Rachid Taha, styled by Guardian music critic Robin Denselow in 2013 ‘the king of Rock’n’Rai’, is a singer, songwriter and political activist who was born in the North African town of Oran (or Sig; depending on whom you believe) in 1958 – a key year in the struggle for independence known as the Franco-Algerian War. Started in 1954 in protest at the long French domination of North Africa following colonisation in 1830, this finally ended in 1962, triggering mass migration to France of individuals in search of a better life. One such was Taha’s father, an impoverished textile worker, who settled in the immigrant community on the outskirts of Lyon in 1968, taking his young son with him. Rachid, who had grown up with a background of Arab street music, or chaabi (‘folk’) – a mixture of Arab/Andalusian music and Flamenco – quickly absorbed Western influences: punk, rock, electronic and techno. He started work in a central heating plant; but by night became a DJ playing a mixture of Arab music, rock, rap and funk. In the late 1970’s he founded a nightclub, Les Refoules, (The Rejects), where he spun ‘mash-ups’ of Arab music, Led Zeppelin, Bo Diddley and the German electronic band Kraftwerk.
By the 1980’s, rai, a style of music fusing Arabic and Algerian folk elements with Western rock, had gained an international reputation. Rachid was influenced by Nass El Ghiwane – the first Arab band to introduce Western instruments like the banjo; sometimes called Morocco’s answer to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The belief that North African musical styles and rock’n’roll are closely linked became his trade-mark: something he stresses even today.
In 1982 came a turning-point. Rachid formed a band with friends from the Lyon suburbs: Mohammed and Mokhtar Amini, Djamel Dif and Eric Vaquer. In a mocking gesture towards the authorities, he called the group Carte de Sejour (residence permit) – the identity card granted to immigrants. Inspired by the British punk band The Clash, Taha waylaid them at the Theatre Mogador in Paris and handed them a demo tape. Thinking they had ignored it, months later when he heard Rock The Casbah, he decided that perhaps he had been mistaken. The incident is now part of French rock history.
But times were tough, with two years of galere (bitter struggle), as it is known in French, performing on the streets of Lyon. The group released an album, Zabida, followed by Rhorhomanie, produced by British guitarist Steve Hillage, who would become a fixture. Gradually, Carte de Sejour acquired an alternative public, although not everywhere. Record shops often refused to stock them because they did not want Arabs coming into their stores.
And then the breakthrough. In 1986 the group released their landmark album, Douce France. The leading track was a satirical rendering of Douce France, the iconic 1947 song by Charles Trenet often used as a hymn to the French Resistance. Sung with ‘furious irony’, this sneering punk-rock cover of a national classic infuriated many French listeners; especially coming from a ‘scruffy, bohemian-looking Arab singer’, and caused consternation in political circles; even fanning the flames of an emerging National Front, and was banned from the radio. Nevertheless, featuring prominently at a major concert at the Palais des Sports and at the Place de la Bastille during the notorious 1983 ‘Marche des Beurs’ (a national movement raising questions about the status of the ‘Beurs’, or descendants of North African immigrants) it won them the national recognition they had slaved so hard to achieve.
Carte de Sejour disbanded in 1989. But Rachid Taha went on to achieve international cult status as the purveyor of a unique mixture of Arab music and Western rock. Described as ‘wild and rebellious’, he continued to work with Steve Hillage to produce Diwan (Arabic for ‘a collection of Arab and Persian poetry’) (1998), his break-through album as a soloist featuring traditional Arab instruments like the oud alongside Western percussion and ‘sampling’; and Tekitoi (2004), a send-up of the French phrase ‘T’est qui, toi?’ (Who the hell are you?) – according to Robin Denselow, Taha’s ‘most powerful, direct fusion of rock and North African styles to date’: ‘Taha’s blend of anger and angst has been distilled into a set of songs that match crunching guitar chords, simple riffs and angry lyrics (in French and Arabic) with subtle, wailing flourishes of North African embellishment’(Guardian, 2007).