BEIRUT - Many in the West and the Arab world danced to his smash hit “Ya Rayah” (“You, the one leaving”), which brought him international popularity in the 1990s. Algerian-French singer Rachid Taha, who thrillingly blended Arabic music with rock and techno, died in France. He was 59.
Born September 18, 1958, in Algeria, Taha died September 12 from a heart attack in his sleep at his home in the Paris suburb of Les Lilas.
The son of Algerian immigrants, Taha moved to France at age 10 with his parents. He had recently finished recording an album due for release in 2019. He was also scheduled to film the first music video for one of the new songs, “Je suis Africain” (“I am African”), said Believe Digital, which owns Taha’s record label, Naive.
Taha was an iconic revolutionary figure on the French musical scene due to his eclectic blend of native rai and chaabi. At times he wore blue contact lenses to protest anti-Arab prejudice in France.
In an interview in 2008 with French daily L’Alsace, Taha recalled his difficult first years in France. He was quoted as saying: “I had joined a primary school of the French Republic. I practically did not speak a word of French. Everybody was speaking Alsatian and I was speaking in Arabic.”
With his group Carte de Sejour (Residence Permit), Taha caused a stir in France in 1986 with a husky-voiced rocky cover of legendary singer-songwriter Charles Trenet’s sentimental, patriotic song “Douce France” (“Sweet France”). The group distributed copies of the song in France’s parliament as lawmakers debated changes to the country’s nationality laws.
He and Carte de Sejour became the standard-bearers of the second generation of the Franco-Algerian and Franco-Moroccan community in France.
Taha’s celebrity skyrocketed with his 2004 remake of the Clash’s “Rock the Casbah,” for which he was widely acclaimed, including by a Clash member Mick Jones, who declared he preferred Taha’s remake to the original version.
Taha’s 1998 popular album “Diwan” featured Algerian Chaabi songs, including smash hit “Ya Rayah,” which reached number 11 on the French singles charts. The same year, a trio performance “1,2,3, Soleils,” with Faudel and Cheb Khaled at Palais Bercy in Paris in tribute to rai music was a highlight in his career.
Taha’s unexpected death caused shock and sadness among fans and friends.
“All those memories: the success of ‘Ya Rayah,’ the historic ‘1,2,3 Soleils’ gig, the parties, the chats and laughter all night long! How sad…! RIP dear friend,” producer Pascal Negre wrote on Twitter.
French-Moroccan comedian Jamel Debbouze tweeted: “My brother Rachid was the guardian with his music, his heart and his lyrics.” French-Malian rap artist Oxmo Puccino commented: “The world has just lost some of his colours.”
French Minister of Culture Francoise Nyssen paid tribute to Taha, saying: “He knew how to sing and reinvent everything — the Clash as much as Trenet.”
“I can sing, slam and pound for 17 hours non-stop,” Taha was once quoted as saying, adding that he was singing “to make people love God even if he did not exist.”
Rachid Taha, one of France’s wildest rockers who helped make Algerian music popular globally, is to be buried in his native Algeria, French newspaper Le Parisien reported.
Samar Kadi is the Arab Weekly society and travel section editor.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.