Over his 30-year career, Algerian singer-songwriter Rachid Taha has often upset the applecart. He started out by outraging France with a rocked-up version of a patriotic anthem; since then he’s amped up famous Arabic pieces and shown there’s more to Algerian music than the caustic bump of raï. Some of his work has been glorious rock ‘n’ roll; some has been disappointing. With Zoom all the pieces of his past come together in sharp, clear focus, and he invents a whole new genre: desert punk.
Two tracks form the steel backbone of the album. “Khalouni” guns the accelerator before bursting out like Algeria’s answer to “Anarchy in the UK,” North African rhythms fighting with jagged chords as Taha delivers his venomous vocals in a superbly arrogant snarl. “Algerian Tango,” meanwhile, could a distant, slinky cousin to The Clash’s “Straight to Hell” (Taha famously recorded an Arabic cover of “Rock The Casbah”), with Mick Jones singing the menacing chorus: “I don’t forget those who love me/ I don’t forget those who betray me.” Perhaps punk isn’t dead, it’s just wearing a keffiyeh these days.
But Taha does much more than transport the class of ’77 to North Africa. Like a true iconoclast, he also samples Umm Kulthum, Egypt’s most beloved singer, for the roaring “Zoom Sur Oum,” then reinvents Elvis as a Maghrebi idol with a cover of The King’s “It’s Now Or Never.” A reprise of his anti-racist track “Voilà Voilà” boasts the unlikely combination of guests vocalists Agnès B and Eric Cantona. And on “Wesh (N’Amal)” and “Galbi” twanging guitar and oud combine to create what could be the soundtrack a Saharan spaghetti Western. The only thing missing is Clint Eastwood with a poncho and cigar.
Zoom is the sound of Taha firing on all cylinders. Not many musicians create their best work so long after they start out, but Rachid Taha has never been one to do things the ordinary way.