While I sat on the floor in the Cabaret Sauvage music hall waiting for Massilia Sound Systemto take the stage for a rare Paris appearance, Concert, Le Cabaret Sauvage Paris (5 December 2014), a young couple seated next to me asked if I had ever seen them live. When I answered in the affirmative, they fired off a battery of questions: What was their music like? Where had I heard them before? Who exactly were the group’s musicians? Were they in for a good concert?
Their wide-eyed curiosity offered proof that, 30 years after Massilia’s formation in 1984, this most unlikely of groups had succeeded in reaching out to a new generation of listeners. The crowd at the Cabaret Sauvage brought together a multigenerational mix of longstanding fans like myself (clearly identifiable by our greying temples), young people new to the group, and children shepherded by parents bent on transmitting their musical attachments.
This was in keeping with the group’s joyously ecumenical ethos. Already in 2002, their song “Les Papets, les minots” (Oldsters, Youngsters) transformed festive inclusiveness into a programmatic imperative, a vehicle for fostering tolerance and dialogue: “I’m with the young person who wants to move forward / I’m with the old person who wants to pass on what he knows / … / No matter the differences between generations / What’s important is what we think and what we do / Young and old dance together, ask the same questions”. I told my new friends what anyone who has had the happy fortune to hear Massilia in concert would: they are fantastic live.
Singing Massilia Sound System’s merits to Parisians who already enjoy their records amounts to preaching to the converted. Presenting a Marseille-based reggae-rap group who sing in Occitan and rarely tour outside the hexagon to Anglophones, generally inclined to regard French popular music with condescension, if they think about it at all, represents an altogether more difficult task. Catchy hooks, danceable rhythms, and rapid-fire lyrical syncopations make Massilia’s music accessible to anyone, but its easy appeal belies the group’s musical importance, political activism, and cultural engagements.
Those interested in learning more can now turn to the first book to appear on the group, written by journalist Camille Martel (Massilia Sound System. La façon de Marseille. Gémenos: Le Mot et le Reste, 2014.), who is also a member of the Doctors de Trobar, an Occitan-language hip-hop group active in a rap scene at once inspired and supported by Massilia. Granted extensive access to the group and its archives, Martel offers an exhaustive chronological narrative, viewed through the lens of fandom.
To understand Massilia’s real significance as artefact and actor in contemporary French history, however, requires asking other, more incisive questions, and deciphering the group’s relationship to important features of French cultural and political life: France’s vibrant alternative music scene; the close ties between left-wing activism and much French popular music; the political and cultural movements aimed at defending France’s regional languages; and the local cultural scene anchored in Marseille.
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Massilia Sound System contributed a distinctive voice to the alternative music scene that first took shape in the ’80s, of which Noir Désir and Manu Chao are perhaps the best-known representatives outside France. Such groups seized upon the new spaces for cultural creation and dissemination opened up in the wake of François Mitterrand’s election as president in 1981, when his Socialist government deregulated France’s airwaves and channeled state support to popular musics. If anything tied together the eclectic fruits of this musical moment, it was a marked openness to musical cultures from around the world and a willingness to mix styles in search of new sonorities. Noir Désir forged its brooding sound from a blend of hard rock, punk and new wave; Manu Chao invented his own Latin-inflected rock; Les Negrésses Vertes fused punk, Mediterranean and Latin musics with the traditional bal-musette music performed in Belle Époque cabarets.
For their part, Massilia drew musical inspiration from Jamaica. The group’s founding figure is François Ridel (stage name Tatou), who quit his job as a schoolteacher to host a Marseille radio show on one the radios libres that flowered in the heady early years of Mitterrand’s presidency. Imitating the Jamaican DJs who operated portable equipment to animate street parties, and whose use of dubbing, sampling and spoken word helped spark the invention of rap in ’70s New York, Ridel launched his own sound system to play neighborhood gatherings. As the group coalesced, its members embraced raggamuffin, a mix of reggae and dancehall that relies on electronic synthesizers for instrumentation.
Over time, Massilia expanded the range of styles from which they borrowed: Hindi film songs shaped the album Aïoillywood (1997), and the African-influenced musics of Brazil’s Nordeste like coco and mangue left their mark on 3698CR13 (2000). Beginning in the ’00s, Massilia’s musicians launched ongoing side projects in order to pursue other musical experiments: Ridel, Massilia guitarist Blù, and Brazilian percussionist Jamilson Da Silva assemble as Moussu T e lei Jovents to perform Occitan songs over a mix of old-school blues, Antillais biguine and Brazilian rhythms; Lux Botté and Gari Greu formed the hard-rock group Oai Star.
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Stamped with its members’ unapologetic left-wing engagements, Massilia’s songs are at once a product of and an intervention in recent French political history. In this, the group carries forward a long tradition of politicized popular music in France. Think of the hymns sung during the Revolution and the Commune, Aristide Bruant’s poetic ventriloquizing of the working class in the cabarets of Montmartre, the pacifist tunes that French poilus sang in the trenches during the Great War, Joseph Kessel and Maurice Druon’s much-covered anthem to the French Resistance “Le Chant des partisans”, and Boris Vian’s libertarian lyrics. Alternative music groups like Massilia didn’t just experiment with new musical forms, they intervened in political life in novel ways. They introduced new themes into the repertoire of French left-wing music, exhorting listeners to confront postcolonial realities, embrace the increasingly multicultural character of French society, and combat the global neoliberal turn.
Noir Désir made their anarchist sympathies explicit. Manu Chao was a founding member of the alter-globalization association, ATTAC. The Toulouse formation Zebda, whose songs’ mix of rock, reggae, Algerian raï, ginguette, Latin sounds, and fiery lyrics provided the amplifier-boosted soundtrack to countless labor strikes and political demonstrations in the ’90s and ’00s, perhaps best exemplifies the intense politicization of the French alternative music scene. Active in a Toulouse citizens’ and artists’ collective dubbed Tactikollectif, Zebda participated in making Motivés, an album of protest songs aimed at transmitting a left-wing musical culture to a new generation of activists. During Toulouse’s 2001 municipal elections, Zebda joined with other members of Tactikollectif to present a list under the “Motivé-e-s” banner, committed to grassroots participatory democracy, which won 12.5 percent of the vote. Almost all these groups are regular acts at the French Communist Party’s annual Fête de l’Humanité festival, Massilia included.
Massilia’s songs celebrate ordinary people’s struggles, denounce political corruption, condemn racism, and cast a sardonic eye on state authority and free markets alike. “If we have to choose heroes”, proclaims the first verse of their 1995 song “Des métallos”, “then let’s choose steelworkers”, before decrying the layoffs that ravaged the once proud shipyards in La Ciotat near Marseille. The 2000 song “Tout le monde ment” (Everyone lies) mobilizes the playful wordplay and satire-saturated skepticism that are hallmarks of their lyrics to prod listeners to parse the rich and powerful’s pronouncements. Above all, Massilia found their political vocation in the fight against Jean-Marie Le Pen’s xenophobic far-right Front National. In songs like “Ma ville est malade” (My City Is Sick), written after the 1995 municipal elections brought the FN to power in Marignane, Orange and Toulon, Massilia exhorted listeners to combat the FN cancer in their own communities. When in 1997 the FN won the city hall of Vitrolles, an industrial town northeast of Marseille where Massilia had set up its recording studio at the previous municipal government’s invitation, the new mayor retaliated, pulling the plug on the studio (Massilia found a new, more hospitable home in La Ciotat, thanks to its then-Communist-governed municipal council).
Encouraging Multilingualism, Accommodating Difference
Massilia Sound System’s commitment to the regional culture of the French south, and especially to Occitan, the distinct Romance language that was widely spoken across meridional France until well into the 20th century, represents its most distinctive feature. The group conceives its use of Occitan as a militant act, a contribution to broader campaigns to save the language. Such efforts first took shape in the 19th century, when Provençal notable, Occitan poet, and winner of the 1904 Nobel literature prize Frédéric Mistral founded the Félibrige movement to promote the idiom’s revival. Profoundly conservative in outlook, the provincial elites who animated the Félibrige and its analogues saw in Occitan the authentic expression of a rural, hierarchical, and Catholic society menaced by industrialization, urbanization, state centralization, and Republican values. This outlook pushed many to collaborate with German and Vichy authorities during the Occupation, and regionalist movements across France emerged from the Second World War discredited.
Inspired by the Resistance, a new generation of occitanistes founded the Institut d’Estudis Occitans (IEO) in 1945 to breath new life into the regional ideal, rapidly making it the principal postwar occitaniste organization. Marked by the Algerian War, opposed to the Fifth Republic’s technocratic centralization, and swept up in the vibrant left-wing counterculture that took shape in May 1968’s shockwave, they reimagined occitanisme as a radical cultural and political movement. Drawing on Marxist and anticolonial thought, occitanistes theorized Occitan as the idiom of a nation conquered and colonized by the French state over many centuries. They conducted research to better understand Occitan’s internal linguistic structures, uncover a forgotten corpus of Occitan-language literary texts, and reconstruct the history of a nation denied. They lobbied the government to incorporate Oc into public school curricula, sought common ground with labor unions and other social movements, and called for political decentralization. Contesting Occitanie’s very place in France, some launched autonomist political parties. No figure looms larger in occitanisme’s history than Robert Lafont (1927-2008), a tireless polymath who wrote Occitan-language novels, poetry and drama, published pioneering works of Occitan history and literary criticism, introduced the American school of sociolinguistics to French linguists, trained several generations of Occitan specialists as Professor of Occitan at the University of Montpellier, dictated the movement’s political positions in works like Décoloniser en France (1971), fought for Occitan’s place in public life, and even ran for president in 1974.
Musicians played an important role in the Occitan revival. They spent time in rural communities in order to learn and preserve traditional folk music, borrowed from the medieval troubadour repertoire, and composed new work in Oc. These experiments coalesced in the ’70s in Nòva Cançon, an Occitan-language modern folk music movement part Joan Baez concert, part soixante-huitard street protest, and part fireside peasant veillée. Mixing old mythologies with new, their songs deplored the alienation of modern life, evoked a more authentic past, and called for national liberation. Nòva Cançon’s most important figure was Claude Marti, a primary school teacher, Communist, and committed occitaniste from the Aude who still performs today. Marti’s lyrics drew from the occitaniste stockhouse of commonplaces: songs commemorated the Albigensian Crusade as the medieval starting-point for France’s colonization of Occitanie; others celebrated more recent episodes of local resistance like the 1907 Languedoc winegrowers’ revolt; still others demanded freedom for “Un pòble, conflat / D’esser colonizat, vençut, matracat.” (A people fed up / With being colonized, vanquished, bludgeoned). Like many regionalists in the ’70s, Marti equated Occitan’s cause with contemporary Third World struggles. Che Guevara’s portrait graced the cover of his first album, the 1969 Occitania!, whose final song is entitled “Occitania Saluda Cuba” (Occitania salutes Cuba). The IEO played a crucial role in promoting Nòva Cançon (coproducing Marti’s first record for example), making it the official musical voice of occitanisme in all but name.
In phase with the zeitgeist of ’70s France, Nòva Cançon resonated with a certain public suspicious of authority and hungry for cultural authenticity. So it was that Marti and other occitanistes joined local sheep farmers and a vast constellation of left-wing groups on the Larzac plateau to protest the extension of a military base, in what represents the most spectacular of France’s post-1968 happenings. Amalgamating disparate cultural, political and social aspirations, protesters rallied to battle cries in Occitan: “Gardarem lo Larzac” (We will keep the Larzac) and “Volem viure al païs!” (We want to live in our country!. Rescued from the linguistic ash heap of history, Occitan, it seemed, now had a bright future as an idiom for eminently forward-looking pacifist, anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, ecological, small-is-beautiful, back-to-the-land-ideas.
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It was only a few years after the last protesters came down from the Larzac, having won their fight, that Massilia Sound System’s Jamaica-infatuated members stumbled on Occitanie more or less by chance. Ridel grew up in the Paris area and only moved to Marseille as an adult, but he had been exposed to Occitan as a child thanks to a nanny from the southwest, sparking an abiding interest in the southern tongue. Sensing sociolinguistic parallels between Jamaican Patois, the English-influenced Creole in which much Jamaican reggae is sung, and France’s “patois”, as its regional languages were often referred to dismissively, Ridel saw in Occitan a useable folkloric vehicle that would marry fruitfully with reggae. He convinced his fellow MC René Mazzarino, an electrician from Marseille who joined Massilia in 1985 (and whose various stage names include Papet-J, Jali, and Lou Jalet), to try their hands at writing and performing a handful of songs in Oc.
But it was Claude Sicre, a musician, neighborhood activist, and lifetime ethnomusicology grad student from Toulouse a full decade older than they, who inspired Massilia’s Occitan turn. The group met Sicre after giving a concert in Toulouse in 1987, beginning a long and fruitful relationship. The Toulousain was on a mission to use music as a means to rebuild social relations on more fraternal foundations (to the same end, he also invented the now widely-imitated practice of “street meals” in Toulouse’s working-class Arnaud-Bernard neighborhood). Sicre had also long been engaged with Occitan culture, studying the troubadours, cutting folk records, and providing musical accompaniment to the Occitan storyteller (and future IEO president) Robert Marty in performances for rural audiences across Toulouse’s hinterland.
Sicre introduced Massilia to the writings of Félix-Marcel Castan (1920-2001), a schoolteacher, Communist, and occitaniste from the rural southwest. A founding member of the IEO, Castan parted ways with Lafont and his allies over their overt politicization of the movement, and in an internal quarrel characteristic of the fierce infighting that has long plagued occitanisme, they engineered his exclusion in 1965. Eschewing regionalism, which in his eyes amounted to no more than a nationalist replication in miniature of the French Jacobinism he despised, Castan saw in Occitan, by virtue of its history as an oppressed tongue and its long coexistence alongside French, an effective vehicle for promoting pluralism, encouraging multilingualism and accommodating difference.
Shortly after meeting Massilia, Sicre joined with Jean-Marc Enjalbert (stage name Ange B) to found the Fabulous Trobadors, conceived as a laboratory in which to put Castan’s ideas into musical practice. For the new project, Sicre drew inspiration from coco de embolada, a musical genre associated with the Nordeste region of Brazil, in which two singers engage in debate while beating out time with tambourines. Just as Ridel had detected affinities between Jamaican reggae and Occitan, Sicre heard in coco echoes of the medieval troubadours’ verbal jousts known as tensons. As the Fabulous, Sicre and Enjalbert laid down rap-like spoken word (in both French and Oc) atop Nordestão rhythms, privileging live performance and improvisation, in songs equal parts political intervention and absurdist wordplay. Sicre hoped the Fabulous would provide a model for cultural and social action that audiences could appropriate and make their own, a training ground for a “cultural democracy” open to pluralism, popular engagement, and grassroots creativity. group’s reliance on rudimentary instrumentation, simple musical forms, and dialogic lyrics were intended to incite others to embrace music as a collective, conversational, and critical medium.
Infected by Sicre’s enthusiasm and Castan’s ideas, Massilia’s members got to work. Papet-J enrolled in Occitan classes. He and Ridel attended IEO meetings, thus operating an unlikely junction between serious-minded occitaniste militancy and Massilia’s rasta sensibilities (Martel reports that Mazzarino and Ridel would sit in the back, smoking and kibbitzing loudly). Now joined by Bruno Martin (alias Goatari), the group released its first album in 1992, whose title, Parla Patois (Occitan for “Speak Patois”) and mix of songs in Oc and French trumpeted their linguistic commitments. Ever since, the group has consistently inscribed its music under the occitaniste banner. They sample a Claude Marti song on Parla Patois. On their 2002 album Chourmo they include a recording of the Occitan writer Yves Rouquette (founder of the principal Nòva Cançon recording label, Larzac veteran, founder of the calendretas network of bilingual Occitan-French schools, and leader of the populist putsch that forced Lafont and other university teachers out of the IEO in 1981) reciting a poem by the medieval troubadour Piere Vidal. And Castan is omnipresent in their work, celebrated in lyrics and liner notes, his voice repeatedly sampled in their songs.
Massilia’s and the Fabulous’s commercial success is often invoked as evidence of an Occitan ‘revival’, in the same breath as the calendretas (which today count 60 elementary and three middle schools). But the stubborn fact that the biggest Occitan-language musicians since Marti learned Oc as adults, or that they both write and perform songs in French as well as the southern tongue, read more like signs of waning linguistic fortunes. The son of Provençal farmers, Mistral didn’t need to study Oc as an adult; when Lafont and Castan founded the IEO, native speakers of Occitan still numbered in the millions. By the time Massilia and the Fabulous were making a living from their music, it was becoming increasingly clear that Occitan was headed for language death (or, at the very least, a confidential linguistic existence as a second language amongst an educated urban middle class who send their kids to calendretas). The audiences whom Massilia exhort to parla patois are in fact less and less capable of speaking regional languages at all.
With hindsight, and for all its luminous promise, the Larzac clearly marks occitanisme’s cultural and political high-water mark. The occitanistes who pinned their hopes on Mitterrand and his commitment to promote regional languages in 1981 soon joined others on the left disappointed by unkept promises and the turn to austerity. More broadly, the Marxist-inflected, tiers-mondiste narratives of the long ’60s that underpinned occitaniste platforms, cracking under the ugly weight of the Gulag Archipelago, the Vietnamese Boat People crisis, and Mao’s Great Leap Forward, steadily lost their conceptual purchase in France.
However, it would be a mistake to dismiss Massilia as the last gasp of Occitan lyric nationalism. Their music in fact represented a smart, self-conscious reinvention of occitaniste cultural politics, calibrated for a brave new world which had lost faith in grand ideologies and utopian projects. Drawing liberally from the revolutionary imaginary of the ’60s, Massilia fashioned a whimsical separatist mythology all its own: its albums’ liner notes thank various fictive “liberation fronts”, their song “Vive le PIIM” celebrates the Parti Indépendantiste Internationaliste Marseillais, and its 2002 album Occitanista gestured to any number of Latin American liberation movements. The group did not intend anyone to take their Situationist-like play on postwar regionalism too seriously. Instead, they used their attachment to Occitan to articulate a powerful case for pluralism and solidarity within French society — promoting Oc stood in for celebrating religious, ethnic and cultural difference and defending the poor and marginalized.
Shedding Light on France’s Varied Cultural Heritage
Above all, Massilia proudly parades its loyalty to Marseille. Turning the city’s widely-held image as a dysfunctional home to poverty, corrupt politicians, and organized crime on its head, Massilia sees in the millennia-old Mediterranean port a social model, a venerable crossroads for immigration, crosscultural encounters and happy coexistence: “The city has long lived in peace / respectful of every community”. (“Ma ville est malade”). It is for this reason that the Front National’s success in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, where it has found fertile electoral ground amongst the petite bourgeoisie, older voters, and the white settlers who left Algeria for metropolitan France after the end of the Algerian War known as pieds-noirs, is tantamount to a personal affront, an insult to the region’s cosmopolitan history.
Massilia belongs to a broader tradition of artists who place the Phocean port at the center of their work. Marseille’s modern cultural identity is the invention of filmmaker, playwright and novelist Marcel Pagnol (1895-1974), whose work conjured a world of meridional nostalgia, pastis-lubricated sociability, farniente, linguistic particularisms, and virtuosic mastery of the spoken word. The Marseillais film-maker Robert Guédiguian updated this imaginary by lending it a left-leaning valence in films centered on the working-class Estaque neighborhood like Marius et Jeannette (1997).
Massilia, too, drew liberally from the Pagnol folklore, although in ways that pried it loose from culturally and territorially bounded conceptions of cultural identity. Just as its musical and linguistic mixing represents an unapologetic hybridity, so too the Marseille it celebrates eschews any claims to authenticity. From their thick-as-bouillabaisse accents (for some natural, for others, notably the Paris-born Ridel, acquired) to their bucket hats, the group revels in local clichés, using them as sources of fun and raw materials from which to fashion a Marseille open to difference. Inspired by the Rastafarian language known as Dread Talk, the group borrowed from Occitan and the local dialect of French to forge a unique idiolect with which to express their ethos.
Newcomers should arm themselves with a basic lexicon: to whip up the aïoli (a Provençal garlic mayonnaise) or let loose the oai is to energize a concert and communicate happiness; the chourmo (Occitan for the prisoners and slaves who peopled the galleys of Old Regime France) are the group’s most devoted fans; conos are all those who oppose Massilia’s humanist vision. Drawing heavily from the city’s feverish soccer culture, Massilia makes common cause with Olympique de Marseille, the local club whose supporters proclaim racial diversity and anti-fascism to be central to their identity. Like Occitan, the trope of the tolerant, leisure-loving, and sharp-tongued Marseillais serves as a rhetorical device to preach the gospel of coexistence and the politics of anticapitalism.
Massilia’s cultural project also helped spark the emergence of a dynamic local cultural scene worlds removed from Pagnol’s sepia-tinted Provence. Ròker Promocion, the production company founded by the group, launched IAM, a French rap formation who regularly collaborate with the Wu-Tang Clan and whose precise, ferocious music cries out for recognition beyond France. Jean-Claude Izzo’s Fabio Montale trilogy of detective novels represents a vibrant homage to the city in the guise of Mediterranean hardboiled (in which Izzo lionizes both Massilia and IAM, and borrows a Massilia album title for his novel Chourmo).
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It’s tempting to see in Massilia an actor in the vibrant post-’70s French regionalist music scene. Occitan ensembles like Nadau from Béarn and Lou Dalfin and Gai Saber from Italy’s Piedmont region (where Occitan’s close linguistic cousin Franco-Provençal was long spoken) perform troubadour and folk repertoires on traditional and modern instruments. Corsica gave birth to groups like I Muvrini who repackaged the island’s traditional choral polyphonies as polished pop. As one of the motors driving the international explosion of interest in Celtic music, Brittany is home to the most vibrant of these scenes. Like their Nova Cançon counterparts, harpist and singer Alan Stivell, guitarist Dan Ar Braz, the group Tri Yann, and singer-songwriter Gilles Servat worked to revive and modernize Breton folk music. Quenching a deep thirst for tradition in the face of globalization’s uncertainties, many of these groups have met with considerable commercial success, their popular reach far surpassing Massilia’s compass: Nadau regularly sells out the prestigious Olympia concert hall in Paris, Dan Ar Braz has sold several million records worldwide, and the Héritage des Celtes concerts are spectacular affairs, mobilizing hundreds of musicians and selling out the hexagon’s biggest sports stadiums.
These concerts represent elaborate performances of cultural identity, celebrations of the traditional rituals of Romantic nationalism, albeit largely shorn of political aspirations. Music and language, along with symbols like the Breton, Corsican or Occitan flags brandished by musicians and spectators alike, express the essential character of particular territories and peoples, rooted in place and past. These are at once sentimental and patrimonial affairs, in which those who identify with the culture on display commune with their roots, reaffirm their identity, and (if need be) familiarize themselves with its constitutive musical traditions; in contrast, outsiders look on, moved perhaps by this deeply felt expression of cultural solidarity, but made to feel apart.
It would be a mistake to see Massilia’s music in these terms. Steeped in Castan’s rejection of the regionalist paradigm, Massilia seized upon Occitan not for its own sake, but rather as a foundation upon which to build musical and linguistic hybridities, which could in turn be used to make the case for French openness to difference. Occitan was not for them a historical monument to be preserved (or modernized), but rather the starting-point for a plural future. As Sicre put it, “Everything can be invented in Occitan culture.” This is precisely what the Fabulous seek to do in their song “Toulouse est Sarrazine” (Toulouse is Saracen), which gestures to Toulouse’s incorporation into the Muslim territories of al-Anadalus in the eighth century, not — as many on France’s far-right do — to trumpet the later triumph of an ethnically homogeneous, Christian French nation, but rather to revel in the city’s increasingly cosmopolitan present.
In this Massilia have far more in common with musical cousins in, say, Naples than with Nadau or Dan Ar Braz. Naples and Marseille share much: both are hard-bitten Mediterranean ports laid out across stunning hillside geographies, plagued by poverty and organized crime, animated by fierce local pride, and devoted to the cults of their respective soccer clubs. To a greater extent still than Marseille with its local artists, Naples has given birth to a range of deeply-politicized musicians who sing in Neapolitan dialect.The mythic (and still active) E Zezi, a folk music and theater collective founded by factory workers in 1974, takes up the traditional tammurriata dance form to sing about social struggle. Pino Daniele, who passed away earlier this year, mixed blues, rhumba and traditional tarantella folk dance in a new genre he dubbed taramblù, and whose songs offer richly-textured portraits of life in his native city (its inhabitants have embraced Daniele’s Napule è as Naples’ unofficial anthem). Formed in the orbit of the centro sociale autogestito movement — self-managed social and cultural centers, often housed in squats, which have taken root across Italy –, the hip-hop/reggae group 99 Posse (the name refers to the Officina99 social center in Naples) uses its music as an instrument of left-wing political action and a cultural weapon aimed against Italy’s far-right.
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In light of what was to come, Massilia’s early albums were rudimentary affairs, on which instrumentals produced on basic sound systems providing the foundation for songs that capture the originality of their project, but only hint at the excitement they can take on live. With the 1997 Aïollywood, the group raised its musical ambitions and began experimenting with recording technology’s musical potential, subsequently turning to the legendary Guyanese dub producer known as the Mad Professor for help on Marseille London Experience (1999). The group’s polished new album, Massilia, their first since 2007, is very much a product of this long musical and technical maturation. Folding Oai Star’s rock, Moussu T’s dixieland, and a dash of techno into the raggamuffin mix, Massilia represents one of their strongest efforts yet.
The Cabaret Sauvage show last December offered a happy reminder that, whatever their merits in the studio, the group really should be heard live. (For those who can’t make it to a concert, there are several excellent live albums that succeed in communicating some of their energy in concert). Electric affairs, Massilia’s shows are part soccer terrace celebration, part tongue-in-cheek folklore festival, and part Marseillais happy hour. The stage is typically festooned with banners recalling the iconography of European ultra soccer supporter culture, the group regularly directs concertgoers in giant farandoles, an open-chain dance that is a staple of the Provençal folk dance repertoire. Midway through their shows, Massilia announces that it is apéritif time, as stagehands emerge from the wings bearing trays of glasses filled with pastis, which they serve to the audience (sponsored, the group announces, by the PIIM).
“Putain, ça faisait longtemps!” shouted Ridel as the group took the stage under the Cabaret Sauvage’s magnificent magic mirror tent, for its first show in the capital in some time. “Damn, it’s been a long time,” I thought, having not heard them since their 2003 concert at the Bataclan, the storied Paris music hall which recently came to global attention under tragic circumstances. A dozen years later, the group seemed a bit less kinetic. Perhaps it was the absence of Lux Botté, who since 1992 played a happy bullhorn-wielding dynamo on stage, and who lost his battle to cancer in 2008. Perhaps it’s simply the passing of the years. Whatever Massilia has lost in youthful vitality they have gained in musical assurance. And the group is still more than capable of fusing an audience in festive, chaotic communion — one that not only makes it possible to communicate their message, it is their message.
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Now into its fourth decade, Massilia Sound System has already built an important legacy. By example and active patronage, the group (together with their musical and intellectual fellow-travelers, the Fabulous) played a crucial role in launching new generations of musicians. Massilia founded Ròker Promocion precisely to support young artists animated by similar ideals (they produced the Fabulous’s first album, for example). Femmouzes T, a Franco-Brazilian female accordion-tambourine duo who formed in 1992 with the Fabulous’s help, added serious discussion of women to a musical conversation that had been at best silent on gender. A group of students active in Occitan causes at the University of Montpellier formed Maurèsca Fracàs Dub, recording their first album Francament (2001) with Massilia and the Fabulous’s support. That Massilia has inspired a constellation of like-minded musicians is testament to the group’s idiomatic genius. It’s an implausible achievement, indeed, to have created a naturalized form of raggamuffin at home in the calanques of Marseille, to have made Occitan its lyrical vehicle, and to have posited that the troubadour’s tongue might have something important to say to all of France today.
Massilia has also built a potent political and social legacy that spills well beyond the musical realm. It may be hard not to chuckle at a group that revels in easygoing, ganja-infused hedonism having transformed Félix Castan, an obscure southwestern intellectual, into a veritable totem. That Massilia pokes gentle fun at regionalist shibboleths, however, should not distract from the important fact that there is something terribly serious at stake. For all Robert Lafont’s iron grip on the postwar occitaniste movement, Massilia’s story illustrates that it is in fact Castan’s pluralist vision which holds real relevance for French society today. All the more so in the current moment, marked by anxiety and uncertainty, when many in France and Europe are turning an increasingly open ear to the ugly siren songs of intolerance, exclusionary identity politics, and authoritarianism. For three decades Massilia has stayed on message, eschewing major record labels and big Paris venues in order to build ties with local communities in and around Marseille, tirelessly touring across France to propose its felicitous Provençal-Caribbean musical marriage as a model for fraternal social relations. In this, Massilia sheds welcome light on the many varied strands that make up France’s genuine cultural heritage, and the many actors who, seeing in these threads abundant resources, work tirelessly to weave them together into a hopeful fabric for the future.