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Rachid Taha

Photo by John Couzens



Vieux Farka Toure

Royal Festival Hall – Southbank Centre


Friday, November 13, 2009









A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


The adverts for this double bill listed French Algerian singer/songwriter Rachid Taha as its starring attraction via enlarged lettering and a rather posy photo of him on the posters. However, for me, the true stars of this Friday 13th show were Mali’s Vieux Farka Toure and his luminary group of musicians.

Toure seemed decidedly low-key as he opened this show, drawing a murmured response from the crowd to his initial ‘Are you ok?’ But as the set progressed, he quickly got into stride and then some, with his last repeating of that question being met with cheers and applause for both him and his band, which included on this occasion, saxophonist supreme Pee Wee Ellis, long renowned for his funky contributions to James Brown’s seminal band. Between them, Toure himself,  son of the late, much lauded guitarist/composer Ali Farka Toure, and his own uniquely  electrifying guitar and vocals, two igniting drummers – one hand, one kit, a smiling bass player, and guest musician Ellis this group generated more than enough electricity to light up the night.

Be that as it may, this bill’s starring attraction, Rachid Taha and his group, which seemed to include two musicians and/or pieces of equipment to every one of Toure’s band proved to be the act of choice for those belatedly claiming many of the seats which, in the first half of the show had stood sadly empty. The Algerian/Arabic presence, French or otherwise, made itself known via a cluster of tastefully restrained hip-shakers down front, while several others who had, no doubt, formerly occupied places at the bar pseudo belly danced their way through Taha’s 90 minute set, with, at times, glass in hand. That said, it must be added that Taha’s contributions to the music world are inestimable for many reasons, among them, the fact that his songs have often tended to detail social and political issues, a tendency I support and applaud, with another, equally important factor being that he is the only rocker who sings in Arabic. Perhaps those factor go some way towards explains the rapturous applause greeting Taha’s appearance onstage at the RFH, his lone U.K. gig this year.

However, as it is a reviewer’s job to be objective, I will as always, honestly call things as I perceived them. For the record then, so impressed was I with the performance of Toure and company that Taha and his large group’s showier, rather predictable hour and a half paled in comparison to his opener’s more organically free-flowing hour long set. It must be said then, that whether in the midst of Taha’s boisterous dancing fans and/or subdued and seated non-fans either in the moment, or, in hindsight, my post-performance impressions remained the same. So although my personal response to Taha’s murky sounding set straddled the two aforementioned factions, and I am, generally, rather easily induced into dancing, on this outing something about their set encouraged resistance, possibly due to its’ high levels of predictability, coupled with the fact that many intricacies of the band’s playing were generally, drowned out by muddy sound throughout their performance, rendering such subtleties all but imperceptible. However, as I’d enjoyed listening to some of Taha’s recordings on Last fm prior to the show, I found this was frustrating, as all that was left in the aftermath of such losses was rather glib, muddled rock, which those more familiar with the individual songs from Taha’s repertoire nonetheless, responded to favourably, as did many locals who were possibly, simply seeking beats to accompany their usual Friday night boozing.

On the opening band - Toure plays his instrument as though it were a hybrid between an African harp or kora and a guitar, offering listeners a sense of just how fine an instrument a guitar can be in the hands of a real and imaginative musician, even when he is more often than not, playing an electrified version of it. For those of us who’ve enjoyed listening to fine guitar playing through various eras, either acoustic and/or electric, Toure’s style or lack thereof, for it always sounds as though he’s just going with the flow, offers something entirely new, fresh and original. In a guitar laden world like ours, that in itself is a bona-fide wonder.


Vieux Farka Toure

 Photo by Laura Williams

Speaking of which, the wonderfully effective ‘Fafa’ opened golden-suited Toure’s set with pat-a- pat hand drumming and subdued kit-playing by the group’s youthful drummer. Toure handily produced licks any rock guitarist might envy, threw his head back and sang as if oblivious to his audience, expressively driving his lyrics home. For the second number, the hand drummer sat on the floor before what looked like a huge rounded gourd and coaxed a lovely, skittlish beat from it, framing a song designed to show-case guitar and vocals. The stage was awash in purple and blue lighting as Toure’s splicing guitar, lightly fingered, but deeply felt, paved the way for full throttle drumming as his singing went up a notch and Ellis’ throbbing sax invited us and, his fellow musicians to delve deeper still. The sax mellowed and wailed as Toure’s guitar sailed, creating penetratingly soulful blues. Ellis’ sax talked that street walkin’, broken-hearted, smoothly agitated, knowing, yet resigned blues. They smiled. The other musicians smiled too. They were all, into it. Far too soon, some excellent hand drumming lead the finale with guitarist and bass player forming harmonic and literal lines. Ellis gave the funkier aspects of the song a gritty bottom; its’ grooves were deep and coaxing, open and factual, but nonetheless, low-down. We were there, amid the call and response of their sax and guitar as the sax laughed and the guitar cried, and it was a good place to be. Running, no, galloping hand drums together with firmly executed kit drumming set a choppy pace for Toure’s straight on vocals. The parts of the band fused together, like those of a powerful animal traversing a plain, immersed in the act of running rather than the where.  It was a collaborative Toure de force!

Following the interval, the stage held a laptop, a sampler, two guitars, an over-sized drum kit with every imaginable accoutrement, a keyboard, hand drums, electric oud and more. Girlish screams greeted the appearance of Rachid Taha. His 80’s/60’s-retro look drummer brushed the cymbals nonchalantly and the full component took up grooves that were more akin to rock, with perhaps, less attitude. The murky sound needed adjustment as the volume was at punk level, and this was definitely not a punk band, though Taha himself has been writing and singing music since the ‘80’s and he was once known as ‘the first punk of France.’ The group walked it, but it was more the repetitive re-treading of an 80’s band than the slow lumbering of Led Zepplin. Girls screamed frantically. I’d yet to be convinced, though the Taha’s fans were definitely in the house and they sang and danced along. I couldn’t hear the band properly, though I’m no slouch when it comes to volume, being a long term fan of Iggy and the Stooges, along with several other proto-punk, punk and post punk artists. The band’s grooves, as predictable and market aimed as they may have seemed, were still fairly infectious, though my taste admittedly, tends to veer towards the less commercial .



Rachid Taha


A contingent of modern day belly dancers formed in the centre aisle. A few tracks in, I realised the number being performed was, potentially more full-bodied than those that had gone before, and the next track seemed as though it could have been even better. The question at this point was, were the tracks really getting better, or was the band’s style just starting to grow on me? I was stone sober and would have been quite capable of judging either way, if only the sound was cleaner and, clearer. Middle-eastern riffs met rock lines with hooks in both places; the hall erupted, and for a moment, it seemed as though nearly everyone was on their feet. But the people seated in front of me were sitting still. I was semi-hooked, as hand drumming kicked off the next track before its’ rockier elements rolled in. Taha swung his torso, playing to the crowd. Vibrant electric oud playing added spice and intrigue. Next, what sounded like a pop intro was met with great excitement from Taha’s fans. If only as much attention had been paid to the sound for this band as it has been to its’ lighting...The song’s chorus was instantly catchy and fans clapped along. Taha writhed as some of the varied aged female dancers in the aisle reached out to him. The track was sufficiently meandering to suggest the unexpected. The next number was full on, with heavy drums and driving Westernised, belly dance grooves, as mums and daughters gyrated in time together. The mini festival vibe for the masses this track created was almost palpable. Yet, although its beaty grooves seemed increasingly irresistible, they were not infectious enough to encourage me to forgo self-consciousness and just get into them. However, I must also admit that I felt distinctly uneducated as to the ways of Taha and his band, which, despite being somewhat provocative, still seemed too obviously manipulative.

On the one hand, I thought it was a great that a band that wasn’t performing in English was getting such a great response. But on the other, after noting the exaggerated gyrating of some of the home-grown dancers around me, it wasn’t clear how many were merely dancing to the beat of their own booze. Nonetheless, I enjoyed watching two youthfully boyish dancers doing their thing in the front of the balcony, and it didn’t matter if I wasn’t totally into it. Taha’s band’s beats are easily hooked into and after all, it was Friday night. A poppy, gyrating inspiring number with Taha singing to the crowd standing down front found me still struggling to get into the group’s by now, generally predictable grooves. Amped up loud, they unfortunately sounded too much like a great muddied mass. Still wishing for clearer sound, and not knowing Taha’s hits well enough to be able to listen to them in my head, as some in the crowd may have been doing, I never felt inspired enough to dance along to them.

A lack of backup vocals finally allowed me to hear Taha’s singing somewhat, as I tried to get past his swaying hips to the nucleus of his song. The dancing of the boys in the balcony got progressively more uninhibited as they got obviously drunker, and onstage, the guitarist and bass player looked visibly bored. Perhaps for them, it’d been child’s play, getting this crowd going via primary licks and the bands oft, programmable beats. Taha’s group may seem a phenomena to some, but frankly, I’m still not convinced. All in all, their portion of this gig offered some stress free Friday night fun, not exactly easy listening, but not a strain on the senses or a challenge to perceptions or pre-conceived notions either. That said, I’d also come to the conclusion that despite any obstacles to perception and potential enjoyment, it’s likely that I’d appreciate this band more if I could actually hear them, as they are, in all probability, much more diverse and far reaching than I am able to give them credit for here.

Farka Toure’s band and Pee Wee Ellis joined forces with Taha’s group at the conclusion of the show for an uneven version of the Clash’s ‘Rock the Casbah’ in this case entitled, ‘Rock El Casbah’ which Taha performs as his tribute to Clash front-man Joe Strummer, whom he met in 1982 at one of their gigs. Though the cover was a derivative, rather than a copy of the original, it was nonetheless, a sure crowd-pleaser. Toure’s shimmering guitar playing thrilled, creating musical mirages in a landscape that seemed oddly arid, especially as Ellis’ sax playing was nearly lost. Later on though, the rendition boasted a surprisingly cool blending of Ellis’ street wise sax and the excellent musicianship of Taha’s oud player, with the sassy horn seemingly, scaling over the top. Grinning beneath his stubble and Tom Wait’s hat, Taha grabbed his crotch, mic wire between his teeth, and putting his back to the audience, wagged his bum. Ellis rapped – inherently in the groove, keeping pace with the speeding music. Toure’s guitar slid, wailed and wowed.  Younger audience members got into the drum fuelled mix, dancing as they might on club nights. The jam continued as Taha skimmed the crowd, grabbing hands, as though he was onstage alone. Though intentionally facetious, his non-stop posturing began to grate, though the group’s collective singing did the trick. I wondered if Toure or Ellis had met Joe Strummer. Taha’s drummer joined the similarly suited guitarist on a mic; the pair looked like escapees from an ‘80’s synth-pop band. Ellis was still doing his groovin’, gritty thing and a pleased to be there clarinet player joined him, empowering their two-man horn section with his own beguiling licks.

Cheering and bows all round as the show ended, leaving us with nothing more than memories of it....


Vieux Farka Toure, Pee Wee Ellis and fellow musicians
Royal Festival Hall – Nov. 13, 2009

Photo by John Couzens  |


fondo – the latest CD by Vieux Farka Toure – Out now

Bonjour – the latest CD by Rachid Taha – Out now







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