Local Music for Global Action: Massilia Sound System's Political Intervention

Paul Cohen
Promo shot for Massilia (2014)

Massilia 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.

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).

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