Music » Festivals

Rachid Taha Rocks El Halbah



If you were planning a night of hushed, introspective sounds Tuesday soir at the Jazz Tent, ya picked wrong, Jacko. What Algerian-born French singer Rachid Taha and his force-of-Nature band of merry men and opening act Kojopresented over the course of the evening was git-up-on-it musical combustion. Hotter than a stroll on the sun I tell ya. Well, OK. Bit of an exaggeration. But close.

Kojo, meaning rebirth, entertained listeners (who quickly doubled up as dancers) with charming, nimbled-thumbed, bell-pure dance numbers and songs played on Kalimbas (thumb pianos) underpinned by a steady thump, thump, thumping bass drum beat overlayed with cross-rhythms performed by a terrific drummer coupled with poly-rhythmic flavourings by an equally skillful conga percussionist. The three former Sudanese principals sported African tunics and shirts resplendent in swirling patterns of golds, greens, aquas and pale gray. After a couple of numbers, Martha Pratt, seated next to me, who had visited Africa, commented, "You can feel Africa when they play those things. The air feels different." I was amused by the group's often droll song intros. One song chronicled a young man's dodgy quest to marry his girlfriend. A big obstacle stood in his way. Namely, his intended's dowry: a substantial price to pay. And there he was; sorely under-coined. Undaunted, he boldly asked his prospective father-in-law, " Can I marry her on credit?" Delightful.

Rachid Taha came raring to entertain last night. His killer band, made up of electric bass, KORG keyboard with laptop for effects, electric guitar, drums, percussion (congas and bongos) and a mandocello-like instrument that sounded like an oud. turned the tent into a steamy French-Arabic boite de nuit. They kicked off with a thundering loping reggae beatas Taha sifted into place at a mic front and centre. He was dressed in a black suit (the jacket soon shed), open-necked shirt ; his eyes shielded by a pair of amber shades. A nimbus of black ringlets coiled down to his shoulders from beneath a flat black cap (also soon shed). In appearance, I likened Taha as a short, slight, black-maned Arab blend of Joe Cocker (in his youth) and Led Zepp's Robert Plant.

The pumped throng, ready to dance, jammed themselves tight to the stage and pressed back into the centre isle. They got their dancing wish. Taha held nothing in reserve. Every full-band number blasted exhilerating, solar-plexus rattling dance beats - sometimes, if I counted right, in 10/8, 6/8 and 7/8 time signatures. Taha, in a surprisingly light, unraspy tenor, sang infectious, linear, Arabic melodies replete with the form's characteristic quarter-tones. Often band members added their voices in harmony accompaniment. So what if ya didn't have a Scooby-doo clue about what he was singing. Three bars into every number, you found yourself parroting, at the top of your lungs (it was loud-loud-loud), Taha's trachea-shredding vocalisms. Much of the evening's offerings were as frenetic as a tantrum, culminating in Taha's finale, his fabled and signature version of The Clash's Rock The Casbah. The crowd of course wanted more when the song rumbled to its conclusion. They chanted Rachid-Rachid and clapped hands in unison. Surprise surprise (not) the band returned for an encore. This turned out to be an explosive Arab rap rave-up number which began with the bluster of an approaching heavy weather squall and evolved into a deafening crescendo of intensified rhythm until it reached a jack-hammer finish, leaving an exhausted but sated audience "shooken to their very bones". For those not present last night, you'll have a chance to hear the music later this year on CBC-Radio's Canada Live.

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