He Rocked The Casbah: Singer Rachid Taha Has Died At Age 59

Sep 12, 2018
Originally published on September 12, 2018 3:55 pm

One of the most charismatic and influential singers to come out of France, the gritty-voiced Rachid Taha, has died at age 59. Taha's death was announced in a joint statement from his family his record label, who said that he died of a heart attack in his sleep at his home in Lilas, in the eastern suburbs of Paris, during the overnight of Sept. 11 to 12.

Born in Algeria, Taha first gained traction as the frontman of the band Carte de Séjour, and later emerged as a solo artist who gained a worldwide hit with his cover of "Ya Rayah"-- a song with lyrics that spoke to the hardships of the immigrant experience.

Both sonically and lyrically, Taha 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.

Taha was famous for his twists on classic material, from his Arabic-language reworking of The Clash's "Rock the Casbah" to growling, jagged-edged covers of mid-century Middle Eastern love songs. (As a fan of The Clash, Taha met the band in Paris in 1981, and passed its members a Carte de Séjour cassette — he later joked that maybe he was the inspiration for their anthemic song, which was released a few months after that meeting.)

Born in northwestern Algeria in 1958, Taha grew up with raï music — an urban, countercultural style in his home country — amidst Algeria's struggle for independence from France. At age 10, he moved with his family to the French city of Lyon, where his father found menial employment; by age 17, he was himself working in a heating plant. But at night, he found relief as a DJ, and in 1981, Taha founded his first band, the politically named Carte de Séjour --- the French term for "residency permit" — in which he was lead singer, lyricist and manager.

The band's name was only the beginning of its political engagement, especially in addressing the status of working-class immigrants. Carte de Séjour's signature song — a bitter and ironic Arabic-language cover of a patriotic French chestnut, Charles Trenet's "Douce France" ("Sweet France"), filtered through a lens of punk, new wave and Arabic instruments like the oud and darbuka drum — earned Taha and his bandmates a ban on French radio.

By 1989, Taha had wended his way to Paris in hopes of finding solo success. He had already earned the admiration of British and American artists; Taha's first solo album was 1991's Barbès (named after a Paris neighborhood heavily populated by North and West African immigrants), produced by the prolific Don Was. The record's timing may have worked against it: Released in the U.S. soon after the Gulf War, Barbès failed to make him a star.

Another international producer soon took up Taha's cause: British producer Steve Hillage, a guitarist and producer from England's prog rock scene who became a longtime collaborator and champion, producing eight of Taha's solo albums. Taha's own longtime idols, The Clash's Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, became fans in the 1990s after hearing Taha's music on the BBC, and Carlos Santana used Taha's song "Kelma" ("Thoughts") as the basis for his song "Migra," which appeared on Santana's 1999 Supernatural album.

Over the course of those albums, including 1993's Rachid Taha, 1998's Diwan and 2004's Tékitoi, Taha affixed his barbed-wire voice to some surprising sonic settings. His hit song "Ya Rayah," which first appeared on his eponymous album, was a reworking of a 1970s Algerian tune; similarly, the album Diwan (and a follow-up, 2006's Diwan 2) formed a collection of loving and jubilant, if wry, revisitings of mid-century standards from Algeria, Morocco and Egypt.

In a similar vein, much later in his career, Taha took on an Elvis staple in a 2013 version of "Now or Never," sung with French vocalist Jeanne Added.

2000's Made in Medina and 2004's Tékitoi found Taha at his snarling, raging best — confronting injustice wherever he saw it, no matter its guise. In his song "H'asbu-Hum," from Tékitoi, he condemns "bores, racists, the undecided, the ignorant, know-it-alls, winners, show-offs." The haunting "Barra Barra" ("Out! Out!") from Made in Medina became part of the soundtrack for the movie Black Hawk Down: "Ruin and war and blood flowing," he sang. "There are only walls left." As critic Robert Christgau wrote in his 2001 review of Made in Medina for the Village Voice: "Pure sound sensation — for those who lack Arabic, the vocal drama signifies masculinity in extremis." (The album later made Christgau's list of the 10 best from that year.)

Taha's voice and louche swagger, both on- and off-stage, pitted him as a rakish counterweight to other North African stars, like the sweet-voiced and smiling Algerian singer Khaled (whose single "Aicha" became a No. 1 hit in France and popular worldwide). But in the midst of that string of Hillage-produced projects, Taha also sang alongside Khaled and another Algerian star, the singer Faudel. A 1998 concert featuring the three vocalists , performing together at the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy, became the album 1, 2, 3 Soleils (1, 2, 3 Suns), and went gold twice over in France.

To the end of his life, Taha was passionate in claiming his North African — and African — identity. He was an early and ongoing member of the collective Africa Express, brought together by Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz; Taha performed with the group often, starting with its very first show, a surprise appearance at the Glastonbury Festival in 2007, and all the way through performances with the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians in 2016.

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