CK 2014: MAYSAN HAYDAR

The Song: Rachid Taha’s “Rock El Casbah (a cover of The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah”)

Written by Maysan Haydar

I will advocate for the title of best cover song fitting in with the theme of the conference to be awarded to Rachid Taha’s 2004 interpretation of The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah”, appropriately titled “Rock el Casbah”.

Rachid Taha is of Algerian birth and descent, though he emigrated to France when at the age of 10, more than 40 years ago. Though often incorrectly categorized as a raï singer in that messy arena known as “world music”, his music is a mishmosh of all the influences in his life – his area of origin, his long-time homeland, his experiences, his interests and passions. There’s lore attached to Rachid Taha and the origins of “Rock the Casbah”, of his handing a cassette of his Algerian/French fusion rock band to The Clash when they were in Paris for a show in 1981, and then hearing “Rock the Casbah” on the radio months later.

Whether he directly influenced the creation of the song or not is not the most compelling draw. What’s interesting here is how the song represents an artist’s intention getting away from them, and how a thing gets co-opted in a way that makes it unrecognizable to its creator. Joe Strummer had been devastated when the genial lyrics he’d written, and the song The Clash played with humor and charm, were co-opted by the military in the first Gulf War. He was reported to have wept when he saw photographs of a bomb ready to be dropped on Baghdad inscribed with his lyrics. Fast-forward a decade, and the song was placed on a Clear Channel “Do-Not-Play” list in the months following 9/11. And a few short years after that, the National Review places “Rock the Casbah” on their list of “Top 50 Conservative Rock Songs“, citing its popularity with troops for its place at number 20.

When you create something and put it out in the world, what you intended can evolve or devolve into something unrecognizable. Who could have predicted that Prince could be made better, but covers by Sinead O’Connor and Crooked Fingers and James McNew make a strong argument that the covers progressed the songs, evolved their nature. And in the reverse, something good-natured becomes the soundtrack for pumping up soldiers to rain anonymous death on civilian homes below. Even how this song’s lyrics are misheard indicates a mindset: Neo-conservative, hawkish types favor the refrain “sharia don’t like it/ rock the Casbah, rock the Casbah”, because it supports their worldview that everything and everyone tainted by Islamic philosophy or history is suspect. Whereas the actual lyrics “shareef [the ruler] don’t like it” pins the power and blame on individuals, how they interpret, how they govern.

The happy ending of this story is that the creation came full circle, to Rachid Taha’s interpretation, and his sharing the stage with Brian Eno and The Clash’s Mick Jones at an anti-war show in 2005. The Rachid Taha version is more directly political, telling a story of the power of ordinary people in overcoming the great might of military and autocratic rule, not by overthrow, but by gathering collectively and bringing the rulers around to their side, with a really great song.

The song isn’t just political, it’s clever, good-humored, and catchy. And if you want them to be, the lyrics are only mildly political, in an unoffensive way – like a “Good Wife” character carrying Jimmy Carter’s book on Israeli/Palestinian issues across the screen for a noticeable moment. Intriguing to those who want it to be, and, for everyone else, a minor quirk in something that is totally awesome.

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