An old-school rock star headlined SummerStage in Central Park on Saturday afternoon. Grinning and unshaven, he strutted around the stage, sang in a knowing growl and cued his band for extended, hard-grooving versions of songs using fuzz-toned guitar riffs over a dance beat. He wore a leather fedora, then switched to a red cowboy hat. He dumped a bottle of water onto audience members -- redundant, since it was raining -- and onto his own head. He twirled his microphone on its cord, joked about Ecstasy and cocaine and was less than reverent when handed a flag. For his encore the band vamped and chanted, ''Get up, get up,'' and the star declaimed, ''My name is James Brown! My name is Marvin Gaye!'' But his other songs were serious: reflections on exile and cultural strife. The star was Rachid Taha, an Algerian now based in France. Mr. Taha is the most rock-influenced of Algerian rai singers, who mix Arabic and North African elements with Western ones; he has collaborated with British musicians including Brian Eno, Steve Hillage and Robert Plant. At SummerStage his songs dipped into hard rock, reggae, rumba-pop and Bo Diddley, but often they used Arabic-style beats defined by the hand drum called a darbuka, and Mr. Taha's voice was answered by oud solos. Rai's blunt lyrics have made it both popular and persecuted in Algeria, while in France the music has become a voice for Arab-speaking immigrants. (Mr. Taha had a band in the 1980s called Carte de Sejour, or ''residence permit.'') One of Mr. Taha's hits, and an extended centerpiece at his SummerStage show, was ''Ya Rayah'' (''Party''), an old Algerian song about emigration and the longing for home, which began with an unmetered, tradition-tinged introduction before the beat kicked in. Mr. Taha has just released a greatest-hits album in the United States, ''Rachid Taha: The Definitive Collection (Wrasse), and he sang some of them, including ''Rock el Casbah,'' his precise Arabic translation of the Clash's ''Rock the Casbah,'' a song about rock as banned but unstoppable music. Mr. Taha was having fun onstage while the crowd danced under umbrellas, but his rowdy party was also making his point. Sharing the bill was Dengue Fever, a band from Los Angeles with a Cambodian lead singer, Chhom Nimol. Dengue Fever started out as 21st-century fans of 1960s Cambodian rock, which melded psychedelia with Cambodian melodies. Decades later it's an East-West hybrid that twists its retro familiarity -- tootling electric organ, surf-rock electric guitar and saxophone -- with melodies in five-note Asian scales. Onstage the clear-voiced Ms. Nimol danced with Southeast Asian wrist curlicues and a go-go dancer's hip swivels. Dengue Fever's repertory mixes old Cambodian songs, new ones that are also sung in Khmer and a few in English, like one performed at SummerStage about a shaky transoceanic romance via e-mail. For all their vintage underpinnings, the songs didn't sound antiquarian or campy -- just sweet, tart and ingenious.
By JON PARELES 7 July 2008 The New York Times Late Edition - Final Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved.