[16 January 2014]
Considering the undeniable and crucial influence of social media, punk in the Arab world shouldn’t sound like much of an anomaly. As a matter of fact, with the digital saturation of social networking, it should sound a lot more like an unquestioned fact than it does a notion. Google searches pull up a lot of suspect hits; a lot of music that sounds as though it might be nearing in an area of Arabic-punk, but not just quite. Try looking up Arabic punk in the early ‘80s and you’ll find even less resources of which you can exhaust. But there was a time, long ago in the ‘80s when punk, a lonely and barren wasteland for the Arab culture, was a dubious territory indeed discovered and explored by an extremely select few.
If you could pinpoint a time and a place where “Arabic punk” found its legs, you might place a cautious finger on France, particularly in the industrial slums of Paris. At the tail end of the ‘70s, just after the birth of punk rock, France would see its own punk revolution in the rise of bands like Métal Urbain, Taxi Girl and Marquis de Sade. Like everywhere else in the world, punk for French youth denunciated the routine structures of middle class living. For certain ethnic minorities, it became a seditious tool in creating identities of the self and initiating a process of self-actualization.
In France, second-generation French-born North Africans have come to be known colloquially as “beurs”. “Beurs”, an inversion of the word “Arabes”, was a term invented by French-Arabs in order to give a positive spin on the word “Arabes”, which has often been used negatively against North African minorities in France. Growing up in government housing and lower-income communities on the outskirts of Paris would see many Arabs or “beurs” viewed as emblematic statistics of poverty and crime, a middle-class perception that would help to further segregate the immigrant population.
In the wake of popular culture and changing social climates at the end of the ‘70s and into the early ‘80s in France, only a handful of artists and writers would document the urban Arab lifestyle as it slowly unfolded over the years. Capturing the normally undisclosed sentiments and private thoughts of underprivileged Arab youth, author and filmmaker Mehdi Charef’s autobiographical novel, Le Thé au harem d’Archimède (Tea in the Harem), published in 1983, chronicles the young life of Majid, a troubled and troublesome teen immigrant from Algeria who faces daily run-ins with the law in France. In the face of racism and poverty, Majid relentlessly defies the education system and the authorities who conspire to keep Majid and his fellow immigrant friends from moving beyond the social and cultural boundaries they exist in. When he’s not causing trouble (by stealing, pimping or vandalising), Majid blasts the Sex Pistols on his turntable to drown out the scoldings from his despondent mother.
Charef’s novel, an evocative and despairing snapshot of early ‘80s French-Algerian youth, capitalizes on the punk-rock attudinizing that gave voice and mobility to suppressed Arab youth. The film version of Charef’s novel (which Charef himself directed), goes a step further in portraying the at once deep-seated resentment and unfailing loyalties in impoverished communities that run between neighbours and friends. A winner of the Prix Jean Vigo award in France in 1985, the film can be seen as the first proper foray into beur cinema that would journal the lives of French-Arab communities.
Arab or beur music artists in French pop culture were far and few between in the early years of the ‘80s. Certain bands capitalizing on the punk movement made some headway in North African communities. One band that warmed to the aggressive sentiments of punk in the early ‘80s was T34, an Algerian group of men whose belligerent and gusty songs of angst met with some positive reaction amongst beur youth. But their music, a highly concentrated barrage of squalling guitars and blustery drums, leaned closer to hard rock and was rather insular and far removed from the welcoming pop format that would allow an artist or band to cross cultural boundaries a lot more easily.
Right around this time, another group of artists growing up in the beur communities conspired to create a sound that took the rebellious fury of punk-rock and the traditional Algerian music of raï and fused them together in a pop-music mashup of socio-political angst. Carte de Séjour (“Residency Permit” in French) was the band name decided upon by members Mokhtar and Mohamed Amini, Djamel Dif, Éric Vaquer (later to be replaced by Jérôme Savy), and Algerian singer Rachid Taha. Their name, a reference to the citizenship card carried by French immigrants, was a bold slap in the face of cultural resistance—anti-Arab sentiment that was on the rise among bourgeoisie communities. Carte de Séjour would use the unapologetic racism aimed at Arabs as bile and vitriol for their lyrical assaults against social indifference toward ethnic minorities. Aimed at both the radio and the underground clubs of urban cities, theirs was a sound that found a balance between amiable, catchy pop and the anxious, uneasy and brittle riffs of punk.
Carte de Séjour wore their Arab influences and heritage proudly, often reinventing and therefore redefining the constituents of punk through Arabic modal scales, a synthesized oud or the beat of a darbuka drum. Buried in the punk-raï rhythms was an almost ‘50s beat-poet mentality, which gave the music a caustic air of café-lounging satire. Taha’s freewheeling vocals found a mid-point between a caterwauling punk howl and the Mawwal-styled singing of Arabian song. Not surprisingly, their music left the wider public confused. And in a completely punk-rock move, the band consciously alienated the general French public by singing much of their material in Arabic.
The bedrock of Carte de Séjour’s sound was essentially raï, a popular North African folk music originating from 1930’s Algeria that was enjoyed mainly by Algerian youth. Using traditional North African and Arabic instruments like the oud (Arabian guitar), darbuka (hand drum), qanun (a zither-like instrument) and other percussive instruments like the bendir, raï also began to incorporate more Western elements in the ‘70s. This progression of Western integration would help to streamline the Arabic folk elements into much more modernized rhythms that would herald the birth of Arabic pop. By the ‘80s, raï was a pop-music hybrid of traditional Arab sounds and very base synthesized beats.
By singer Taha’s accounts, he spent much of his nights during his youth hanging about the funk clubs in Lyon, France before returning home to where his parents would be playing traditional Algerian raï music on the radio. Carte de Séjour was the sound of those two disparate elements synthesized into one fabric of punk-rock rebellion. Their first self-titled effort was an EP released in 1982 that explored the rudimentary basics of this fusion, a rough mix that had not yet coalesced into the seamless blend of raï and punk that the band would perfect years later.
“Zoubida”, a cut off their first release, is a prime example of their curious efforts in multi-ethnic musical discovery. Over a strutting reggae beat, Taha explores the dynamics of Arabic vocal scales before the song completely disintegrates on the chorus into a ripping snarl of guitars and pounding drums, the singer abandoning raï roots for the impassioned shrieks of punk. Other tracks on the EP played up the raï influences to the hilt, the band wanting to make sure their pronouncement of North African traditions were heard loud and clear by a public only vaguely familiar with Arabic music.
For their first official debut LP, Carte de Séjour would secure Steve Hillage as producer. Hillage, famed for his work in ‘70s psychedelic rock bands like Gong and Khan, would reconfigure Carte de Séjour’s sound into a much more homogenized packaged that streamlined all of the band’s contrasting elements into radio-ready punk-pop. Rather than sand the North African influences down to an afterthought, a move which might have been made by an A&R man not particularly interested in the band’s localized popularity (namely the beur communities), Hillage turned those influences into proud proclamations of independence and cultural solidarity. In essence, raï became the band’s rebel yell and in 1984 the band released their full-length LP, Rhorhomanie.
For his part, Taha invested the music with stories that talked of immigrant strife and hardship. His lyrics were unquestionably based on personal experience, but they were expressed through characters outside of himself, ones that came from the novels of Mohamed Choukri and Naguib Mahfouz. Much of Taha’s narratives were centered on the despair and loneliness of displaced Arab youth. Veering between a stony rasp and a desert roar, Taha sang of Arab discrimination on “Désolé”, a slow crawl of dub-punk filtered through the dirge of Arab-rock balladry. The translated lyrics of the song describe a young beur apartment-hunting with little success: I went to see this flat/ I asked the price/ They said twelve thousand Francs/ I said okay/They asked me where I come from/ I said Algeria/ Then they said Sorry, the flat is already rented. Other tracks on Rhorhomanie explored French-Arab integration with a pop-irony twist, such as on the vivacious slab of raï punk-pop “Bleu de Marseille”, at once a catchy invocation of cultural pride and nationalist satire.
The far slicker 2 ½ appeared in 1986. Retaining the North African and raï influences of their previous efforts, Carte de Séjour’s sophomore LP had moved into the more polished arena of ‘80s rock, with big echoey drums, atmospheric synth-lines and sharper pop hooks. The punk spirit of the album’s predecessors still lay in the mix, lurking deep beneath the pop sheen. 2 ½ gave the band their biggest and only hit, a biting and ironic cover of chanson singer Charles Trenet’s song, “Douce France”, which he wrote as a paean to his home country.
As Carte de Séjour’s cover gained popularity, its scathing, implicit social commentary caused a stir. The irony of the nationalistic song being performed by a group of immigrant Arabs was not lost on the French public, the point driven further home by the fact that the cover had been given a sneering punk re-rub bolstered by a pop-smart Arabicized dance beat. Public outcry led to the song eventually being banned on French radio and Carte de Séjour found themselves yet again on the outskirts of popular culture, relegated once more to cult status.
By 1989, the band had broken up and the public took very little notice. But the French-Arab rebel-yell was far from over; singer Taha would go on to have a massively successful solo career that would surpass the notoriety of his former little-band-that-could by miles. Taha continues to press away at the issues concerning French-Arab identity, often still courting controversy with his electronically-charged rock-n-raï numbers. Albums like Made in Medina and Tékitoi show that the ex-punk still has not let up after all these years.
The accomplishments of Carte de Séjour, however, cannot be denied. Their influence on beur youth pointed the way for other French-Arab bands like Zebda. While Zebda does not exactly share the same punk ethos that the members of Carte de Séjour grew up with, their desire and drive to connect with their North African roots are definitely based on a model of cultural-ethnic expression created by their predecessors.
Speaking to a marginalized sector of youth for which previously there had been no voice, Carte de Séjour explored all topics that affected and continue to affect modern-day beur youth: unemployment, poverty, racism, discrimination and destitution. These topics may not have meant much to France`s middle-class when the issues were first addressed in Carte’s music, but their relevance was only further substantiated by Taha`s accounts that record shops in France refused to stock any of the band`s albums for fear of having their establishments frequented by Arabs.
Ironically, it was punk, a Western invention of adolescent rebellion, which allowed the band’s ethnic musical roots an equal footing with their Western pop elements, setting the stage for a cultural integration that was especially rare for an Arab band in the early ‘80s. And yet, the band`s very name, at once a symbol for opportunity and oppression, resounds years later as an ironic and pitiless indictment of bondage and freedom, two opposing concepts that circulate in and around the beur communities as a point of discussion and debate.
Carte de Séjour is special in that, up until today from the time they began more than 30 years ago, they continue to be an anomaly in rock music. For never before and never since has there been a band to come out of the beur communities that would exploit the possibilities that punk could offer a disenchanted Arab youth. They were the first… and they may be the last.