Rachid Taha | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Although rai is undeniably a product of Algeria, for nearly 20 years Paris has been the principal incubator of this evolving strain of propulsive Arab rebel music. In France there are greater technological, cultural, and financial resources, and rai singers aren't under such constant pressure from Islamic fundamentalists, who see the music's frank, even profane lyrics as heretical--it's well established that the assassination of rai idol Cheb Hasni in 1994 was religiously motivated. Paris now hosts international stars like Khaled, Cheb Mami, and Faudel, but for the past four or five years the most exciting rai singer in town has been Algerian-born Rachid Taha, and he isn't even a proper rai singer. Rai is a soaring, nasal style, chockablock with soulful melismata that glide down through the scales like running water; Taha injects a powerful dose of rock into his music, and his phrasing is terse, guttural, and raw as fuck, about as far from rai's usual fluid delivery as it's possible to be. His early work ping-ponged between rock and techno, but on his 1998 covers record, Diwan (Island), he found his bearings. Produced by former prog rocker Steve Hillage, the album applied a beguiling, razor-sharp mix of dance-floor electronics and traditional instrumentation, soldered together by Taha's gruff incantations, to decades-old pop forms from Morocco, Egypt, and Algeria. He shifted to all original material on last year's superb follow-up, Made in Medina (Mondo Melodia), and despite missteps like a one-world peace ballad with an unnecessary cameo by Femi Kuti, his voice sounded more electric and dynamic than ever. Like many of his peers, Taha has leavened his attack with things like flamenco and funk, but even when he tosses in some of the same flavors his music is harsher; he stands alone among rai singers, even on a stage with Khaled and Faudel (a concert captured on the live album 1, 2, 3 Soleils). I saw Taha perform at the Montreal Jazz Festival last summer and it all came together perfectly, the ancient and the modern--plus, the guy has the presence of a genuine rock star. This is Taha's Chicago debut, and the fact that he's playing a venue as small as the Empty Bottle--he just played Lincoln Center in New York--only makes the show more exciting. Saturday, July 20, 7 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western; 773-276-3600.

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