Globe-trotting rocker Rachid Taha has been flying back and forth between Paris and New York, making his eighth album with Bowie’s old producer Mark Plati. Bonjour is an album full of sparky guitars and positive vibes, the fruit of a spontaneous collaboration with Louise Attaque frontman Gaëtan Roussel. Taha, who plays L’Olympia in Paris on 10 November, talks to RFI Musique about the genesis of his new album and his thoughts on the government’s immigration policies.
RFI Musique: Why such a simple, naïve album title like Bonjour? Rachid Taha: I called my album Bonjour – “hello” – because people have more or less stopped going round saying “hello” to one another. Even when they do say “hello”, it’s a purely functional greeting, it rarely comes from the heart. People in France are always rushing up to kiss one another on the cheek, but it’s a purely formal gesture that lacks any real depth or generosity. What I’m trying to do is reinstate “bonjour” to its rightful status, make the exchange of “hellos” a gesture full of warmth and human kindness. I want “hellos” to last and to mean something, like when you say “hello” in Africa and you take the time to talk about what’s going on in the village, what’s happening with friends and people you’ve loved who’ve disappeared, what’s going on with the kids…
How did you come up with the idea of working with Gaëtan Roussel? I was having a few drinks in a bar in Ménilmontant! And I got to thinking about the song Bonjour. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I asked Gaëtan if he’d write a French version of the song while I wrote one in Arabic. At the end of the day, I preferred his version so we kept that and I added my lyrics. Everything happened so smoothly that I thought “OK, maybe we should take this collaboration a bit further now?” It was a question of feeling really, the right vibe passed between us and that’s how Gaëtan ended up acting as a sort of producer on the album.
Do you think Gaëtan Roussel added a new edge to your sound? Yes, he did and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to work with him in the first place. I spent many years collaborating with Steve Hillage and then I felt the need to change tack and move on to something different. I loved the work Gaëtan did for Alain Bashung and that’s basically what I wanted from him. I was looking to him to inject a breath of fresh air, a lightness of touch, a bit of a country vibe. I wanted Bonjour to sound a bit like the sort of folk album made by Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley or Ry Cooder. I’m a big Ry Cooder fan!
You recorded part of your new album in New York with Mark Plati who took care of mixing and arrangements. What did he add to your sound? Mark’s worked with a lot of people over the years like David Bowie, Alain Bashung and Les Rita Mitsouko… I’d say he introduced a bit of an urban rock feel on certain tracks. It was thanks to Gaëtan that we ended up in the studio with Mark and it was a brilliant experience. I’m really into the idea of travelling and exchanging ideas with people. I believe you have to reach out and look elsewhere if you want to vary your sound. I’m not into the idea of putting out the same album over and over again. Music’s like food in that respect – I’d never dream of eating the same thing every day. I don’t want to make myself sick or turn anyone else’s stomach by churning out the same old thing time after time!
On This is an Arabian Song, you and Bruno Maman sing “N’oublie jamais”(Never forget.) Never forget what? Never forget the world’s problems. Never forget wars, genocide, poverty, misery, never forget the past… I’m not into the idea of nostalgia but I think it’s important to take responsibility for the world. You have to take responsibility for your behaviour towards others. And you have to be aware of the past. It’s only by reaching down to your roots that you can stand tall like a tree.
Where do you stand on the current debate about French national identity launched by the French immigration minister Eric Besson? It takes me back 25 years, back to the time I recorded Douce France… The thing is the young generation are much more tolerant now than they were in the eighties. Everyone’s got Moroccan, Algerian, Portuguese and Senegalese friends these days. Why does a minister like Besson have to go round stoking up old hatreds if he isn’t trying to win National Front votes before the next election? Funnily enough it was Besson who revived the idea of DNA testing to crack down on immigration. That man is not living in the real world or he wouldn’t come up with such hypocritical solutions. And to think he was once a Socialist!
Rachid Taha Bonjour (Barclay) 2009 In concert at L’Olympia, Paris, 10 November 2009.
I fell in love with this next song, maybe it was the beat, the lyrics, or just the fact that I think Ingrid Michaelson is the cat’s meow, right up there with Mraz and, yes, Bruno Mars (!). Yes, I know, the lyrics can seem depressing, but if you are the “You” in this song, you will never fall and never be alone…Anyhow, I love this next song, depressing or not…
I’ll bet if you felt down before Mraz’s “I’M YOURS,” you felt or will feel better for hearing it. It is surely better than any benzo and if ADs work for you, well, all I can say is a jolt of Jason Mraz and Michaelson’s “EVERYBODY” (see at bottom) would be a quicker and whole lot safer than messing with your serotonin and norepinephrine levels just because Big Pharma wants your money and claims the AD’s work as they say they do. Trust me. (No, why would you trust me???? You shouldn’t trust me, I know nothing except what I read, and I don’t read all that much, due to my vision problems…)
Still, I can’t help but wonder if music played a bigger role in treatment of depression and even of schizophrenia, whether people wouldn’t get better a lot faster, or at least learn to calm themselves reliably and find a way to talk about what is going on rather than taking pills to render them oblivious. Music alone might be enough to put things back together again…Music and sleep, which knits up the raveled sleeve of many a care in this world, “balm of hurt minds” and as Shakespeare knew well, the lack of which can spell danger even for the hardiest soul.
But if we get our sleep via benzos or some other drug that knocks us out, are we really getting brain rest, or just body rest? Moreover, will we regret listening to the docs who prescribed nightly benzodiazapines after we find out we have developed either acute amnesia or its much more tragic cousin, Alzheimer’s Disease? I wonder. I wonder…How much will we choose to blame ourselves for not knowing better, and how much will we dare blame any doctor, who after all and after “primum non nocere” (First do no harm…) right? just how much will we dare to blame the doctors who told us the stuff was okay, not dangerous, and certainly better than suffering from insomnia.
Listen, insomnia is a drag, and I have suffered enough of it for, well, I won’t say “for a lifetime” because that would mean I’d had enough, and I haven’t. But I don’t like not sleeping, not one bit. Sometimes I take Benadryl to sleep at night because i’ve been sold that same bill of goods that says, “Okay, it is OTC and therefore must be essentially harmless.” It helps me to get to sleep yes, and sometimes even to stay asleep, though with narcolepsy it is hard to know whether or not any sleep will be properly restorative, natural or “unnatural”.
That said, Benadryl, as I am reminded every time I feel like pigging out after a night when I took 50mg…is an antihistamine, and anti-histaminic drugs (like Zyprexa) have this unfortunate side effect of inducing weight gain. So I won’t take Benadryl very often. Otherwise my appetite goes way overboard and I feel that same “eat! eat! eat!” anxiety that has nothing to do with food per se, and everything to do with yet another drug’s untoward side effects.
So what do I do in order to sleep? Well, first, I try not to worry about it…because that way disaster lies. If I can’t fall asleep easily, and with narcolepsy I should be out like a light within 4 minutes, but if that 4 minutes drags on into 7 or 10 minutes or more, I have learned to get up and do something else. I try mightily not to worry about not sleeping because it won’t do me any good. It will only make me more anxious.
So sometimes I get up and do art for a couple of hours. Or write, which in my case is far from a soporific activity. If I really am desperate to sleep, as I sometimes feel (though in my life, on disability, really everything can wait, and be postponed, if I can’t drive the next day due to lack of sleep. No one is going to need me for anything that can’t bide its time. ) Really are any of us indispensible? Maybe as a mother or parent you feel you are. But if you get snappy and do things you wouldn’t ordinarily because you force yourself to perform on too little sleep, who are you serving — say it honestly? Wouldn’t your family be better served by your deciding to take care of yourself and sleep in, or take a nap instead of doing whatever it was you promised them you would do?
Well, enough for the evening. I am sick of lecturing and indeed I should be, because NO ONE listens to lectures, and diatribes. No one. So instead, I’ll shut up. Why not listen to “Everybody” by Ingrid Michaelson instead!