Mr. Taha delivers in a lusty growl. The arrangements are no less bombastic, mixing traditional North African rhythms and string orchestra flourishes with pummeling big-beat techno, distorted electric guitars, snatches of Bo Diddley, Led Zeppelin and other macho sounds. "Meftuh'!" ("Open!") is typical: a churning midtempo song that finds Mr. Taha bellowing curt commands over power chords, a rattling beat, Arab-flavored lines picked out on mandolute, and surf-rock riffs by the British guitarist Steve Hillage, Mr. Taha's longtime producer and collaborator. He sings: "Drop the worries in a net! Some will fall out, some will remain!/Don't rejoice for that which has come! Don't regret that which is past!"
Mr. Taha has always been prone to harangues, but "Tékitoi" is even more blunt than past albums like "Made in Medina" (2000). He strove, he said, to strip all artifice out of his lyrics and speak directly to "the man on the street"; his model was "Plastic Ono Band," John Lennon's famously unvarnished 1970 "primal scream therapy" record. But Mr. Taha's songs also look back farther, to rai's early 20th-century roots in Oran, the polyglot Algerian port city where he lived before emigrating to France with his family at 10. Rai (which means "opinion" in Arabic) began in Oran as bawdy, catchy wedding music, but quickly became an outlet for youthful discontent and protest against French colonial occupation. You can hear echoes of that rebel tradition in songs like "H'asbu-Hum!," which lashes out at a truly epic list of bêtes noires: "Liars, thieves, humiliators, killers, oppressors, traitors, the envious, the rotters, the diggers, propagandists, destroyers, humiliators, slavers, the lazy/Get rid of them! Ask them for an explanation!"
Such songs put Mr. Taha well out of today's rai mainstream. "Traditional Arab singers, they always perform with smiles on their faces, in a kind of cabaret style," he says, sitting in a restaurant a few blocks from his home in the vibrant Ménilmontant neighborhood in northeastern Paris. "It's a cultural thing. Often, the whole family comes to the concerts: children, grandparents, everybody. It's restrictive - a singer can't have an attitude in that setting. But me, I have a confrontational attitude. It's not my thing to smile and be charming."
Perhaps not in his songs. But in person, he's gregarious and quick with a smile. A visitor to Paris is whisked on a tour of bars and nightclubs that begins at midnight and ends well after sunrise. Along the way, Mr. Taha hooks up with an impressively cosmopolitan group of friends, including his French girlfriend, a recent Brown University graduate; a young Tunisian who plays percussion in Mr. Taha's touring band; a pair of flamboyant gay club owners, who greet Mr. Taha like arriving royalty; and a septuagenarian editor of a leading French newsweekly, Le Nouvel Observateur. "I've never wanted to just stay in my own neighborhood, my own community," Mr. Taha says. "It's a kind of conformism. You have to be adventurous."
Throughout the night, he regales his companions with jokes and strong opinions. He rhapsodizes about his musical heroes: Marvin Gaye, the New York Dolls, the legendary Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum, the disco producer Giorgio Moroder, Alan Vega, Kraftwerk, Johnny Cash, Public Enemy. Stopping at a lesbian bar - Mr. Taha is one of the owners - he holds forth loudly, and profanely, on his latest passion, John Ford westerns, and his disdain for contemporary French cinema. "I'd much rather watch some dumb Hollywood movie than another haute bourgeois auteurist piece of crap," he says. "Anyway, I don't see any French Coen brothers, any French Scorsese."
When talk turns to politics, Mr. Taha, who has no love for the Bush administration, shocks everyone by announcing that an American bombing raid on Iranian nuclear sites wouldn't be such a bad thing. "Believe me, Arabs don't care at all about Iran," he says. "Besides, Iran shouldn't be allowed to have nukes."
Mr. Taha's friends are used to such surprises: for decades he has made it his business to scandalize nearly everyone around him. In 1986, he caused a national uproar when Carte de Séjour released a sneering punk-rock cover of "Douce France," Charles Trenet's sentimental war-era ode to the French heartland, an unmistakable protest against the nation's treatment of its immigrant underclass. (The left-leaning culture minister, Jack Lang, sent a copy of the record to every deputy in the General Assembly.) Soon after, the group recorded "Voilà, Voilà," another anthemic song about racism. "Everywhere I hear what they say/Foreigners, you are the cause of our problems," he sang in French.
As a solo artist, he has continued to court controversy. The cover of his 1995 solo debut, "Olé Olé," featured a photo of Mr. Taha done up as an Aryan androgyne, with peroxide-dyed blond hair and blue contact lenses, a stunt that took aim both at anti-Arab bigotry and at the homophobia of North African culture.
On "Tékitoi," he remains an equal-opportunity offender. The album veers from plaints and laments to enraged polemics, in songs that tackle questions of identity, democracy, the root causes of violence, the persistence of idealism in a broken world and the gulf of understanding between Arab nations and the West. That's the subject of the propulsive title track, a duet with Christian Olivier of the Paris band Les Têtes Raides, which pits an Arab against a Westerner in a furious existential dialogue. ("Tékitoi" is a slang contraction of the French phrase "T'es qui, toi?," or "Who are you?") It's a song that puts Mr. Taha in mind of those archetypal combatants, Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush.
"The irony is, they're so similar - they're twin brothers," he says. "They're both wealthy religious fundamentalists from oil-producing desert states. It's like watching an argument between two Bedouins. The only difference between them is one drives an S.U.V., the other rides a dromedary."
But if "Tékitoi" scorns "the rotters" on both sides of the global divide - with more than a few choice words for the Bedouin from Texas - the bulk of its messages are directed at Mr. Taha's fellow Arabs. "Lli Fat Mat!" rails against Arab nostalgia and attachment to ancient grievances. ("Leave the past to the past!"; "The last have been buried!"; "Don't hurt anyone! Don't be jealous of anyone!"; "Turn the page!") "Dima" ("Always"), a jittery, electronica-streaked ballad that Mr. Taha wrote with Mr. Hillage and Brian Eno, cries out from the diaspora to Arabs suffering under repressive regimes: "If you sang what I sang, they'd chase you/If you wrote what I have written, they'd burn you."
The words are poignant, but Mr. Taha is keenly aware that they may not reach their intended audience. He estimates that only about 10 percent of his fan base is Arab. Though he has given concerts in Beirut, and played for an ecstatic Palestinian audience in Bethlehem, he rarely performs in Arab countries. "In general, Arab regimes don't like large gatherings that they can't control," he says.
Those governments aren't likely to be thrilled with songs like "Safi," the album's centerpiece. "Our culture is not democratic, they have neutered the people!" Mr. Taha sings. "There is no right to speak! Neither law, nor consideration!"
The song, he says, was inspired by watching Al Jazeera television. "I'm speaking in the first place about Arab culture, of course," he continues. "At the same time, it's a general protest. There are democracies where the same types of crimes are taking place as in Arab dictatorships - democracies that are losing their way. It's a very frightening time."
That sense of dread pervades "Tékitoi." "War is everywhere," Mr. Taha says. "Afghanistan and Iraq, I feel it's just the beginning." Yet a kind of utopianism is built into his hybrid music, which he calls "Western music read from right to left," a reference to how Arabic is read. And flashes of hope surface even in his bleakest songs. "I like joyous love!" he cries in "Safi." "As for me, my heart is pure! Joyous!"