Richie Havens and Rachid Taha speak truth to power

by Ryan Snyder

Many would say Richie Havens’ career peaked the moment he was introduced to the world. But when your overture comes as the lead-off man for what would be the most important cultural event in American history, it’s nigh impossible to offer a worthy second act. His repeating the word “freedom” during an improvised version of “Motherless Child” is forever frozen in time, capturing the mood of an entire generation of disenfranchised youths. It came as the audience refused to relinquish him even after multiple encores, thus stealing the thunder of Sweetwater, who performed it as part of their set only moments later. But it was a song born out of necessity, both because he simply ran out of songs to play and it encapsulated his frustration with the paucity of strong leaders during a time of turmoil. 

It was a far-flung dream at the time that his music came to prominence, but Havens held faith that he would one day see a person of color ascend to the country’s highest office. He believed it because two of his idols, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. prophetically believed it would happen within 40 years. Just over four decades later and it has finally happened, but Havens believes that music as a form of political communication is more important than ever.

“In the sixties, we were hunting for the voice we needed,” Havens said. “Now Barack has more than us to worry about, so we all have to come up with some answers to how we can get together and fix what we need to fix.” Just like his national debut in 1969, Havens’ pulpit for enacting change is the stage on which he plays and at an April 16 performance at Duke University’s Page Auditorium, he’ll share a bill for a special one-off with a like-minded individual. Though he’s literally an ocean apart, Rachid Taha has been a fervent political voice throughout Europe and the Middle East for nearly three decades as a fusionist of rock and the culturally repressed rai (rah-EE) genre. “Rachid and I must have something to say,” Havens laughed when told of the shows billing, “Speak Truth to Power.” He admits not being immediately familiar with Taha’s music, but understands the implications of their pairing. Much like himself, Taha is an artist whose principles are rooted in the progressive social ideologies of his time. Rai music is a product of the modernization of Islamic culture and thus, subject to a barrage of criticism and censorship by the Middle East power structure. Taha blends it with his classic influences of the Clash and Bo Diddley and elements of European techno to create a style that not only transcends styles, but borders as well. His music is electrically raw and ferocious in the same way that Haven’s is acoustically. Both artists most recent album, Havens with Nobody Left to Crown and Taha with Diwan 2, are biting in their commentary and sentimental in their delivery; hard proof that each possess the moral clout to sing about the state of affairs that surround them. Though Havens is most noted for his amended covers of popular songs, he has begun releasing more original material in his later years, mainly as a result of material simply accruing over the years. “I can’t sit down and say I’m going to write a song,” Havens said. “I gave that up in 1960 when I heard so many great writers, so what I did is sing the songs that make me feel as free as I actually am.” But then again, it’s always been his rhythmic guitar technique and commanding stage presence more than his songwriting prowess that has endeared him to generations of fans and musicians, albeit in a rather low-key fashion. He communicates so well with the audience because he actually considers himself to be a part of it, largely because he’s just as surprised as those who come to see him at what he might play. It’s an ethos that stems from advice given to him by New York folk icon Fred Neil: “He told me that all I had to worry about was getting on that stage and getting the hell off,” Havens said. “Whatever comes out in between came out because the vibration in that room was what it was.” Above all, he says he feels most privileged every time he gets a reaction from young fans looking to learn his unique style after seeing him. “It’s where the next great message comes from,” he says.