It is tempting to view Diwan 2 as a "roots" album: there is a preponderance of covers of older material, and the instrumentation leans substantially less on distorted electric guitar than did Rachid Taha's last album, the phenomenal Tékitoi (Wrasse, 2004). As on that album, the musiciansnotably guitarist Steve Hillage, mandolute player Hakim Hamadouche, percussionist Hossam Ramzy and the string ensembleperform beautifully. Hillage's production and Taha's arrangements likewise shine.
The new album is a roots album, but with two important caveats. First, in an important sense, all of Taha's music is roots music; and second, the roots in question are to be found in the desolate French banlieues as much as they are in Taha's native Algeria.
The Arabic music was equally present on Tékitoi, where Taha was likely to segue from full swirling Cairo string section, with lute and Arabic percussion, into a techno groove or an electric guitar and screaming vocal that would sound at home on a Nirvana record. Not so much Nirvana this time round, but the point is this new record is not a return to Arabic roots, for Taha never left them behind.
Moreover, in Taha's music, a rock and roll sensibility is wound around those Arabic roots, as impossible to disentangle as a double helix of DNA. Sometimes the mesmeric North African beat masquerades as rock and roll, as on "Ah Mon Amour" or "Joséphine" from Diwan 2: this was the approach of the great Moroccan chaabi band Nass El Ghiwane (one of whose songs Taha covered on his first Diwan album in 1998). Nevertheless, Nass El Ghiwane looked like rock stars but sounded essentially Maghrebi; by contrast, when rock and roll guitar is added to Taha's songs, it's clear we are in the presence of genuine cross-cultural fusion.
Indeed, Taha's best fusion"Safa," from Tékitoi, or, more subtly, most of the numbers hereprovokes excitement, I would argue, because of an aesthetic similarity between the larger-than-life Egyptian urban music of the 1950s and 1960s and the larger-than-life rock and roll of the next few decades. Both forms take delight in the grandiosity of their orchestral sound. Thus, on Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir," or Taha's "Rani," on this record, what one hears is the unabashed joy of like recognizing like. As Duke Ellington said in Afro-Eurasian Eclipse (Original Jazz Classics, 1971): "It's hard to know who is enjoying the shadow of whom."
There has been some carping about Taha's vocal abilities as he takes on the Egyptian late classical tradition. Diwan 2 closes with no less than than Oum Kalsoum's "Ghanni Li Shwaya" (clocking in at under seven minutes, Taha's performance devotes a tiny fraction of the time that Kalsoum would have accorded the number). Taha is no Oum Kalsoum. And I don't think he's trying to be. His vocal gifts are somewhat limited, in the way that one would describe Louis Armstrong's or Bob Dylan's vocal gifts as "somewhat limited," but like those musicians, Taha deploys his talents with great agility. His delivery draws amply upon learned and popular Arabic music, particularly North African, but he seems equally influenced by the French chanson, where quirkiness is embraced (if not de rigueur), and by Anglo- American rock and rhythm and blues.
What one hears in the repertoire compiled for Diwan 2 is not so much the classic Egyptian sound of the 1950s and 1960s, but the music of Taha's childhood in France, where he moved at the age of ten. Thus there are songs that might have come from his parents' record collection (Oum Kalsoum, Abdel Halim Hafez's "Gana El Hawa"), from the radio (Mohamed Mazouni's "Écoute-Moi Camarade"), and from Oran, the Algerian city from which Taha's family hailed, songs the family would know ("Rani" and "Mataoul Dellil," here delivered with orchestral sumptuousness.) The historical era thus recalled is a painful one, as a generation of immigrants' children tentatively sought to find their means of cultural expression in a society that looked askance (and still does) at the notion of cultural diversity.
Seen in this light, the inclusion of Cameroonian Francis Bebey's amusing "Agatha," with light-hearted kora accompaniment, might be an understated overture on Taha's part towards immigrants from south of the Sahara. Then again, maybe he just liked the song.
Diwan 2 does not have the flash and dazzling immediate impact of Tékitoi; but what it lacks in surface sheen it makes up for in even greater depth. This may be Taha's masterpiece.
Tracks: Écoute-Moi Camarade; Rani; Agatha; Kifache Rah; Joséphine; Gana El Hawa; Ah Mon Amour; Mataouel Dellil; Maydoum; Ghanni Li Shwaya.