It’s only sport or rock’n’roll that give you this delicious thrill. Like the one that sweeps through you when a groggy boxer gets up off the canvas or when a singer everyone’s written off returns to the spotlight. Think Muhammad Ali winning back his world heavyweight title in Kinshasa in 1974, or a leather-clad Elvis Presley proving he was the King of Rock on NBC’s 1968 Comeback Special – in a boxing ring. These stories of secular redemption are what modern myths are made of. And after two years of setbacks it seems that Rachid Taha has been supping from this source of inspiration. One of the pioneers and indeed the king of “rock’n’raï”, Rachid is back to his best with Zoom, his ninth solo album, penning a new chapter in a rollercoaster, maverick career that began 30 years back with the band Carte de Séjour. Rachid is more lyrical, more cutting, more rock’n’roll and crazier than ever, and these twelve new songs further embellish his own legend.
The new album is another step down the musical path that saw the Algerian singer marry electric guitars and the Arab oud, but this is also a Zoom into the future. Like every new album of his, he wants to continue writing a story in which he plays the hybrid, fantasy hero who’s one-third Sinbad, one-third John Wayne and one-third Alan Vega. Because, the way he sees it, you conquer the American west by starting in the east. Because country music and rock’n’roll may be the fruit of a morganatic marriage of African and European influences, but the matchmaker is an Arab. So with the guitar, whose Persian and Middle Eastern roots are proven, and cowboy boots, which developed from babouche slippers, Rachid has created his own myth and uses it to create a masterfully elegant mix of artistic ingredients. In his hands, rockabilly and chaabi become first cousins. Zoom is the result of a way of thinking, an aesthetic approach. And the symbol of this convergence between the two cultural horizons that produced him is the presence of Elvis Presley and Oum Kalsoum on the same album. He does a languorous, English and Arabic duet cover version of the King’s Now Or Never, a romantic standard adapted from the famous O Sole Mio. He samples Oum Kalsoum’s voice on Zoom sur Oum, a very Gainsbourgian tribute to the “fourth pyramid of Egypt” with words by Jean Fauque, long-time lyricist of Alain Bashung, Rachid’s sorely missed friend.
This sparkling comeback owes a lot to the production skills of Justin Adams, an English musician who also enjoys the benefits of two cultures. Having played guitar with Led Zeppelin’s former lead singer, Robert Plant, Justin is a member of two bands, Triaboliques and Juju, the latter more a bewitching potion of rock and West African trance music than a mere group. Justin was a Clash fan as a teenager and has admired Rachid’s work ever since he came across his recording of Rock the Casbah. Such auspices always suggested that two musicians with a taste for North African and North American roots music would hit it off, and so it was only logical for them to meet at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio in early 2012.
There’s the odd touch of electronica (Djemila), but Zoom is mainly an interplay of primary beats and vintage strings, with Justin Adams’ brilliant guitar-playing and the wonderful Arab lute sounds of Hakim Hamadouche, one of Rachid’s longstanding sidekicks. The powerful British punk of Fakir is followed by the classical sound of Galbi featuring Duane Eddy style guitar that intertwines with the mandole to produce Rachid’s fantasy landscape where the sands of the Sahara fade into those of New Mexico and Damhane El Arrachi and Hank Williams swig their hooch from the same bottle. From this idealized country the singer draws the rough and ready energy for Les Artistes, whose fifties coda underscores the defiant, ironic lyrics of an eternal rover as he ponders his fate and invokes Kurt Cobain, Elvis Presley and John Lennon as some people might appeal to St Rita and St Christopher. Rachid’s confusion about his roots has not affected his fantastic capacity to reflect the pulse of the Algerian soul. Ouesh N’Amal, a folk song that’s as clear as the water of a Kabyle wadi, is a great illustration of this. He is joined on Ya Oumri by Cheba Fadela – a legendary raï singer from Sig near Oran like Rachid – for a raï in the classical, if not classy, tradition of the Oran seafront cabarets that expresses a burning thirst for freedom.
Zoom is made the most complete, most film-like record of the career of a man who grew up under the spell of Elvis and Bollywood films, spaghetti westerns and Egyptian melodramas. It features a star-studded cast including Mick Jones (formerly of The Clash), Brian Eno and Rodolphe Burger, and a cover version of Voilà Voilà (bonus track) with special guests like Agnès B, Rachida Brahkni, Eric Cantona, Femi Kuti and Christian Olivier to stand up to the prevailing xenophobia. Like a tracking shot in a Godard movie, Zoom is also a movement in which aesthetics underpin a moral and political commitment. More than ever, Rachid Taha’s asserts his unique style and atypical identity – a rocking dervish whose rebel spirit is always tinged with oriental sensuality.