North Africa: Rocking el Casbah
Geography and history have left North Africa with an impressively mixed up musical culture. It's way too much of an oversimplification to say that Algerian music, for example, is a straightforward mix of traditional Arabic and southwestern European styles. It also includes elements of salsa and reggae, Jewish folkloric music, American rock 'n' roll, Euro club fare, and more.
The undisputed giant of North African music is the ever-sunny Khaled, whose French-Algerian roots tangle freely with global sounds, and whose music has become the very definition of raï. His name may be bigger than that of Rachid Taha, who's oriented toward edgier, rockier sounds. But the two shared a stage with a third star, Faudel, in the massively popular 1, 2, 3 Soleils (a 1998 concert, then CD and DVD), which reached legions of fans and cemented these two veterans, plus the youthful Faudel, as the modern-day pillars of French-Algerian pop.
Reviewed below are two recordings from Taha and Khaled which are both vastly superior to the aforementioned Soleils, which suffered from homogenized productionplus a broader sampler of North African grooves.
Ask Rachid Taha whether he considers his music raï, and you'll get a quick answer. No. He's a rocker. And despite the fact that he has shared the stage with Khaled and Faudel, his music differs from theirs in several fundamental ways. Taha's outgoing rebellion is much darker, rawer, and more visceral. His lyrics, in Arabic, French, and Spanish, question politicians and hypocrites, ponder meanings of love lost and found, and level the difficult lessons of the past with the potential of the future. His music, more irregular and blocky, prominently displays a punkish "I'll do what I want" energy.
But damn, this guy knows how to work a groove. The opening title track (a duet with Christian Olivier which translates roughly to "Who the hell are you?") blasts off with a shuffling guitar-driven riff, trading back and forth with rhythmic, rap-like vocals, and eventually building into a ripe frenzy. If these three minutes of testosteronized bump-and-grind don't get you at least thinking about bodily motion, maybe it's time to adjust the volume knob.
The distorted, dark-edged "H'asbu-hum" ("Ask them for an explanation") takes no prisonersTaha's voice is raw and desperate, and he's surrounded by an army of pounding drummersbut it's still pretty catchy in its own twisted way. More gentle and romantic sounds follow with the seeking "Winta"; pure drama and techno bounce with "Nah'seb"; and an echoing club remix vibe with "Voila Voila" (in Spanish).
Taha's Arabic take on "Rock el Casbah" will no doubt twist the ears of those already familiar with the Clash's version, and it stands roughly equal in stature to the original, which is no small thing. Tékitoi also includes a bonus DVD with a 45-minute film, ¿Kienes?, that features tour/interview/concert footage from Mexico. It's interesting enough to spin once, but you'll want to get back to the music in pure form.
Visit Rachid Taha on the web.
After a dip or two on record, the undisputed king of raï returns to full, undiluted joyous form on Ya-Rayi. It's been thirteen years since Khaled made his European (and world) breakthrough with his self-titled masterpiece, glowingly produced by Don Was and Michael Brook. While the recordings that came out in the interim have certainly had their high points, they've been a little uneven, and frankly cheesy at times. Ya-Rayi, quite refreshingly, is solid from start to finish.
The key with Khaled's boyish energy and perky vibe seems to be enveloping it in a musical context that keeps it shifty and fresh. The lush textures of "El-H'mam" wrap his lilting voice in an Arabic orchestra of strings, horns, and percussionhe sails high, twists deftly through his trademark trills, and gives it up to the ladies on the choruses. The balance is so right and seemingly effortless that it just floats through the air and embraces you with life-giving energy. (Credit young Algerian producer Farid Aouameur with helping make that happen.)
The compressed wah guitars that open the next track, "Lemen," herald a full-on soul funk explosion that takes its time to bounce left and right, pausing to regroup midway through and heading out the door with booty-shaking madness. Unstoppably brilliant. Other songs also dig the funk, notably the title track, incorporating a pretty wide instrumental palette. Lyrical Cafe Oran pianist Maurice El Medioni graces the more spacious, organic "H'Mama" and delicately swaying "Mani Hani."
Note: several different versions of this recording are out there with bonus tracks and/or bonus DVD, but as of this writing (April, 2005) no American release has hit the streets. This readily available "plain vanilla" French-language version with eleven solid tracks and a remix works just fine.