Rachid Taha, Innovative Rai Musician with a Message of Justice for Immigrants, Dies Unexpectedly

Naomi Pham
On the left, Rachid Taha photographed by Richard Dumas, and on the right, Taha performing at a 2007 festival in Budapest, photographed by Attila Kisbenedek/Agence France-Presse from Getty Images.

Rachid Taha, who passed away unexpectedly, proved quite unique among Rai artists, despite Cheb Khalid receiving the title of "The King of Rai Music." Perhaps no one better than Taha himself can spell out the differences in his art compared to other fellow rai performers. In an interview for Al Jadid 18 years ago, he gave somewhat of an indictment of his fellow rai musicians, stating:

Music signifies something, and the artists should express what is inside them. Many artists, instead of respecting what they created, give way to commercial temptations, killing their original intention. Rai, in the beginning, was a shepherd playing the flute! It was used as a means of expression, a way to talk about problems. Now Rai musicians are just playing what people want to hear, as opposed to what’s in their belly. In Rai music, there is no one committed enough" (Al Jadid, Vol. 7, No. 36, Summer 2001).

Known for shaking up the rock and reggae scene with his rai style, a form of traditional Algerian music, Taha passed away early September due to a heart attack. His distinctive music fused Algerian styles – including rai and chaabi, a popular Algerian style – with rock, techno, and punk. An Algerian-born singer recognized for his charismatic “barbed-wire” or gruff voice, Taha became “a voice for France’s North African and Middle Eastern immigrants,” both in his band and solo career, according to a New York Times article by Jon Pareles.

Throughout his career, Taha used his music to illuminate the struggles of immigration, injustice and racism. He denounced repression and dictatorship in the Arab world, and spoke about “Western misunderstanding of Arab culture, blind nostalgia, prejudice,” according to the Times. Taha became best known for his hit cover of the late Algerian singer Dahmane El Harrachi’s “Ya Rayah,”  and for his Arabic rendition of the English rock band The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah,” translating it into “Rock El Casbah.”

Born on September 18, 1958 to Aicha Djahel and Ali Taha in Saint-Denis-du-Sig, Algeria, Taha grew up with Algeria’s independence struggle from France. At the age of 10, he and his family moved to Lyons, France for his father’s work at a textile factory. At 17, Taha worked at a heating plant during the day, and found solace in music at night, working as a disc jockey in African and Arabic clubs for the local North African community, playing Arabic music, funk, rap and salsa. Taha wrote poetry and political songs influenced by the Clash and Linton Kwesi Johnson, according to Robin Denselow’s obituary essay in the Guardian. In his early 20s, the artist founded Les Refoulés (“The Rejects”), a nightclub, where he “created multi-cultural mashups by splicing elements of Arabic pop songs with backbeats from artists like Led Zeppelin, Bo Diddley and Kraftwerk,” as cited by Rolling Stone. In 1980, with the founding of his group, Carte de Sejour (Residence Permit), Taha became the group’s lead singer, lyricist and manager.

Carte de Sejour performed songs in Arabic, with members dressing in both Middle Eastern and Western clothing. The group sang in the rai style, combining it with rock and reggae. Their signature song, an Arabic cover of Charles Trenet’s “Douce France” (“Sweet France”), using Arabic instruments like the oud and darbuka drum, did not change any of the original song’s lyrics. However, they performed it with an irony that “infuriated many listeners,” eventually leading to the banning of Taha and his bandmates from radio, according to the Guardian. Unfortunately, Carte de Sejour never achieved commercial success, which forced Taha to turn to side jobs like painting houses and door-to-door sales to make ends meet.

In 1989, Taha’s career took a turn for success when he shifted into solo work, teaming up with Steve Hillage, a British producer. Taha covered, in Arabic, pop songs he had heard while growing up in Algeria. Known for reworking pop and classic songs into his own style, sung in Arabic, the artist released “Diwan” in 1999, an album featuring cover songs from Algeria, Morocco and Egypt, combining traditional instruments like the oud with guitar. This album earned Taha worldwide recognition, with his iconic “Ya Rayah” cover that spoke of the hardships of the immigrant experience, as well as the homesickness and loneliness emigrants face. Taha also famously became associated with his Arabic cover of the English rock band, the Clash’s, “Rock the Casbah.” In an interview with the Guardian, Taha stated that his live album performance of “1, 2, 3 Soileils” (“1, 2, 3 Suns”) in 1998, featuring two other rai singers, Faudel and Khaled, at Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy, became “the first north African concert to be given serious coverage in the French media.”

Throughout his career, Taha never shied away from his North African identity. He “proudly and loudly proclaimed his outsider status — as someone who grew up North African in an often-hostile France, and as a punk-bred musician who enmeshed the traditional sounds and rhythms of Algeria in his own work,” according to a NPR obituary by Anastasia Tsioulcas. The artist’s membership in Africa Express, founded by Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz, also testified to this passion.

Albarn, the lead singer of the band, the Blur, described Taha, with his recognizable “bohemian-looking figure,” as “a beautiful person, very naughty, impish and with bright eyes and generous with his time. I just loved him and always enjoyed performing with him,” according to the Guardian.

Taha’s personal politics, along with the message he hoped his music would send, sought to illuminate the similarities between various communities. “People live at the rhythm of their environment, whether you are in Africa or France,” he explained in an interview conducted by Rijin Sahakian for Al Jadid in 2001, “I want to use music to show that people are not as different as they may seem… the Jews are not the enemies of the Arabs, and the Arabs are not the enemies of the Jews.” Echoing the same sentiment when he spoke of his politics in the Guardian, the artist stated, “Black and white – the same… Arabs and Jews – the same.”

Survived by his son, Lyes, and Véronique Pré, his longtime partner, Rachid Taha passed away on September 12, 2018, in Les Lilas, a Paris suburb. During his life, he received several awards, including his 2000 World Music Award for World’s Best Selling Middle Eastern Artist, as well as the Victoire de la Musique lifetime achievement award in 2016. He completed his last album, “Believe,” scheduled to release in 2019, before his death.

This essay is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming Al Jadid, Vol. 22, No. 75, 2018.

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