ALGERIA: Je Suis Africain - Rachid Taha
Updated: Jan 20
The punky polyglot produces musical poetry that is simultaneously playful and political
Rachid Taha’s final album, Je Suis Africain, was released a year after his tragic passing. Yet, even after his death his message remains pertinent, and his boisterous, cheeky persona lives on through his music. The Algerian singer seems to have succeeded in making an album of many genres that also utilises a variety of different languages and influences, without it at any point feeling like a compilation or a hodgepodge of recordings put together in a hurried fashion. His energy and good humour is a constant throughout, thus making the album work as a complete piece that can be enjoyed even without an understanding of the lyrics.
“Africa is often labelled or thought of as ‘Black Africa’, perhaps as a way for white people to segregate and discriminate, especially when the whole continent is tarnished with the same brush as being ‘third-world’; yet, Taha emphasises the proud identity that Arabs in North Africa should have as Africans and should honour their dual-heritage.”
The opening track Ansit is a perfect introduction to the album. It contains Taha’s raspy voice, behind which a touch of cheeky hubris can be heard. Listening to the first song I get a sense that Taha’s passion is authentic, whilst at the same time I soon gathered an awareness that he does not take himself too seriously. This is because one can almost hear his smile beginning to shine through as he plays; simply through the tone of his voice one can detect that he seems to really enjoy performing his music. However, Ansit contains a quality that a lot of Arabic rock has, namely the congruent use of electric guitar sounds with traditional Arab instruments. In this song, the Kaval, which is a type of Balkan flute (similar to the Kawala or the Ney, both types of Middle Eastern flute), as well as an Arab string section perfectly accompanies the edgier Western punk instrumentation. This fusion of styles sets the tone for the rest of the album, including the next song Minouche which has a flamenco flavour to it. Andalusian music of course has its roots in North Africa and this song feels like the start of his homage to Algeria and its neighbouring countries’ influence upon music in various parts of the world.
The title track, and my favourite song on the album, however, take a different approach. Instead of reminding its global audience of the quality of the music that has been exported from North Africa specifically, Taha instead proudly sings about the African roots of those who have made outstanding contributions to the worlds of academia, culture and politics. He is joined by fellow African musicians, including Assaba Dramé on the Malian n'goni and and Lassana Diabate on the Guinean balafon. The song implies that the beautiful soul of Africa encompasses those from every industry on every continent. He name-checks a vast list of writers, musicians and activists including Bob Marley, Angela Davis and himself before proclaiming ‘Africain’ despite the fact that they come from nations not seen as overtly ‘African’.
The inclusion of his own name, and especially that of the white-skinned, Algerian/French philosopher Jacques Derrida, is particularly noteworthy. This is because Africa is often labelled or thought of as ‘Black Africa’, perhaps as a way for white people to segregate and discriminate, especially when the whole continent is tarnished with the same brush as being ‘third-world’; yet, Taha emphasises the proud identity that Arabs in North Africa should have as Africans and should honour their dual-heritage. He implies that anyone with African roots or anyone who has resided in Africa, must be thankful to the continent for contributing to the tools that helped them achieve their success.
Perhaps this can be taken one step further when interpreted literally from an anthropological perspective, as it is a widely held notion that humanity began in the continent of Africa. Ultimately, Taha could be saying that we must all therefore be related and in some sense ‘Nous Sommes Africains’. I thought it is also interesting that Taha switches to sing in French in this song. At the age of 10, Taha immigrated to France, a nation where there is much prejudice against African immigrants, regardless of their particular place of birth, and perhaps he is calling on Arab North Africans to behave as ‘brothers in arms’ with fellow Africans as when you live as an African immigrant you share the same discrimination regardless of one’s skin colour or nationality. Whether one is Moroccan, Congolese or Ivorian, it does not necessarily matter a great deal in France, as they all face the plight of immigrant life in a nation that does not make integrating so easy. This is even true for youngsters born in France to foreign parents who can only apply to become a French citizen upon turning 18 years old.
Whilst the other songs are not so overtly political and uplifting there are still nuanced messages about globalism and culture in subsequent tracks, such as Andy Waloo and the rather sweet Like A Dervish. It is worth listening out for other satirical swipes he makes on the rest of the album and translating some of his lyrics if you get the chance. Nevertheless, what is perhaps even more eye-catching is Taha’s musical range as he sets himself out to be much more than a rocker. Although this album is ultimately a rock album, it has something for everybody and even if you are not a big rock fan, don’t let that put you off. The whistling used in Insomnia sounds like it could be on a soundtrack for a Clint Eastwood Western film. Striptease is very much a blues track whilst the final song Happy End is an authentically beautiful love ballad. Overall, this album is ambitious, experimental and raw, and Taha overwhelmingly succeeds in gifting the world an enjoyable and interesting piece of music that will forever live on in his memory.