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Zebda: the Sound of the New France

By Bruce Crumley

PARIS, 29 December 1999
- In an age where the gaseous musical vacuity of one short-lived hit after another dissipates as rapidly as the bands that created them, it's refreshing to encounter a group that links its belated success to a dedication to cause - a dedication that, not incidentally, ensured the formation's longevity during long years in relative obscurity in the first place. That has certainly been the case of the Toulouse septet Zebda - an intelligent, politically engaged, and culturally committed, group whose decade of tirelessly fighting the good musical fight was rewarded last summer with a sudden embrace that propelled the single "Tomber la Chemise" to the top of the charts, and made the band's third CD, "Essence Ordinaire", platinum. More important than sales to the politically progressive and racially diverse Zebda, however, are the social factors that explain the band's sudden iconic appeal.

Despite oft-shouted warnings by traditionalists and racists that immigration and assimilation risk undermining and eroding a static national culture, Zebda represents the already-altered, continually evolving face of French culture - a face that has turned out to be beautiful and joyous to see, and one that many French music lovers are being enthusiastically drawn to.

"When you hear people speak about immigration and integration, it's usually in a negative context - the problems, things that aren't working, and threats to national identity," comments Magyd Cherfi, the band's lyricist and one of its three singers. "People hear our music and recognize the different influences as things they've grown up with and are used to. That indicates that these influences, which may have once been considered foreign, are now a part of the French cultural fabric. I think more people are becoming aware of that, and simultaneously realizing it's something to celebrate, rather than fear."

Celebrating Zebda's mix of rock, rap, ska, Latin, Arab, and French accordion music is something French fans - both young and old - are doing in increasingly large numbers. Following the summer rush for the band's CDs, French crowds are now looking for ways into the group's quickly sold-out concerts: shows that, through years of work and literally non-stop touring, have become a showcase of Zebda's lyrical wit, musical enthusiasm and rare ability to generate enormous amounts of energy and good-will. Indeed, the band's down to earth demeanor, playful sense of humor, commitment to its music, and mastery of its unique style is reminiscent of the British ska group Madness in its finest form.

For all the upbeat feelings it creates, however, Zebda's music and messages focus on heavy and often divisive issues like immigration, assimilation, racism, equality, and the problems facing residents of les banlieues - the clusters of suburban public housing projects that ring most French cities, and which remain disproportionally victimized by unemployment, growing violence and unrest. Zebda also conveys the sentiments of the banlieues' large immigrant and first-generation French populations, who feel shut off and excluded by a larger, affluent, and white French society that seems to determine "foreignness" on strictly ethnic and racial grounds.


The airing of such perceptions comes from the heart - and personal experience. All of Zebda's seven members hail from Toulouse-region banlieues, and all are either first-generation French citizens (like Cherfi and co-singers Hakim and Moustapha Amokrane, whose parents are Kabile), or families that arrived in one of the many waves of immigration that have periodically swept across the south-west from Portugal, Spain, Italy, and the Maghreb. Indeed, one of Zebda's greatest strengths is not only expressing social issues by blending the musical influences of their parents' cultures with modern idioms they grew up with. It also lies in deftly embracing the very distinct musical traditions that arose with the commingling of cultures over the course of centuries in France's south-west.

Steering wide of the anger, outrage, and "kill the cops" vengeance often voiced by other, largely hip-hop, banlieue bands, Zebda instead tends to offer an affirmative message - even in denouncing social injustice. Whether their songs may detail quotidian racism, rejection, or even the fall of fellow banlieuesards into the traps of crime, violence, and drugs, Zebda often puts a witty, positive, and even humorous spin on the subject. In doing so, the band lets the very topic act as a reminder of the problem, and focuses instead on a possible solution.

"We all grew up in banlieues, and could have easily come out the worse for it, but at some point we were all turned on to cultural engagement by social workers whose leftist politics probably shaped our own views today," Cherfi says. "We learned that involvement - setting up some project and seeing it through - was the only way to recapture something essential in the rest of society that has been taken away in the banlieues. We were all involved in other projects before - theater, video, writing, etc.- and Zebda really was just a medium to express the views and reflections of group members through. The idea was intellectual and cultural involvement - not to get famous. If that had been the idea, Zebda never would have stuck together during ten years of endless touring of small concerts, festivals, and village fetes."

Zebda's desire to "work better in the banlieue" contrasts radically with American self-help messages of "getting out of the ghetto" - a difference significant in a variety of ways. In a material-glorifying era where idealism is often greeted with ridicule, and where progressive ideologies get steamrolled by surging notions of 'shareholder value' and 'the invisible hand of the market', Zebda remains unique in championing its ideals as both a process and goal, and not a manner of attaining a slot in MTV's rotation. Its positive approach, meanwhile, has also made it an oddity in the very banlieues it often sings about. While encouraging a larger society to finally make an effort to embrace its banlieues and at least meet it half way, Zebda also dares banlieue residents to respect the rules and engagements of French society and make them work to their benefit.

"Our radicalism really lies in our message of 'Just be French'," Cherfi explains. "That doesn't mean denying a culture you may have brought from elsewhere, or inherited from your parents. What it means is accepting the values of French society that do work: republicanism, democracy, equality of the individual, and laity. If you reject the only tools at your disposal, what are you left with? Either you wait for help that will never come, or you flee into the addictions of drugs and religious fundamentalism."

Non-banlieue fans, meanwhile, are learning the lesson that - in contrast to the usual drone heard from the xenophobic National Front and even certain mainstream conservative figures - integration is working, and that the enriched French popular culture that Zebda represents is a fait accompli. They are also getting an idea of what they may have missed out on by not growing up in large urban melting pots of French immigration.

In "Toulouse"- a cut from its first CD, "Le Bruit et l'Odeur" (The Noise and the Smell) (1992) - the band paints a portrait of cohabiting, over-lapping immigrant cultures comprising the banlieues anchored around the City of Roses, singing, "My roots, are Latin, but they go even deeper than that". The title cut, meanwhile, points to these same immigrants - who were largely solicited by France in the 1960s to provide construction and factory labor - and reminds how they've been shut out of a French society that still considers them forever foreign and apart. "Who built these roads? Who built this city? And who doesn't live here?", the song asks, then answers: "My name's Larbi, Mamadou, Juan, Guido, Henri, and Ali. When I understood the rules, I understood why I'd lost: 'Assimilate', you insist? I did long ago".

"Le Bruit et l'Odeur" also issues a warning about racist stereotypes that often circulate among even respectable and "balanced" people in France. The song is based upon a comment made by current president Jacques Chirac, describing an outrageously caricaturized - and statistically nonexistent - immigrant Muslim family as "a husband, his four wives, fifteen children, and which receives $10,000 in monthly aid without, of course having worked. Add to the noise and the smell, and their French neighbors go insane. And it isn't racist to say that...".

Perhaps the most joyous cut from "Essence Ordinaire", ironically, is the tale of the beloved, traditional French Gavroche street urchin relocated and updated in a modern banlieue. Combining Parisian accordion music and Hakim Amokrane's south-western accent - a proud twang that would warm any Gascogne heart - the song's chorus is made up of an irresistible Arab-flavored chant. Both melodically and lyrically, the song perhaps best illustrates the merging nature of French culture and those of its immigrant populations, as well as the evolved, overlapping nature of the nation's Have and Have-nots. The same cultural fusion is embodied by the Zebda mascot - the French rooster made up of Arab script - as well as by the band's name. In a display of multi-lingual argotic dexterity, the group selected zebda as the Arab word for butter - a substance known in French as beurre, and which in turn is a homophone for the commonly used French slang of beur denoting first-generation French citizens of Arab origin. The forging of such diverse influences into affirmative messages in many ways explains Zebda's allure.

"I think our music has always appealed to people, but our real force has been our strong social and political convictions," Cherfi says. "It may have been harder for people to get their arms around those ideas before, and "Tomber la Chemise" may have opened the door for them to do that. Of course, we're happy to be playing to larger audiences, and see that even new fans seem to be embracing the message. If that continues, great. If not, we'll keep doing what we've always done - playing our hearts out and trying to bring the house down every night. The important thing is to continue spreading the message - whether there are 10,000 or 10 in the room."

It's indeed a room well worth getting into, but one harder to access now that Zebda's enormous popularity in France has begun spreading to Spain, Belgium, Germany, and Canada. With a new, perhaps live CD expected out during 2000, Zebda's sudden and rising exposure may be the best manner for France-watchers and French-lovers around the world to get an inspiring update in the nation's pop cultural scene - and redefine in their own minds just what the "Made in France" label actually means today.

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Zebda: Le Bruit et l'Odeur

Barclay (France) 1992

Bruce Crumley is a journalist with TIME magazine.

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