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French Version

The last rock 'n' roll hero... Rachid Taha rocks the casbah

Music Hall on Monday night could have been a heaving Parisian basement as aging Algerian renegade Rachid Taha rocked the casbah for over two hours.

It might also have been a turn of genius from the outspoken star, who managed to work a normally staid Lebanese crowd into a jumping fury of screams and sweating bodies with the tracks that made him famous, as well as mess with their minds denouncing political assassinations and arguing for a true revolution.

"There is no democracy in the Arab world," he said at one point and urged the audience to repeat over and over in unison the name of recently murdered journalist Samir Kassir. And they did. With enthusiasm. The singer had hit a nerve.

Looking like the last rock 'n' roll star Taha rolled on stage a gaunt figure, his leather pants hanging loose, his long greasy hair pasted around his brow. Yet if the intended effect was dark and dangerous as he has pulled off in the past, what he achieved here was something far more clownish.

With a cheeky face throughout and a glint in his eye, whisky glass in one hand and cigarette in the other, Taha taunted the audience to move with him, explained his songs and jumped around the stage with his band - a tight outfit dominated by the similarly leather attired bassist and guitarist and a powerful drummer.

Taha was in Lebanon as part of the French Cultural Center's global initiative to promote French and Maghrebian music to the world - "Generation Musiques," this year in association with Elefteriades Productions who run Music Hall.

First put on in Lebanon last year, 2005 sees four gigs including Taha's, featuring the cream of French-inspired world music. The Moroccan reggae fusion group Gnawa Diffusion play on July 3, guitarist Thierry "Tito" Robin a month later on August 7, and classic French rocker Arno at the beginning of September.

None are likely to match Taha for pure energy and insanity.

A mixed crowd of young and old begged for classic tracks like "Barra Barra" and "Ya Rayha" and Taha obliged giving his all.

For the non-initiated, which was none of the people present Monday, the music itself is a brilliant fusion of punk rock and Arabic influences and it is obvious why Taha has had such success since the early 1980s.

With a talented oud player and a battering derbekke drummer, Taha's ability to cross over was evident. Some of the best moments indeed came from their soloing as Taha sung alternately in French and Arabic over the rhythms.

Though in his mid 40s, as he got slowly more out of control, Taha still showed moments of his trademark anger. When one photographer asked him to pose during a song, he lay into him with a verbal tirade: "I am here to perform, you want your picture you get your picture, but I'll show you my ass if you want."

Then the mischief exposed itself as he asked the crowd to touch each other during a soft song - "If you are man and woman or a man and a man it's all ok," - or argued for women's rights in his typical alternative way by saying that if women didn't have their own place in society then all men are going to live in is a bordello.

The crowd responded positively though. Taha is difficult not to love and the feeling was one of collective release. If only such gigs would happen more often here.

The best moments came on the crashing rock numbers. "I like rock, I like the feel of it, the feel of punk, and it works well with North African music," Taha has said in the past.

This powerful feeling was reflected on songs like his cover of The Clash's "Rock The Casbah." A tribute to Joe Strummer, and a slightly sarcastic personal take on the track from someone who is indeed born from the Algerian casbah himself, the familiar Clash riffs seamlessly blend with Arabic influences.

Though Taha has lived in France for over 20 years, his North African roots kept coming to the fore be it on songs born from his anger at the world, culture and politics or from those born of love. Ballads featuring such lyrics as "If I didn't like your eyes, I wouldn't suffer so much to get you," had a sort of stripped-down style but with an early punk-influenced immediacy jumping from oud solos to crashing guitar chords and keyboard wizardry and back.

For all the clowning around and moments of madness, Rachid Taha and his band gave their all to a crowd that left sated. Though by the end as he swapped one hat with another he looked a mess, falling over at one point only for his stage hand to pick him up, Taha gave the crowd a superlative set they won't soon forget.

"Attends. Attends. Lubnan. I am flying at six in the morning to the States. Wen al-After?" he shouted before exiting the stage, asking where an after party could be found.

From the screams of the ladies at his feet there is little doubt he found one.

Beirut,06 20 2005
Ramsay Short
The Daily Star
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