Rachid Taha and the Sway of Chaabi & Raï on Franco-Arab Rock — The Markaz Review

As I dis­cussed in my past two columns, tra­di­tion­al Arab music has nev­er stopped influ­enc­ing mod­ern and pop music, deeply impact­ing new musi­cal move­ments in the dias­po­ra, includ­ing dis­co, elec­tron­ic music, rock and oth­er gen­res. A coun­try that has espe­cial­ly ben­e­fit­ted from these influ­ences, through migra­tion and cul­tur­al exchange, is of course France.

In view of the cur­rent pan­dem­ic restric­tions, my usu­al habit of trav­el­ing across seas and con­ti­nents has been heav­i­ly dis­rupt­ed, so instead of spend­ing New Year’s Eve in Cairo or Tunis, as in pre­vi­ous years, this year I only trav­eled back home, to Paris and Mar­seille. But, uncan­ni­ly, this trip offered an occa­sion to immerse myself in musi­cal mus­ing thanks to a unique exhi­bi­tion: “ Douce France: Des musiques de l’exil aux cul­tures urbaines,” which opened mid-Decem­ber in Paris at the Musée des Arts et Métiers.

The title refers to an old French song, “Douce France,” writ­ten and pop­u­lar­ized by Charles Trenet in 1943, and inspired by the country’s old­est poem, an ode to the com­ing of its mod­ern form as a state. But “Douce France” also refers to a more recent and rev­o­lu­tion­ary ver­sion in an Arab rock inter­pre­ta­tion, cre­at­ed by Rachid Taha and his first band, Carte de Séjour, released in 1986.

The exhi­bi­tion cen­ters around the per­son­al­i­ty and achieve­ment of Rachid Taha, who was born in 1958 in Alge­ria, and died in 2018. Taha is well-known for pio­neer­ing a form of Arab rock start­ing in the 1980s in France; he lat­er achieved inter­na­tion­al fame, col­lab­o­rat­ing with new artists abroad, includ­ing Rolling Stones pro­duc­er Don Was, Femi Kuti and Mick Jones from The Clash. He was also a com­mit­ted activist who, through­out his career, called for tol­er­ance and decried the rise of anti-Arab and anti-Mus­lim xeno­pho­bia in France and Europe. To quote the muse­um, the exhib­it “revis­its the artis­tic emer­gence of the so-called ‘beur’ gen­er­a­tion, a sym­bol of the mixed and joy­ful inte­gra­tion of a youth of immi­grant ori­gin.” It also looks at the emer­gence of “beur”-driven social move­ments that char­ac­ter­ized 1970s France.

Rachid Taha arrived in France from Alge­ria with his par­ents in 1968. He spent a num­ber of years in an impov­er­ished work­ing-class immi­grant com­mu­ni­ty in the east in Alsace, and then in the Vos­ges, before mov­ing to greater Lyon, where he began to estab­lish his rep­u­ta­tion. Taha’s musi­cal influ­ences, how­ev­er, informed his tastes even before emi­grat­ing, for as a child he had learned Ara­bic before being forced to switch to French, and ear­ly on was fas­ci­nat­ed by the icon­ic Egypt­ian singer Oum Kalthoum. In Alge­ria, he had already been fond of local music, espe­cial­ly raï and chaabi, the tra­di­tion­al street music of Algiers, for­mal­ized by El Hadj M’Hamed El Anka, and more gen­er­al­ly by 1960s per­form­ers from across the Maghreb.

The “Douce France” exhib­it opens with this music, first with the sound of Dah­mane El Har­rachi. Born Abder­rah­mane Amraoui in Algiers, he moved to Paris in 1949, worked as a fac­to­ry employ­ee and con­tin­ued per­form­ing and record­ing. He lat­er pop­u­lar­ized chaabi music there in the 1960s.

The exhi­bi­tion mix­es pho­tographs with sound instal­la­tions, and also recre­ates the envi­ron­ments in which these musi­cians evolved, with for instance a copy of the tables and chairs of Café Sco­pi­tone, in the Parisian neigh­bor­hood of Bar­bès, where most of the Arab immi­grants used to gath­er and play music, like the singer Salah Sadaoui. It also men­tions the unfor­get­table songs of Kabyle singers Lou­nis Aït Menguel­let and Idir.

Many women con­tributed to this exil­ic music scene, hop­ing to record their songs with such Parisian record labels as Pathé Mar­coni. The dancer She­herazad and singer Noura are for instance shown in gor­geous black and white pho­tographs, per­form­ing reg­u­lar­ly in Cabaret El Djazair, rue de la Huchette, in the Latin Quarter.

Cov­er­ing sub­se­quent decades, the exhi­bi­tion recre­ates the sub­ur­ban envi­ron­ment where Alger­ian immi­grants grew up, near Paris, Lyon or Mar­seille, brew­ing new sounds of their own by mix­ing their par­ents’ favorite artists from Alge­ria and Egypt with the var­i­ous sounds en vogue in Paris at the time — elec­tron­ic music, ear­ly hip-hop and of course punk and rock.

Punk and rock were the gen­res that inspired Rachid Taha in his late teens, along with many oth­er young French men and women of his gen­er­a­tion. Taha became the first French Alger­ian to dare to release records of Arab rock music, with Carte the Séjour in the 1980s, then solo.

Two of his all-time hits were cov­ers of Dah­mane El Harrachi’s “Ya Rayah” and The Clash’s “Rock The Cas­bah,” which he lat­er per­formed live with mem­bers of the icon­ic British Punk Band.

The rest of the exhi­bi­tion gath­ers tele­vi­sion clips from the late 1980s and 1990s, where the artist can be scene address­ing his sta­tus of out­sider and out­spo­ken voice for immigrants.

I vis­it­ed the exhi­bi­tion with my moth­er, who grew up in Algiers in the post-inde­pen­dence war era, in the 1960s and 1970s, and knew all the artists ref­er­enced by the cura­tor, Naï­ma Yahi, a his­to­ri­an and researcher based at URMIS — Uni­ver­sité Côte d’Azur. My moth­er was espe­cial­ly fond of Idir, an icon of Amazigh music, who sad­ly passed away in 2020, and still plans to see Aït Menguel­let per­form as soon as the Covid restric­tions will permit.

Report­ing on music between France, Eng­land and Africa, I also had the plea­sure to see Taha per­form live quite a few times, between 2009 and 2017, in Paris, and to inter­view him once. He embod­ied a mix­ture of anger and joy, rebel­lious by nature but also deeply endear­ing and lov­ing. He tru­ly believed in mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, and gave many young French immi­grants — whose par­ents felt that Arabs would nev­er be accept­ed in France — a rea­son to hope that cul­tur­al entente was possible.

The exhi­bi­tion is on until May 8, 2022, in Paris’ Musée des Arts et Métiers.

(For French speak­ers, check out the excep­tion­al radio episode of 03/27/021, pro­duced by Rebec­ca Man­zoni for France Inter, on Rachid Taha’s jour­ney: Rachid Taha, “Français tous les jours, Algérien pour tou­jours.”)

Originally published at https://themarkaz.org on January 24, 2022.

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Freelance journalist/writer, I’ve reported in 30 countries for the BBC, CBC, DW, magazines, on African-European relations, social change, arts, music & politics

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Melissa Chemam

Melissa Chemam

Freelance journalist/writer, I’ve reported in 30 countries for the BBC, CBC, DW, magazines, on African-European relations, social change, arts, music & politics