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Dispatches From Kuwait: The Politics of Rai and Rachid Taha Live

I have tried avoiding the political since I got here to Kuwait. Avoiding it in my writing that is. There are enough correspondents and journalists out here in the sand to have that market fairly well covered. And after Amira Hass and Robert Fisk's work, there's not too much room left for political coverage. What has interested me is just how my neighbors live, how they survive the day to day, what happens to the paycheck and what their nightmares and dreams are like.

But now I have a Palestinian friend whose daughter and wife have to hunt and eat street cats at night because of the war in Gaza. Another friend of mine's house was bombed and he hasn't heard from his sister in days. There are other stories that have crept into my life from Gaza, but writing all these would end up being just a list of atrocities and under this side of heaven there still has to be room for anger and love.

But how can I avoid the political now?

And if what is needed now is protest, a rising tide of voices forcing change from the bottom and not waiting for it from the top, then it's all the more important to talk about music, since when hasn't music been protest?

In those dry and half-vulnerable moments I often reach for a collection of Little Richard's work on Specialty Records—-that good and roaring stuff before the overdubs and the 1980s. When he opens his mouth my speakers shake and so does something in my guts that lifts the spirit a little and if I am lucky enough to have a good woman there and a bottle of wine, it lifts her up too and into a dance. That near-barrelhouse piano, the baritone saxes are a vicious protest against boredom and a spit in the face of an Eisenhower era conformity that almost killed Dalton Trumbo. For there are also nights, where the lights are low and my heart is out, the sunrise is somewhere close by and the mind has stretched itself out and thin, that perfectly fit J.B. Beverley and the Wayward Drifter's "Dark Bar and a Jukebox." The sunrise peels itself like a lemon rind across the horizon, a diesel sounds and J.B.'s "Rainin' in Philly" comes out of the speakers matching the road and all those white lines in my heart. Another protest against Kenny Chesney and Music Row and staying at home.

And this is the history of music, for why does jazz happen when it does and why does it burst out of Harlem? Why do the blues grow so rapidly out of slave plantations? Why is there such a resurgence of soul-full music in the face of Britney Spears and George W. Bush's era of terror, fear and conformity? JJ Grey & MOFRO, Gov't Mule, The Black Crowes, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, The Budos Band, The Diplomats of Solid Sound, Galactic, Ryan Bingham, the list going on and on and on in a reaction against, a protest against all of this….

And what now that the concrete of Gaza is crumbling under phosphorous bombs and fear? Will music grow out of this?

There is Rai music however, swirling around Gaza, around the Arab world, a form of music that grew out of the Algerian Oran under French colonialism. Bedouin nomads came out of the desert singing topical songs about life under the French, the oppression and the heat. These songs spread, taking on new singers in the marketplaces and the streets and eventually earning the name of "Rai" somewhere around the late 1920s. Rai means "opinion." The singers of these opinions were harassed by police, jailed, beaten, but never silenced, much in the same way that the Nigerian government went after Fela Kuti or that the CIA went after Bob Marley. But never silenced. And as technology, like capital spread, and Algeria won its independence Rai singers began to hear reggae, rock and roll and hip-hop over the international airwaves rupturing old rhythms and habits and breeding a new hybrid style, a style still called Rai and a style that still holds true to its namesake, a style that still rages a protest across the world.

Perhaps it has been the events in Gaza seeping into my life in a more personal way than just leaving the television on, but I have been reaching for Rachid Taha's Live album much in the past few weeks. Taha is one of the leading Rai singers in the world, with a massive following in both the Arab world and the smart ears of Europe. His style is both angry and melancholy, his band tight. Live burns with the great fury of a singer at the height of his powers, a road hardened band cracking and improvising right along behind him, the traditions of protest welling up out of the Oran desert where Taha was born, carrying themselves through his microphone and out across the post-September 11th sky.

Taha's band seamlessly blends Arab rhythms and instruments with rock improvising and sounds. Taha's sound blends deep house beats and Arab hand percussion, draws in electric guitar soloing, while keeping the songs topical and fiery—-sometimes all in the same song. The drum and electric guitar rhythm improvising that happens halfway through the song "Bent Sahra" is as tight as any band I've heard or seen, with its sounds both reaching back across the Arab musical canon and forward through any modern guitar fireworks that have been slung. When Taha and the band hit "Foqt Foqt," which begins with a serious melting of hard rock guitars and a backbeat to break backs, all the great elements of music have slung themselves together and are riding his voice towards the end. Never once during the course of the album does the band let up, Taha singing, screaming and chanting his way in and around them. It's danceable, thought-provoking music raging against a world far gone out of control. When Femi Kuti comes out for "Ala Jalkroum" the music, as if it hadn't already, solidifies into a glorious protest, a street and gutter level protest. Femi's appearance is not just symbolic but also torch bearing, both he and Taha are two of the finest voices against oppression, conformity and pain that the world has. Even not speaking French or the Maghrebi dialect of Arabic—both of which Taha sings in—- you know exactly what he's singing about, both his emotive delivery and his band are that seamless. And how many times have we heard Fela or the Gypsy Kings and not known exactly what they were singing about, but knew what they were raging against?

There are plenty Rai singers out there, but Taha's Live is a great starting point, especially if improvisation and guts in music is your thing. Unfortunately Taha hasn’t gotten much airplay in the United States. Perhaps this is because of the fear American listeners usually have towards what is labeled "World" music—-not to mention those sappy and trite hand-painted album covers that grace the so many compilations at Starbucks. Perhaps it’s because as Americans we fear what we don’t understand and Taha doesn’t sing in English. Either way Rachid Taha’s Live albums is one of the great records I own, a great party-starter or headphone masterpiece. And isn't music its most subversive when you can dance to it?

Rai music and Rachid Taha won't save Gaza, but they might provide its residents a few moments of respite while enduring the siege and war. More importantly for those who choose to listen, they are a great reminder of just what music can do and just what barriers can be burnt down by it.

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