"Ready to Boil Over"

French rock star Rachid Taha talks about the agony of the Arab world, rock 'n' roll rebellion, Islamism, and the chansons of his parents – and calls Bin Laden "an asshole". Interview by Daniel Bax

​​Monsieur Taha, your new album consists entirely of Arab chansons from the sixties and seventies. Are you getting nostalgic?

Rachid Taha: No, not at all: nostalgia is something for fascists! At most, I sometimes wax melancholic. My album should be seen as a way of helping us to remember. The idea is for young people like my son to learn about the culture of their parents and grandparents – to recall a bit of immigration history.

These Arab pop songs were actually the music that your parents listened to, right?

Taha: Yes, I heard them when I went to my father's favorite cafés. That was during the heyday of the Scopitones, an early type of jukebox with moving pictures. You used to find them in a lot of bars where immigrants went after work to listen to Arab or North African chansons. The songs were filmed. By the way, the films were all shot by the same person.

Did you listen to other music when you were young?

Taha: Of course, who listens to their parents' music? You want to be different from them! But today I think that people should be familiar with this music. And let's face it, when we're young, we're all a bit stupid, right?

And today's young people – are they also a little bit stupid?

Taha: They're stupid in the sense that they think they know about history. When I see that young people in the suburbs strictly observe Ramadan and talk about Islam, I think that's stupid. It's simply ridiculous. Many of them are radicals, and I don't like that at all. If you practice religion in a tolerant manner, then that's fine. But if it only serves to fuel your hatred of others and place yourself above them, then I reject it.

Is this a trend? Has radical Islam replaced rock 'n' roll rebellion?

Taha: No, it's just absurd. We're talking about a small minority. You won't find more of them in France than in Germany. But people prefer to talk about these idiots. That's the cynicism of the West: You talk about these idiots so you can say to yourself: "Look how much better we are!" Most Muslims have very different views. They reject this. But much less attention is given to what they have to say. Instead we focus on a few individuals who scare us.

Hasn't Bin Laden become a symbol of resistance for many young Muslims – something like Che Guevara when we were young?

Taha: No! And Che Guevara was an asshole, too. When he came to power, he had people shot. Che Guevara was a bourgeois, just like Bin Laden, who only formed his terror group because in his own country, in Saudi Arabia, he wasn't able to seize power. As far as I'm concerned, he's just an asshole. But he's useful to George W. Bush, who can now use terrorism as an excuse to go to war everywhere.

Up until now, France has been spared terrorist attacks like the ones in London and Madrid. Does France have no problems with violent Islamists?

Taha: Maybe the French police are just better? No, seriously, I think there's a problem there. Maybe there are more radicals in England and they've let them have their way for too long? Perhaps Muslims in France are just more moderate. Islamism in Britain comes from South Asia, from Pakistan and Afghanistan. The majority doesn't speak Arabic, and I think this leads to false interpretations of the Koran. But we shouldn't forget that these attackers were Englishmen. British society needs ask itself how this could have happened.

You've made allusions to society's ability to integrate foreign cultures. You are a mainstream star in France. That's a positive sign, isn't it?

Taha: Perhaps. But the romantic image of France as cosmopolitan and tolerant is also a myth. Many people think Algerian rai music is popular in France, but it's not. In any case, Arabic tracks are never played on the radio.

You've enjoyed some success recently in a number of Arab countries, although your music is rather unconventional. Do you feel that the Arab world is undergoing a transformation?

Taha: It has to change. But I really don't know if it actually is changing. As far as I can tell, the Arab world is stewing in its own juice and ready to boil over and explode any second now – because of the war in Iraq or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

How would you describe the current situation for artists in the Arab world?

Taha: The biggest problem is that there is no cultural infrastructure in most Arab countries, no cinemas, no theaters – artists are irrelevant. That's how it is when there's no democracy. This makes it very hard to organize a tour or shoot a film. Intellectuals and artists have had to make huge sacrifices. That's why many have gone abroad, and the Arab countries have been bled dry intellectually.

On the other hand, there's a very active diaspora. What influence does it have?

Taha: Sure, it has a certain influence. Paris has become more or less the unofficial capital of the Arab world. But it would of course be better if these people were working in their own countries to move things forward.

Arab societies are very young. Is there a potential for change there?

Taha: These societies are very young and at the same time very old; nearly all of them are monarchies. When I go to Egypt, Lebanon or Algeria, it's always the same story: Most young people I meet just want to leave the country – and move to Europe, or even better, to the United States. That's a big problem.

The riots in the banlieues showed that French youth from Northern Africa are also frustrated with their limited opportunities.

Taha: You could say that about youth everywhere. People refer to them as Arabs or Africans when they're talking about issues like this. But when they win a football match, they're all French.

Interview: Daniel Bax

© Daniel Bax/Qantara.de 2006

This interview was first published in the German daily newspaper Die Tageszeitung.

Ever since the days when he played with his group Carte de Séjour ("green card") and released a Maghreb interpretation of the French resistance song "Douce France" in 1986, Rachid Taha has been considered the cocky voice of young immigrants from Northern Africa. For over 20 years, Rachid Taha has acted the role of punk rocker and provocateur, following in the footsteps of the late Serge Gainsbourg.

His specialty is a fusion of technoid and rock sounds with Middle Eastern overtones. On his latest album "Diwan 2," however, he takes a look back at the past with cover versions of old Maghreb hits from the sixties and seventies, the music of his parents' generation. Similar to his first "Diwan" album from 1997, "Diwan 2" is an homage to the great pop singers of Northern Africa.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen


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