Arab Soul Rebels: Punk Among the Beurs of ’80s France

French-Arab band Carte de Séjour made pop music history with their rousing blend of punk and raï in the early '80s. To date there are no successors in sight.

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 many 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 fewer 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 punk rock’s birth, 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 middle-class living’s routine structures. For certain ethnic minorities, it became a seditious tool in creating the self’s identities 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 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 segregate the immigrant population further.

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 attitudinizing 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 French-Arab communities’ lives.

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.

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 into 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 French immigrants’ citizenship card, was a bold slap in the face of cultural resistance — an anti-Arab sentiment 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 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 the 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 Arabic material.

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 streamline the Arabic folk elements into much more modernized rhythms that would herald Arabic pop’s birth. 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.