Rock ‘n’ rai! Rachid Taha captivates international audience

by Ryan Snyder

The axiom about music being a universal language has never been more true than it was on April 16 at Duke University’s Page Auditorium.

Despite having at best a rudimentary command of the English language, French-Algerian singer/songwriter Rachid Taha was unreserved and utterly enthralling in his performance before an abundant audience of Duke coeds and international music fans. Performing on a dual bill with folk legend Richie Havens, the show paired two acts renowned for their political voices. Though rooted in highly deviating socio-political climates, their defiant proto-punk consciousnesses parallel remarkably, even if Havens’ is somewhat more explicit. Taha might not be a big name stateside, but his international acclaim is indisputable and with Patti Smith and Brian Eno among his biggest fans, there’s certainly something special to be found in his music. Imagine a disheveled, Middle Eastern Tom Waits in a leather suit and matching trilby backed by the Disco Biscuits, and you might approach the nearly ineffable aural aesthetic of Taha and his band. Backed by a six-piece outfit of twin percussion, synth, bass, the masterful Hakim Hamadouche on mandolute and the electrifying Stephane Bertin on guitar, Taha drips with the kind of charisma possessed only by the musical elite. Regardless of the listener’s comprehension of his predominantly Arabic lyrics, it’s impossible not to be propelled between a jubilant boogie and sheer hypnotism by his spellbinding live blend of rock, ambient house and ra’ music. From the moment he took the stage, the diverse crowd was in an uproar by his rare appearance in the United States. He had commanded everyone in attendance to their feet to dance only minutes into the show and the quickness in their compliance spoke directly to their hesitant, but burning need to do just that. “I love you, my baby,” he said of the audience. He engaged the audience on several occasions and though there wasn’t much to be garnered for non-Arabic speakers, his gruff, broken English implied a sincere desire to communicate with American audience. He seemed to make a joke about spilling his bottled water on his leather pants and while the words whizzed right past most, his body language was enough to elicit plenty of genuine chuckles. Linguistics aside, he said all that needed to be said when his band played, with seemingly every major rock influence from the past 40 years woven into his intricate musical tapestry. There were definite shades of Buddy Holly and White Album-era Beatles, with some library funk sprinkled in to kick the intensity up to the next level. “Ya Rayah” displayed the lightningquick fingerstyle of Hamadouche, whom Taha referred to as “Hakim, the best.” He brought the audience into the show with “Nokta,” a forceful electro-beat jam, as a half dozen young collegians took the stage like a writhing harem troupe, while Bertin and bassist Jean-Marie Brichard laid down a deep ambient groove. As the night passed, the older attendees dispersed and the remaining fans pushed forward to their empty seats, as the familiar riffs of “Barra Barra,” a track many knew as a signature piece from Blackhawk Down. His voice fluctuated between being hypnotically rhythmic and coarse and guttural, even toward the end when he seemed to go into a spoken-word rant. Though the ominous backing music could have very well indicated a story of tragic misfortune. His incredible set ended with a cover a Clash classic, though with his own twist. “Rock El Casbah” was faithfully redone in his own language, though with every bit of the appeal of the original.

So how could he possibly top that for an encore? How about bringing out Richie Havens for a guest spot? Havens looked a little hesitant at first after being handed a tambourine. In a somewhat awkward moment, he was offered a microphone which he politely turned in down with a nervous grin. As Taha embraced Havens in one arm, Brichard translated for Havens that Taha viewed him as the greatest folk singer in the world. As the old Greenwich Village legend smiled from ear to ear, the band launched into show closer “Garab,” as Havens tapped his instrument politely. Even a reluctant Havens couldn’t deny the sheer energy filling Page Auditorium and became just as swept away has those still in attendance. As the band poured themselves into the hypnotic bridge, Havens intently banged away the tambourine before exploding out of the jam like he had been playing these songs all of his life. It was an amazing moment to see these two geographic icons share the stage, but the bridging of two cultures would leave the most indelible imprint.