jeudi, novembre 25, 2004

Rocking the kasbah

From the Westway to the world: Joe Strummer's punk spirit lives on in the best of today's Islamic pop, says Tim Cumming

26 November 2004

Conceived before Joe Strummer's untimely death last December and dedicated to his memory, Rock the Kasbah - a musical contact sheet lifted straight from the diaspora of contemporary Islamic pop culture - features "Songs of freedom from the streets of the East", though it could just as easily be subtitled "Rebel music from the axis of evil" - if that axis slipped far enough to include the Westway during the last glimmerings of the punk era, when Strummer first penned "Rock the Casbah" after hearing about the suppression of music in post-revolutionary Iran.

It's a song that still rings loud and clear two decades on with its message of musical freedom, and the album opens fittingly with Rachid Taha's rousing cover version, for the original was not only a major influence on Taha, but a song he inadvertently had a hand in inspiring. Legend has it that The Clash cut the track after soaking up Taha's 1982 debut album, Carte de Séjour. Originally planned as a duet before Strummer's death, Taha's "Rock el Casbah" has a chorus as big as the Maghreb, and all the ragged urgency of The Clash's original battle cry.

Taha also appears with legendary rai singer Khaled and the young French star Faudel on a stunning live performance of Khaled's paean to the Algerian rebel leader Abdel Kader. Featuring a 70-strong Egyptian orchestra arranged by Taha's long-time collaborator Steve Hillage, it was a huge hit across Europe and the Middle East, and a classic example of how the popular music of the Maghreb has gone international without losing itself in the process.

Taha is not the only Clash fan featured on the album. Once the drummer for Southern Death Cult in the 1980s, and currently one half of the British-Asian underground act FunDaMental, Aki Nawaz is one of many artists here who count The Clash, and Strummer especially, as an inspiration. His collaboration with The Jesus and Mary Chain and the qwaali singer Nawazish Ali Khan - mystical praise singing drenched in Goth feedback - is one of the highlights of an album that also includes Asian Dub Foundation's pounding, polemical "Fortress Europe", a futuristic, claustrophobic take on economic migration from the other side of the tracks, its Arabic synths rising and falling like police sirens.

Refreshingly, Rock the Kasbah eschews the ambience of the chill-out room of many an Eastern compilation and puts the music back on the street and into a vibrant international context. This is world music of the electronic age, music that shows how East-West cross-pollination has influenced both cultures for decades, from the "Baghdad Beatle" Ilham Al Madfai who brought the electric guitar to Iraq with his group The Twisters in the early 1960s, to the band dubbed "The U2 of Pakistan", Junoon, Sufi hard rockers inspired as much by qwaali as Bono.

Drawing on a broad palette of international beats as much as from their own back yards, Rock the Kasbah is a rich and vigorous collection that reveals a music arguably more dangerous, outspoken and volatile than anything the West currently has to offer. An alarming number of artists in this musical interzone have suffered exile, persecution, repression, death threats and worse. They are also some of the biggest stars of the Islamic world, as a direct result of their outspoken stance and the dangers of standing up on stage and speaking out. Iraqi singer Kadim Al Sahir, the winner of last year's BBC Radio 3 World Music awards, and one of the most popular artists in the Arab world, fled Iraq in the 1990s after years of censorship, while the Iranian singer Dariush, whose songs were banned by both the Shah and the Ayatollahs, has spent years in exile in America.

But there is a new generation determined to tackle socio-political concerns without decamping to Europe or America. They include the Lebanese rockers Blend, one of the first true rock bands in the Middle East. Their track "Belong" mixes alienated, trippy beats with lyrics exploring the crisis of identity afflicting a young Lebanese haunted by memories of war. Western rock may be drenched in alienation, but in the Middle East it's almost unheard of.

Elsewhere, there's the young Syrian 12-piece Kulme Sawa, recently the phantom menace of a US homeland security scare when they were erroneously identified as the Arabian men acting suspiciously on a flight from Detroit to LA. The band is unique in Syria in that it includes male and female members, and Christians alongside Muslims. They reacted furiously by releasing a statement protesting their innocence, alleging a smear campaign, and reiterating their own belief that "only arts and music can realise peace between nations and societies, and bridge the gap between East and West".

Given that Rock the Kasbah predates Strummer's death, and in the words of the executive producer Adrian Cheesley "attempts to represent what he would have listened to, and hopes to meet with his approval", it's fitting to have one of Strummer's last recordings as the album's coda. His cover of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song", produced by Rick Rubin, is a spare, nakedly honest reading of an almost impossibly iconic song. But Strummer makes it his own by playing it straight and true, and with that one-on-one quality of singing directly to the listener that made The Clash so important in the first place.

For if Strummer and The Clash's punk spirit was about liberation and the destruction of what was binding, rather than destruction per se, then among these freedom songs are prime examples of the far-flung influence of that basic liberation theology, and how its restless, uncompromising spirit is still fighting oppression at a time where the demand for redemption songs is outstripping supply. It's safe to say that Joe would have approved.

'Rock the Kasbah' is out on EMI

© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd