Song as Radiograph: The Rachid Taha Interview

Since I started making music I’ve worked with some very interesting people, some in the field of techno-progressive music, yet all the while also listening to singers like Oum Kalthoum. I’ve also listened to a lot of intellectuals, writers, and painters who’ve helped me evolve. This has enriched me; it’s my wealth.

~Rachid Taha in an interview with Wanda Waterman, 18 July 2013

Rachid Taha is an Algerian singer-songwriter based in France, where he arrived with his family from Algeria at the age of 10. He became a sensation in the ‘80s by combining Algerian genres with punk, electronic, and other musical styles and by mocking the hypocrisies of the French government, who outlawed a song of his that sounded critical of the regime. A few years ago, while touring his album Zoom (a kind of tribute to iconic Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum), he took the time to answer our questions about what enabled him to remain for so long at the vanguard of both Middle Eastern and Western alternative music.

A Rich Stew

I’ve already written about Taha’s unique ability to mix Middle Eastern genres with Western music while managing to be deliciously innovative in both. In his view, his impressive creative output has always been fuelled by the rich stew from which he emerged and to which he’s deliberately exposed himself to all his life. That and an insatiable curiosity have conspired to create a unique body of songs and musical collaborations.

Rachid Taha on stage at the Olympia Theatre in Montreal, July 2013—Waterman photo
Rachid Taha on stage at the Olympia Theatre in Montreal, July 2013—Waterman photo

“I live in a very multicultural world, and I’ve always been curious. I like discovering things. I like Western art. I like to listen to Arabic music, Italian music, and American rock and roll. I love to listen to Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Richie Havens.”

Another prime influence is film: “I’m really interested in the cinema, especially Japanese cinema (I love Kurosawa). I’ve always liked Jim Ford. Again, my curiosity ends up feeding my music.”

In spite of some of the obstacles he’s faced in his adopted country, it didn’t hurt that he grew up in France, a country prone to showcasing the best of world arts and culture. Living in France also gave him the opportunity to rub shoulders with some fascinating people and to work with the movers and shakers of both high and pop culture.

An Enduring Wealth

“Since I started making music I’ve worked with some very interesting people, some in the field of techno-progressive music listening, and at the same time I’ve been listening to Arab singers like Oum Kalthoum. I’ve also listened to a lot of intellectuals, writers, and painters, who’ve enriched me by helping me evolve. This is my wealth.”

On Working with Brian Eno

“When I started making music,” says Rachid, “I felt certain that one day I’d meet Brian and work with him. There are a number of like-minded people like him who gravitate to what I do. David Byrne’s another one. It’s always love at first sight.”

Why Base a Title Track on Oum Kalthoum?

“Oum is a singer I love. It’s notable that the biggest star in Arabic music is a woman. For me to name this album for her is a way to pay tribute to women. I think in the future women will receive more honour in the Arab Muslim countries.”

What’s the political significance of Oum Khartoum in the Middle East now? “This is a situation that’s a bit difficult at the moment because of the revolutions that ousted the dictators who came into power after World War II. We must not forget that for Western Europe it’s only been a little more than 60 years since this war—this is not such a long time. Arab countries are now in the same position and I think we should give them time to evolve and go further.”

Deep Hurts

In “Algerian Tango,” Taha sings of a deep wound: I can’t forget the past, the racists, or those who enslave us. I’ve opened my eyes and my heart, and have given you everything, and you have lied to me.

What’s the answer to this kind of pain?

“The solution is love,” he quickly replies. “When I talk about personal hurts it’s because in my work people I trusted betrayed me in the end. There were also love stories that ended badly. My songs are a kind of biographical radiograph.”

Canadian Friends

“I’m always really happy to come to Canada. I have a lot of friends there. I’ll sing my album as well as a lot of my older songs, with five other musicians on the stage. Afterwards we party. I hope a lot of people come—it’ll be a great evening!”

And it surely was.

This article would not have been possible without the invaluable assistance of Ahmed Krimi of Gafsa, Tunisia.

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