Algeria’s indigenous pop music, rai, which gained international attention in the 1980s, was, like many popular music forms, the result of city slickers adapting music from the sticks for their own purposes and enjoyment. Originally ribald, rai became pointedly political after young people in the ’60s and ’70s used it to express their anger and desires.
Rachid Taha was born in the seaport city of Oran, the birthplace of rai, in 1958, at the height of the independence struggle. He moved to France with his parents when he was 10 and left home at 18, working the menial jobs reserved for immigrants until landing a gig as the lead vocalist in the Arab-language rock group Carte de Sejour (loose translation: Green Card) in 1982.
Having absorbed funk, reggae and British new wave, the group made its first album in 1984 under the production tutelage of guitarist Steve Hillage, famous for his work with the hippie rock band Gong. Hillage gave the group a sharp, driving sound that played well on radio.
Taha and Hillage didn’t work together again until 1993, when the Englishman produced Taha’s second solo album and helped him achieve the kind of clubland-rai synthesis he had been aiming for. With his latest album, “Made in Medina,” the pair seem to have perfected it.
Opening with a burst of metal guitar and burred Arabic chanting meant to evoke “the generalized chaos of society, here or elsewhere,” the record features heart-stopping break beats, flamenco guitar, African choruses, crunching hard rock and the inevitable sappy love song. Taha utilizes a full and varied instrumental palette — the album was recorded in Paris, London and New Orleans, and includes input by, among others, the American jam band Galactica — and demonstrates a dizzying vocal facility that transcends whatever style he’s plugged.
Taha will open Halou Festival 2001, Tokyo’s annual showcase of music from France, which is no longer limited to chanson. Taha, in fact, is now considered the model of the millennial French pop musician: global in sensibility, local in perspective. In other words, you can take the boy out of Oran, but you can’t take Oran out of the boy.