Tekitoi (Wrasse Records WRASS 126X, 2004)
The title ofRachid Taha‘s latest album translates as “Who Are You?”, though “what are you?” might well be the question listeners would want to ask of Taha. He’s been referred to as a rai singer, a label he rejects despite having appeared with rai guys Khaled and Faudel in a historic 1998 Paris concert that later became a bestselling live album. He’s also been called a punk rocker, a term far too limiting to be applicable. I say forget the labels and just enjoy the guy.
Born in Algeria and eventually taking up residence in France, Taha grew up influenced by the grandeur of Arabic music, the hypnotic spell of Gnawa trance tunes and the snarl of punk. Being a North African living in the French metropolis of Lyon meant confronting racism and asserting one’s identity, and
Taha decided to do it with music gleaned from what he’d absorbed. His previous discs, including such critical faves as Diwan and Made in Medina, cemented a signature swaggering sound that mixed Arabic grooves, rockish abandon and clubby electronica, and Taha made good on the promise of those discs with engagingly hot live performances around the world.
When I first listened to Tekitoi, the song that really grabbed me was the makes-perfect-sense version of the Clash’s “Rock the Casbah,” a fitting nod to a band (and their late frontman Joe Strummer) categorized as punk but having the good sense to make some trailblazing explorations into global sounds.
Subsequent listenings revealed more of the disc’s pleasures, including the melodic stomp of the title track (a duet with Christian Oliver), the roots/rock mixup of “Safi” (“Pure”), songs that bring helpings of nuevo flamenco (“Winta”) and rhythm n’ blues-like bounce (“Shuf”) to the table, the use of guitar power chords to keep things from getting too genteel and the consistent pulse of Arabic percussion (mostly played by Egyptian masterHossam Ramzy).
Taha is by no means a technically perfect singer, but his growling, urgent style, punctuated by rolled r’s and raw phrasing, is perfectly suited to what he does.
In Rachid Taha’s world, you can respect tradition even as you mess with it. He does both to an admirable degree, resulting in an album I like a lot. The disc also includes a companion DVD that features Taha and band on tour in Mexico in 2004. Interview and concert footage shows Taha to be a laid-back, scruffy
soul who nonetheless is full of genuine insight, conviction and charm.