For Rachid Taha, being placed under the umbrella of rai music — the keening Algerian pop often associated with Taha and Khaled — is both appropriate and severely limiting. Having emerged as a superstar of the genre, Taha has only grown more ambitious with time.
Beginning with 2001′s Made in Medina, he’s become something of a shape-shifting icon of world music, incorporating dance rhythms, electronica, rock & roll and even jazz instrumentation into his work. Taha has been creating a new rai more attuned to the sounds of the world than Algeria alone, while at the same time his Diwan series finds him digging through the past for inspiration. Along with Manu Chao and Carlinhos Brown, Taha is an icon of the new world music — globalized, genre-unspecific and dazzlingly diverse in its tastes. I spoke with Taha about his inspirations, his exile from his native Algeria and life as a rai superstar.
eMusic: Your music combines traditional Algerian rai with rock, dance and soul elements. Has your style grown over time, or have you always been intrigued by a wide variety of musical elements?
Rachid Taha: I have always been intrigued by all styles of music, from a very early age — I have a passion for the Clash. I also love Johnny Cash and Led Zeppelin. I also love the music I grew up with; hence the albums Diwan and Diwan 2. Made in Medina, on the other hand, was about being multicultural, and so that music has no barriers — you should be able to feel the passion in the music and not be too caught up with the language it is in.
eMusic: What inspired you to record an Arabic version of the Clash’s “Rock the Casbah”?
RT: I worked in a factory, like my father, when I was younger, but DJed at night. Because we were Algerian immigrants, we were prohibited from doing regular nightspots. This made me very angry, and I started identifying with the punk music of the Clash and other groups. So I have been a Clash fan for as long as I remember.
Unfortunately, I never met Joe Strummer, but his widow is very complimentary of our version of the track. We have had Mick Jones make a personal appearance a few times when we have performed in London; it was very special indeed! It was only when I started to establish myself as a musician I decided that someone who came from the Casbah should sing about the Casbah.
eMusic: Your version of “Ya Rayah,” from Diwan, is a song about exile and loss. Did your own experiences, leaving Algeria as a child, inform your version of this song?
RT: Hugely. I have been in exile all my life, from being young and living in the mountain region of Vosges [in northeast France], and later in a tough, poor neighborhood of Lyon. But I am very realistic about the situation, as I always knew I was in exile, and have the right framework to accept the situation. I suppose that is why I wrote “Tekitoi (Who Am I?).” It depends from what angle you look at it from. I am a foreigner in France. I am a foreigner now in Algeria. So where do I belong?
eMusic: What was it like to perform live with Khaled and Faudel, for the album 1, 2, 3 Soleils?
RT: It was so much fun. They are great performers, and the whole atmosphere was very electric. I am still friends with them now.
eMusic: Were you surprised at the overwhelming critical and commercial response to Diwan and Made in Medina?
RT: I don’t really read the reviews. I make music that I enjoy.
eMusic: What made you return to the Arabic and Maghrebi classics you concentrated on for Diwan for last year’s Diwan 2?
RT: I thought it was the right time to do it. In 1998, when I made Diwan, it was traditional, and this is what I wanted to do at the time. I then experimented further with subsequent albums Barbes and Tekitoi, using different styles of music. I suppose it’s like a journey — I started it with Diwan and have now carried on this journey with Diwan 2. All “diwan” means is “a ritual,” and sometimes it makes me feel good to go back. This album is more about memories than nostalgia.
eMusic: “Ecoute Moi Camarade,” from Diwan 2, is a passionately cynical love song whose subject of disdain appears to be Algeria as much as it is a flesh-and-blood woman. Is there some anger in your feelings about the country of your birth?
RT: I recorded “Ecoute Moi Comarade” because it was music from my childhood, not because of any anger I have towards my motherland. I didn’t do it out of nostalgia, but to show a new generation what this forgotten music was like. No one listens to these songs anymore. I did it to show that Arabs to like to dance and flirt.
eMusic: How do you feel about being from a country where musicians like yourself are often persona non grata, and shunned or even killed? Does it make you despair for Algeria?
RT: It makes me angry, but things are changing for the better. Who knows what will happen in 10 years’time?