Rachid Taha – “Barra Barra”

Released: 12.25.01

Peak: Did not chart

No “world music” auteur of the past decade deserved Rock Star status more than this scruffy rai renegade. Both Manu Chao’s synthetic one-world groove and M.I.A.’s hip-hop/dance affinities embraced broader notions of the artist-hero. But “Barra Barra” is straight-up Franco-Arabic rock. It demands fist-pumps, capacious arenas, sweaty male adoration. Trafficking in heavy but never sludgy guitar, fiddling with hard Eurotrash rhythms without reducing rai to exotic ornamentation, Taha brandished florid masculine aggression as liberation, a move that cool first-worlders had long ago ceded to careerist dolts.

And Taha received the biggest push of any international musician since maybe King Sunny Ade. (Chris Blackwell thought him the next Bob Marley, you could look it up.) Granted, you might have missed the rai marketing blitz of 2001. But Sting’s duet with Cheb Mami on “Desert Rose,” brokered by the owner of Ark 21 (and its Mondo Melodia subsidiary), former I.R.S. kingpin Miles Copeland, funded this worthy cultural exchange, including this Oran-gone-Paris vagabond’s fierce Made in Medina.

“Barra Barra” (“Outside”) distills Taha’s aesthetic into six minutes of cross-cultural bludgeon. The Berber lyrics convey an apocalyptic vision–honor and dignity as worthless as the lightless sun and the dried up rivers–but the despair, rising from a distant ululation into a bark that’s all trilled rs and glottal frustration, requires no translation. Western and Arab instrumentation slug it out for this worthless terrain, until halfway through the track, when a straight-up rock backbeat flattens the slow, grinding build of trad North African oud and drums.

Taha’s greatest exposure came when Ridley Scott prominently featured “Barra Barra” in his warsploitation splatter flick, Black Hawk Down, probably cuz it sounds all Arab and scary. (Somalia, Algeria, whatever.) Still, rock stardom was not to be for Rachid–System of a Down was plenty exotic enough, thanks. But Taha still fights the good fight–even went on to cover “Rock the Casbah,” as necessary a conceptual coup in the overall scheme of world progress as Cornershop’s “Norwegian Wood.”

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