Death silences the voice of a musical polyglot
Although not well known in the States, Rachid Taha was one of Europe’s most innovative world music artists, even though he hated the term world music. “People who think world music is something new have no knowledge of musical history,” Taha told me in 2001, commenting his Victoires de la Musique (French Grammy) award for Best World Music album, given to his Made in Medina CD. “Spanish music has been a mix of Arab and European styles for centuries. When the Spanish conquered Cuba, they brought European and Arab music with them, which mixed with the African music of the slaves to make son, rumba and cha cha cha. If people would learn history, they would see how all culture on Earth is a mix, and maybe there would be fewer problems in the world.”
Taha died suddenly at his home in Paris on Tuesday morning, after a brilliant career as a ground-breaking musician, songwriter, bandleader, and activist. He spent his early years in Oran, Algeria listening to rai, a blend of Algerian music with rock and hip-hop, and Algerian folk music. The family moved to Lyon, France, when he was 10 and, as soon as he was old enough, he became a DJ, spinning a combination of Arab, Latin, British and American rock, funk, Bollywood soundtracks and R&B. In his early 20s, he opened a nightclub called Les Refoulés (The Rejects), playing Arabic hits over backing tracks he borrowed from Kraftwerk and Led Zeppelin. “Led Zep found a way to use Arab music, and it fit together fine,” he said. “Rock needs Arab music and other influences to stay alive a lot more that Arab music needs rock.”
The reaction to his DJ sets inspired him to start a band called Carte de Sejour (Green Card). “I didn’t want to be a musician,” Taha said. “I wanted to be a journalist or a historian, but my grades weren’t good. I wound up working in a factory. Some of the other guys in the factory wanted to start a band. Since we all liked The Clash, we decided to play Arab music in that style, with lyrics about the things we faced as Arabs living in France.”
Steve Hillage, formerly the lead guitarist of the psychedelic British band Gong, produced Carte de Sejour’s debut album. Hillage liked Arab music and found the sound of Taha’s blend of Arab music and rock stimulating. When the band splintered, Taha and Hillage continued working together, producing a number of successful albums like Diwân, a traditional sounding album of the tunes Taha grew up with in Algeria and Made in Medina, which combined dance beats, Hillage’s psychedelic guitar, backing tracks by Galactic and Taha’s Arabic vocals.
Taha gained some international exposure when Santana included “Migra,” a song based on his song “Kelma,” on his multi-platinum album Supernatural and followed it up in 2009 with a cover of The Clash hit, “Rock the Casbah.” His last release, 2013’s Zoom, included guest appearances by Eno and The Clash’s Mick Jones, who joined Taha on tour to support the album. Shortly before he passed, he’d finished a new studio recording. Throughout his career, his lyrics illuminated the plight of Arab and other immigrants dealing with the xenophobia of the Western world, messages that are still timely today.