Rediscovering the Sounds of Vintage Arab Music: A Journey through History and Culture

2023-06-26 21:00:46

What is the genesis of the “Vintage Arab” project and did you have a target audience in mind from the start?

I had the impression that Arab music was presented in France in a caricatural way with, in particular, treatment limited to a few key figures. I wanted to propose something else, a project that also takes into account the historical context of production. And then I limited myself to certain periods, those that I like the most. Hence the name Vintage.

I am addressing the diaspora first, even if the podcast remains accessible to people who have no connection with this culture. I noticed around me that there were a lot of people looking for information on this music, others who felt that it accompanied them, even if they didn’t speak the language. In any case, I noticed a need not to feel dispossessed of this heritage, not to let it be reduced to excerpts that we remix with electro when it’s fashionable. That, for some, it had a much deeper meaning.

What was your gateway to this musical universe?

My mother, who grew up in the 1970s in Tunisia, at a time when Egyptian music took over a large part of the Arab cultural space. And me, I grew up in France with Egyptian musicals, even if my references are also Tunisian by my origins. We also listened to a lot of Lebanese artists like Feyrouz. But little by little, I also forged my personal taste, independently of that of my parents. Thanks to the parabola and the satellite, I only watched Arabic TV, or almost, which allowed a regular update.

Why did you inaugurate your podcast with an episode devoted to the Lebanese icon Ziad Rahbani?

It is precisely because it was quite important in my career. My mother didn’t listen to him much: a few songs, no more. It also turns out that I quickly became politicized “on the left” and that in Tunisia, where I went very often, people on the left listened to Ziad Rahbani. These are gateways, among others, which opened me to universes other than those of my parents. They could indeed sometimes be quite conservative in their tastes.

For a long time, there was the feeling that the music of the Levant was better known in the Maghreb than the reverse. Do you share this impression?

Cairo has always been the main musical hub for the Arab world, even if Lebanon – in any case Feyrouz – was able to do well by proposing a form of independence from Egypt. But otherwise, everything went through Cairo. This was true for the Maghreb, of course, but also for the Gulf countries. The Moroccan singer Samira Saïd exported herself very well to the region because she sang in Egyptian, Nancy Ajram also in her early days. It is a question of yielding to the biggest market, where the biggest mass media are concentrated. Hence the reversal that we are currently beginning to observe towards the Gulf countries: more and more artists are singing in khaliji.

The fact remains that the musical genre that has worked the most internationally is the Algerian raï. This is also explained by the fact that Khaled had signed with Universal in France. The internationalization of raï passed through Europe. But it is dependent on what has been called “world music”, when several non-European musical genres have been confined to a kind of wave which marked the 1980s and 1990s and which, in the case of France, came to an abrupt halt with 9/11, in a context of resurgence of prejudice against Arab cultures.

In 2021, you won the SCAM Discovery Prize for your radio documentary, “A History of the Arab Workers Movement” (MTA, first autonomous anti-racist organization founded in 1972). You also feel a desire to tell the story of migration through music…

When I was studying music in Arab countries, what interested me was to examine the intersection with the politics and the social situation of the country. In France, it’s ultimately a bit the same, except that I try to see when culture meets political mobilization and when music can intervene. In the case of the MTA, I came across an archival tape of a program in Arabic – Radio Assifa (1975) – made by activists who defend both the rights of North African workers in France and those of the Palestinians. They were the ones who had created the first movements of support for the Palestinians in the country, through the Palestine committees (created in reaction to Black September and counted among the first solidarity organizations with the Palestinians, editor’s note). In the aforementioned tape, we hear the protesting Egyptian singer Cheikh Imam. I realized that it had first been broadcast in France through this medium, by Arab activists. It is a diffusion that takes place through political acts.

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There is also a whole section of North African music – what is called “the song of el-ghorba” (“exile”) – which deals with the living conditions of North African workers. Many Algerian artists, but also Moroccans and, to a lesser extent, Tunisians have offered songs about their experiences which have been recorded on labels. In 1947, Ahmad Hachlaf, an Algerian producer, took over the management of Pathé’s Arab catalog and began, among other things, to record workers singing in cafes. At the same time, it is he who broadcasts Oum Kalsoum in France.

You mentioned above the place of the Palestinian cause in the MTA. What centrality has it had in your personal journey on the one hand, and in Arabic music in France on the other?

I was brought up there. My interest in Palestine goes a lot through literature. But Palestinian music is exported very little. We listen to a lot of songs about Palestine – I grew up with Marcel Khalifé’s music – we cover the lyrics, but it’s rarely the Palestinians who sing them. This questions me, even if I know that Israeli colonization has made it very difficult for these artists to perform in other countries, although the internet has allowed for better dissemination.

In France, many people who are active in anti-racist movements began by committing themselves to Palestine. Within the Palestine committees – very close to the PLO – there were very diverse profiles: Syrian students and Algerian workers who work at Renault. There has always been a Palestinian constancy in the fight against racism. In 1983, during the March for equality and against racism, it was the song Sabra et Chatila by the Moroccan group Nass el-Ghiwane that we heard when the marchers arrived in Paris.

Are you interested in the music born in the wake of the Arab Spring, in revolutionary musical creation?

I am a child of the Arab revolutions. I was 18 when Tunisia rose up. What caught my attention the most were the chants in the stadiums. This obviously mainly concerns countries where there are football clubs with ultra movements. I noticed quite young, without formalizing it or putting words on it, that the stadium was the only place where you could insult Ben Ali. I found it interesting to observe the development of the songs of the ultras in Tunisia, but also in the Maghreb. In the beginning, there was no established musical style. Little by little, movements will develop with their own artists and their own repertoires. It’s one of the things I’ve followed the most because it’s most closely linked to politics.

What is the genesis of the “Vintage Arab” project and did you have a target audience in mind from the start? I had the impression that Arab music was presented in France in a caricatural way with, in particular, treatment limited to a few key figures. I wanted to propose something else, a project that also takes into account the historical context of production….

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