Maghreb Voices – Zoom

Rachid Taha, Zoom

?Birds scream at the top of their lungs in horrified hellish rage every morning at daybreak to warn us all of the truth, but sadly we don’t speak bird.?

Kurt Cobain

Arab Exile Punk

Any fresh work from Rachid Taha is newsworthy. Reports of his lapses into drug and alcohol abuse have made his fans wonder if he’s even still alive, or at the very least whether the best of his work is behind him.

But there’s another, better reason to sit up and take note: Taha, perhaps more than any other Maghreb entertainer, has the potential to actually steer the course of not only Middle Eastern popular music but Western popular music as well.

In the early ?80s Taha did lead vocals for the French rock group Carte de Sejour. Influenced by the sense of estrangement expressed by the burgeoning punk rock movement and taking advantage of the anything-goes philosophy of ?80s music, he sang in both English and Arabic. In 1986 he chose a standard patriotic French song, ?Douce France,? singing the words with a searing sarcasm that clearly condemned racist Western political conservatives who extolled the virtues of family life yet at the same time promoted policies that contributed to the destruction of families and communities in foreign countries and in the ghettos of foreigners within their own borders.

It hit a little too close to home. French listeners were miffed and the song was banned from French radio.

Taha has at times presented to the West an annoying in-your-face reminder of the sins of the colonialism That’s created a generation adrift, belonging nowhere. But more and more this is becoming the identity of world youth, not just of Arabs.

In ?Algerian Tango,? Taha sings, ?I don’t forget those who love me, and I can’t forget those who hate me. I can’t forget the wicked or the good. I can’t forget my dear friends or my enemies. I can’t forget the past, the racists, or those who enslave us. I’ve opened my eyes and my heart, and have given you everything, and you have lied to me.?

The anthem of the exiled Arab, so similar to the note of protest inherent in blues, reggae, and folk music, already has universal undertones. In the wake of the Arab Spring, it is becoming more and more the common experience of humanity, and perhaps for this reason the songs of Taha have been so enthusiastically embraced the world over.

The Algerian who can never return home is brother to the homeless Ojibwa wandering the streets of Toronto, the Korean immigrant forced into prostitution, and the thousands of refugees driven from their homelands and now belonging nowhere.

In true Taha tradition the music in Zoom is a relaxed mix of punk, rai, Middle Eastern maqams, gnawa, blues, and even a little surfer guitar and techno. Several songs on this album hark back to the ?80s punk scene that inspired Taha to sing out his alienation aesthetic long before most audiences were capable of getting it.

It’s telling that the title track, ?Zoom sur Oum? (?Zoom on Oum?), is a tribute to the legendary Egyptian singer Oum Khalthoum, who died in 1975; it contains a clip of her passionate, deep voice. A Syrian doctor once told me that Syrians listened to Fairouz every morning and Oum Khalthoum every night; all the agony and ecstasy of the Middle East is encased in this husky voice and forms an essential part of modern Arab identity.

The plight of the Maghreb countries is sometimes described as ?bin-o-bin,? meaning something like ?stuck between a rock and a hard place.? In ?Les Artistes,? for example, Taha hymns the doubtful blessings of one forced to remain in an oppressed homeland: ?I have no passport and I have no visa, but if I had them I’d travel around the world. I am the Maghreb, and these people are far from me.? In ?Khalouni? the singer says, ?Let me live alone and do what I want, to realize my dreams and my destiny. I’m from Wahran [Oran, Algeria] and I have no luck.?

Yet for all the tragic plight, there’s an offsetting sense of personal freedom grounded in existence itself. In ?Galbi,? Taha sings, ?My heart is always with me and near me. It’s my guide, my friend who brings me joy and kindness, whom I trust, who allows me to see beauty, charm, and chic.?

This article would not have been possible without the research and translation assistance of Driss Akjij of Meknes, Morocco.