Rachid Taha: French musician whose Algerian roots were both an inspiration and an impediment

The genre-defying, untameable Taha: AFP
The genre-defying, untameable Taha: AFP

Was it The Clash that influenced Rachid Taha or Rachid Taha who influenced The Clash? The Algerian-born singer, who has died aged 59, told a story of how he met the punk icons in Paris in 1981.

A huge fan, Taha gave them a copy of his own band’s demo tape: a mash-up of punk and Algerian Maghrebi music. A little later The Clash released “Rock the Casbah”. Coincidence or not, the song would provide a motif for Taha’s musical career.

Taha was born in Sig near Oran on the northwest coast of Algeria, where he grew up listening to the local chaabi and raï music. When Taha was 10, the family moved to France where his father found work in a textile factory. At 17, Taha landed an equally soul-destroying job at a central heating plant. He hated the work, but it paid for him to indulge his passion. In the evenings, Taha was a DJ, mixing Arabic pop with Western rock and punk. He eventually founded his own club in Lyon, called Les Refoulés (The Rejects).

It was as a DJ that Taha began to develop the musical style that would become his trademark.

In 2009, The Independent neatly summed up his album Bonjour​: “Songs of love, respect, hope and, yes, a little anger too, riding astride his signature pounding rockabilly beats and Bo Diddley stomps, all meshed together with swirling Arabic riffs and motifs.” Taha continued to hone that style as lead singer of Carte de Séjour, the band whose demo tape may or may not have inspired “Rock The Casbah”.

Though they recorded two albums, Carte de Séjour did not have an easy ride. Widespread prejudice towards Arabs meant that many French record stores would not stock the band’s music, with its Arabic vocals protesting the maltreatment of immigrants. Taha expressed his frustration by recording a punk cover of a patriotic French song of the 1940s called “Douce France”. He delivered the lyrics with a sneering irony that upset many French listeners and saw the record banned from French radio.

Though “Douce France” attracted some attention, Carte de Séjour never attained enough commercial success for Taha to become a full time artist. When the band broke up in 1989, he took a risk and moved to Paris to pursue a solo career. When Taha was invited to Los Angeles by the Roling Stones’ producer Don Was, it seemed as though he might finally have hit the big time. However, he was stymied by the first Gulf War and a subsequent rise in US anti-Arab sentiment, which led to low sales of his first album. Taha was vocal in his disapproval of the Bush administration, though he would much later support the bombing of Iran, arguing that Iran should not have nuclear weapons.

After working with Was, Taha began a collaboration with British producer Steve Hillage that would span more than two decades. Their first album together spawned a hit in “Voilà, Voilà”, described in The Independent as “a flame-fisted techno-rant against the rise of the extreme right in France”. However, it wasn’t until 1997 that Taha really broke through with the huge club success “Ya Rayah”, his cover of an Algerian chaabi song by Dahmane El Harrachi. The song, written in 1973, is the ballad of an immigrant longing for home.

Over the next few years, Taha’s style became ever more expansive and inclusive. He was also becoming increasingly political. In 2004, he told The Independent: “My songs are politicised because people are fed up. In France the tension between the French and its immigrant population has never gone down. Sometimes if the French win a football match it gets better, but when they lose it gets worse again.”

By 2005, Taha was playing with the rock greats. He performed with Patti Smith, Brian Eno and Robert Plant, and finally covered The Clash’s “Rock The Casbah”. Taha’s version, which he called “Rock El Casbah”, was used in the soundtrack of the Joe Strummer biopic The Future is Unwritten. The Clash’s Mick Jones joined Taha to play the song live on French show Taratata in 2006.

The next few years saw Taha’s music increasing in popularity worldwide, but he still felt snubbed at home. In 2007, he vented his frustration on the Télérama arts show. While he expressed his adoration of France, he was vocal on the difficulties of integration for Algerians saying: “The Arabs continue to be scary ... many French people still have not digested the war in Algeria. The Arab is a worry. We cannot trust this scoundrel, potential terrorist, son of a fellaha who will slit your throat for nothing.”

A year later, in his autobiography, which he titled Rock la Casbah, Taha returned to the theme: “I have the unpleasant sensation that the French culture is in decline, I am all the more saddened that it is the richness of this diversity that enriched me. I find it lamentable that all the problems of France are being reduced to ‘illegal immigration and foreigners’. It is always the same, when you look for a job ... because of your accent and your name, we will not give it [to] you. There is always this kind of apartheid.”

That same year, Taha took part in Africa Express a charity initiative founded in response to the lack of African musicians playing at Live8. He joined Eno on stage again for an anti-war gig in London. He was presented with a BBC Award for World Music by Joe Strummer’s wife Luce. He ended his collaboration with Hillage to work with Gaetan Roussel.

Taha’s song “Migra”, as recorded by Carlos Santana, sold more than 25 million copies. On his 2013 album Zoom, he got to play with Mick Jones again. And in 2015, France finally recognised Taha’s contribution to the French music scene with a Victoires de la Musique lifetime achievement award. As he turned to thank the audience, Taha accidentally dropped his long-awaited trophy and exclaimed: “Ah, merde.”

Taha, who had a rare form of spina bifida known as Arnold-Chiari malformation, died of a heart attack in Paris. His wish was to be interred not in France but in Algeria. As he wrote in his autobiography, “Algérien pour toujours, et Français tous les jours”, which roughly translates as “French every day but Algerian forever”.

He is survived by his partner Véronique Pré and their son, Lyes.

Rachid Taha, musician, born 18 September 1958, died 12 September 2018