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.

Singing the Immigrants’ Stories

“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 Arabic vocal scales’ dynamics 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 that was only vaguely familiar with Arabic music.

For their first official debut LP, Carte de Séjour would secure Steve Hillage as the producer. Hillage, famed for his work in ’70s-era psychedelic rock bands like Gong and Khan would reconfigure Carte de Séjour’s sound into a much more homogenized package 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 Mohamed Choukri and Naguib Mahfouz’s novels. 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 was 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, but 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 Taha’s accounts only further substantiated their relevance 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 of 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 circulating in and around the beur communities as a point of discussion and debate.

Carte de Séjour is special in that, up until today and from the time they began more than 30 years ago, they continue to be an anomaly in rock music. 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.