There’s been a punk sensibility to all of Rachid Taha’s music. I asked him where that attitude comes from. “I think it’s the same for all desperate people,” he told me. “The first punks were people like Oscar Wilde, John Lennon or Ian Dury. What they had in common was their openness to other influences.”
A significant influence on Taha’s early career was the engagement of punk musicians in the British anti-fascist movement. He told me, “People often forget that Rock Against Racism [RAR] was set up in 1976 up after Eric Clapton said there were too many black people in England.”
Clapton was a rock star who had built his career on playing the music of black blues musicians. His attitude still makes Rachid angry. “He really said that – the idiot.”
RAR brought together musicians from different cultural backgrounds to challenge racism. It inspired today’s Love Music Hate Racism.
“Our response was to do the same thing in Paris. I was friends at the time with people like The Clash, [dub poet] Linton Kwesi Johnson and [experimental musician] Robert Wyatt. My outlook is still rooted in those times.”
Taha was born in Algeria, but his family moved to France when he was ten years old.
He became famous in France, with his band Carte de Séjour (“residence permit”), which was formed in 1981. Then as now, he sang mostly in Arabic, but the band’s best known song was a cover version of the patriotic standard, “Douce France” released in 1986.
“Sweet France, dear country of my childhood,” it goes. “Cradled with carefree tenderness, I’ve kept you in my heart/My village with its steeple, its modest houses/Where the children of my age have shared my happiness.”
Its punky Arabic instrumentation and Taha’s irreverent vocal transformed the song from a bland celebration of rustic life into an ironic cry of defiance from the banlieues, the poor suburbs that ring French cities where many immigrants live.
It was released in the year the fascist Front National won its first MPs and as a racist backlash was gathering pace against France’s immigrant population.
Taha agreed that the situation with the extreme right in France today is more serious than it was in Britain in the late 1970s at the height of the fascist National Front’s success, when RAR was launched.
He said, “We’re experiencing a kind of everyday fascism now.
“The French always like to criticise the Americans. But despite everything, after 250 years the US has a black president. Can you imagine that ever happening in France? Never.”
Rachid’s explanation for this lies in the history of French colonialism.
“There’s something that people who hold power in France can’t get over – the Algerian War. People in the police, in official institutions, have never got over the loss of Algeria.”
The war for Algerian independence was one of the bloodiest in the history of colonial warfare. Over a million people were killed before independence was won in 1962 and its impact is still felt today.
“It makes the powerful in France feel like the Americans do over losing the Vietnam war – they’ve never got over it.”
Partly because of his Algerian background Taha feels affected by it. “Every time I say something those people hate it. It’s one of the most important things about French history and they can’t see beyond it.”
Rachid is probably best known in Britain for his Arabic take on The Clash song, Rock The Casbah. He once said this was his way of reclaiming the song back from the US troops who identified with it during the first Gulf War in the early 1990s.
His musical style is eclectic, drawing on rock, punk, techno and Arabic influences. He has collaborated with musicians as diverse as Brian Eno, Steve Hillage and Christian Olivier of French rockabilly rap outfit Les Tetes Raides.
He had an international hit in the early 1990s with Voilà Voilà – and behind it’s jaunty rhythm was uncompromising disdain for the cry of “Foreigners out”, what the song calls, “The remedy of civilised men”.
He explained what this means. “With all these issues – immigration, migrants whose families later join them, or even when President De Gaulle was forced to give Algeria independence – the same argument came up. ‘Do you want wogs running Europe in 40 years’ time?’ those opposed to these things would say.”
I asked how things have changed for young people in the banlieues since he started singing in the 1980s.
“It’s worse for them now. I was born abroad. The youth in the banlieues today are French. They’ve been educated here, but when they apply for work, they’re not called Michel or Matthieu, so they don’t get the job.”
He thinks attempts to build movements to defend immigrant rights since the 1980s were hampered by mistakes made by the Socialist Party – the equivalent of the British Labour Party.
“For example, when the Socialists were in power they could have abolished the double penalty [when immigrants convicted of a crime face both prison and deportation]; they could have given immigrants the right to vote and so on.
“They didn’t do it and now the left is paying the price – just as the British left are paying for the Labour government’s actions.”
In this situation the existence of a radical current of resistance in popular culture can play an important role in voicing discontent that finds no channel in mainstream politics.
Rachid Taha is part of this current, which continues to renew itself. “There is an engaged, radical side to France,” he says, “There are cultural figures like Emile Zola, Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Alexandre Dumas. It’s not all Napoleon.”
Rachid Taha will perform London’s Royal Festival Hall on 12 November 2009 with Vieux Farka Touré