Rachid Taha's music treads a distinct line between two worlds, rooted in his experiences as an Algerian immigrant living in France. For those unfamiliar with the 49-year-old foreign star, he's been rocking out with a punk sensibility since the early Eighties. Themes of dual identity, racial discrimination, and the realities of the troubled postcolonial relationship between Algeria and France surface on Rock el Casbah, a fitting sampler of Taha's most significant work. With influences drawn from The Clash, the Sex Pistols, French folk songs, and traditional Arabic and North African sounds (chaabi, raï, and classical oud), Taha blends it all into his unique sound.
Rock el Casbah tirelessly carries listeners from a trancelike bass line and chorus of horns on "Kelma" to the ragga-influenced "Indie," and from the blistering guitar licks of "Barra Barra" back into Egyptian-Druze tradition with "Habina." Taha also throws in a musical lesson on the standout track "Ida," in which he shouts out the aural developments of raï over the genre's 60-year history in his homeland. Perhaps his greatest strength is the ability to undertake unorthodox and futuristic directions while paying homage to the master innovators of Arabic music before him. Too often, best-of albums can be a mixed bag: Give too much, and listeners might hesitate to delve deeper into an artist's catalogue; give too little, and interest could be lost altogether. Rock el Casbah, however, comes off as a heady introduction to one of the most talented and compelling characters in modern Arabic music.