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Remembering Rai & Rock Troublemaker Rachid Taha

The French-Algerian singer, who died on September 12th at 59, went from teenage DJ to international star, challenging musical parochialism at every turn.

Rachid TahaWomad world music Festival, Charlton Park, Wiltshire, Britain - 27 Jul 2013

Rachid Taha performs at the Womad world music Festival at Charlton Park in Wiltshire, Britain on July 27th, 2013.

Judy Totton/REX Shutterstock

The only time I ever caught Rachid Taha live, at the Lincoln Center Arts Festival in 2002, I told my diary that the French-Algerian singer reminded me of another brazen rock usurper: Pink. An impiously cocky little troublemaker sporting a full panoply of grand gestures to go with his vinyl pants, Taha just went ahead and mixed the rai of his raising with all the raw rock styles he’d blasted as a 17-year-old DJ with a shitty day job at a heating plant in Lyon. As far as he was concerned, he owned it all.
Having claimed that the Clash got the idea for “Rock the Casbah” after meeting him in 1981, Taha had a hit with the song in 2005 and more than once performed it live with Mick Jones pitching in. But he wasn’t a true punk. Instead he found in multiple strains of the rock and roll he’d latched onto as a DJ‑-not just punk but rockabilly, not just Led Zep but Bo Diddley—a masculinity he made the most of as an artist. Yet he also made a point of remaining Algerian—his band highlighted a modernized oud as well as North African darbuka drumming, and he took some of the strain off his own songwriting by covering many Algerian standards.
Taha was a star who never seemed terribly interested in becoming a bigger star. Partly this was because he was the rare artist who valued living a good life more than boasting a famous name. And partly it reflected his skepticism about both the white Europeans who still controlled the business and the musical parochialism of rai demigods in the Khaled mode. Instead, Taha evolved into a self-taught outsider intellectual who knew how to talk that talk—several of his Mick Jones collabs lent moral muscle to antiwar events. And however cocky his act, Taha had a mellow side. He leaned more on melodies old and new as he aged, going so far as to cover Elvis’s “It’s Now or Never” on 2013’s Zoom. And although the most striking track on that album cultivates a raucously male vibe, “Jamila”‘s Arabic lyrics are a pro-woman attack on arranged marriage.
On September 12, Taha suffered a fatal heart attack six days short of his 60th birthday with a new album ready to go, and because he just died, that album may finally earn him the broad attention he’s long deserved. It would be about time. As a star not a superstar, he never achieved true international renown. But he embodied nonetheless the cross-cultural secularization of the people’s Islam without which this planet could remain at war for longer than anyone wants to admit.
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