Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rachid Taha

  • Diwân [Island, 1998] A-
  • Made in Medina [Mondo Melodia, 2001] A-
  • Live [Mondo Melodia, 2002] A-
  • Tékitoi [Wrasse, 2005] A-
  • Diwan 2 [Wrasse, 2006] A
  • Bonjour [Knitting Factory, 2010] A
  • Zoom [Wrasse, 2013] A
  • Je Suis Africain [Naïve/Believe, 2019] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Diwân [Island, 1998]
On his U.S. debut, the Oran-born Eurodance phenom was so ethnotechno that few Anglophones guessed his politics were tougher than his beats. Lucky for us, here he elects to catch his breath, retreating from message disco into an Algerian equivalent of Bowie's Pin Ups or GN'R's Spaghetti Incident. An instant touchstone of Arab song and a Taha-composed tour of rai history pitch the collection higher than it can remain if it's gonna be as trad as the artist thinks decent. Throughout, however, the tunes, choruses, instrumental parts, and raw vocals invoke a cultural identity that any moderately adventurous tourist will find more entrancing than ethnotechno. A-

Made in Medina [Mondo Melodia, 2001]
The Steve Hillage-produced follow-up to Taha's neotrad U.S. debut takes the rai project of Arabic rock to a harder place. The beat's not rock or funk either, but that's just as well--one reason the powerful momentum, strong Arabic melodies, and guitar louder than you knew Gong-banging, Orb-gouging Hillage had in him sound fresher than anything I've heard from competing English speakers recently. Pure sound sensation--for those who lack Arabic, the vocal drama signifies masculinity in extremis, nothing more. So tell me, just how many other young singers are getting away with that saw these days? A-

Live [Mondo Melodia, 2002]
Brussels is already rocking when the cocky little French-Algerian embarks on a greatest hits selection from Made on Medina, my choice for hard rock album of 2001, though that Linkin Park joint gave it a run and sold more copies to boot. Sandwiched around the Berber-sounding chant "Bent Sahra," four songs climax with the onomatopoeic "Foqt Foqt" before slowing down a little into the midtempo "Ala Jalkoum," here differentiated with a Femi Kuti cameo. Seems like cheating, reprising all that Made in Medina. Only this album rocks even harder. A-

Tékitoi [Wrasse, 2005]
Arabic "Rock the Casbah" or no Arabic "Rock the Casbah," this doesn't bite down as fast and hard as Made in Medina, and it'll take more than the crib sheet to hold Francophone and Anglophone attention when it gets all lyrical in the middle. Nevertheless, Taha transcends translation when he snarls--to quote the booklet, crude though it may be--"Bores, racists, the undecided, ignorants, know-alls, winners, show-offs." If you doubt his righteous rage, the beat and the rai subtext and the ululating hangers-on ratchet his cred. "Get rid of them! Ask them for an explanation!" Yeah! A-

Diwan 2 [Wrasse, 2006]
It's almost cheating--as on the 1998 Diwan, the rai-rocker simply raids an enormous store of popular music for surefire tunes few non-Arabic speakers have heard and fewer noticed. Many have a good beat, too, though not as frantic as Taha prefers. That's why he throws in two Steve Hillage-aided originals, both also aided by Kadi Bouguenaya, whose reed-blown flute sets "Ah Mon Amour" wailing. Still, the melodies carry the album--melodies an older Taha is singing with more heart and soul and arranging with fewer Cairo strings. The excellent translations sing love's passion more than they bemoan its pain. But the tunes make the sturm and drang seem worthwhile either way. A

Bonjour [Knitting Factory, 2010]
In 2009 the Algerian-born internationalist set down in New York and recorded 10 terrific tracks sans Cantabridgian avant-eclectic Steve Hillage and avec Parisian chanson-rocker Gaëtan Roussel. On the whole they're prettier than his casbah-rocking norm, especially the love songs that open and close, and when he claims that the uncommonly cushy Middle Eastern beat on "Ha Baby" is actually part-country (as in Nashville country, really), you can half hear what he means. Quality dips ever so slightly tracks six-through-eight, including a celebration of ancient Arab-Jewish amity and a whispered one he IDs as "how to talk about death while staying alive." But my only real complaint is that there are no trots--just enticing descriptive phrases alongside mostly Arabic script, though not on the title track, which begins "Hello Kitty bonjour Violent Femmes." In a world where too many are set on paradise, I believe this guy is committed to the party of this world, which is also my party, and I want ever detail I can get. A

Zoom [Wrasse, 2013]
This is the sixth solo studio album for the trilingual but mostly Arabic-singing 55-year-old French-Algerian since 1998's breakthrough Diwan. Every one has been first-rate, every one just different enough; even the live entry fills out what I hesitate to call his oeuvre, a word that feels sillier than usual in a scrappy rock lifer who just wants to make a little money here--while subtly addressing major political and cultural issues in the most legible desert crossover yet devised. This time the change-ups come from juju trancemaster Justin Adams, Mick Jones honoring his youth, a chanteuse sweetening "It's Now or Never," and a sample from the Egyptian goddess whose name is rendered not as Um Kulthum but as the old-school, rhymes-with-zoom Oum Kalsoum. Taha's rough attack can't match the rough-attack greats--Springsteen, say, or Fogerty--much less such fluent, gritty-when-necessary rivals to the south as Rochereau and N'Dour. For that reason, his excellent records may feel less essential to the English speaker in the long run. But I'll play this one remembering that my favorite track on sound alone is number three, "Jamila," which attacks forced marriage and bears as title an Arabic name that translates as "pretty." A

Je Suis Africain [Naïve/Believe, 2019]
Taha was working on this album when he died six days short of his 60th birthday in 2018, and it's not his best. But for someone who was arguably both the greatest French rocker and the greatest Algerian rocker, that's a high standard. Resettled in Lyon at 10, by age 17 he was DJing for roughnecks from both sides of the Mediterranean in a punk era that hadn't yet crossed the channel. Soon enough he was leading a rai-rock band that didn't worry about which was which, and over the years he became a self-made intellectual smart and soulful enough to school himself not just in French thought that added edge to his humanism but in Algerian ballads that added warmth to his grit. After a title track that celebrates such Africans as Mandela, Hendrix, Fanon, Malcolm, Marley, and Derrida follow a cameo for Swiss-Algerian feminist-shaman-autodidact Flèche Love, "Andy Waloo" a/k/a Warhol, songs worthy of the titles "Insomnia" and "Striptease," and his first composition in English, which he designated "Like a Dervish" as he whirled away forever. A-

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