Maghreb Lyon

The immigrant Maghrebi experience in Lyon, France, as told through cassette tapes.

Zaidi el Batni Tape Cover

Lyon is an industrial town in the east of France not known for its immigrant culture or for being near any ports. However, many Maghrebi immigrants from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia specifically, came to Lyon to work in coal mining or industrial factories. Between the 1970s and 1990s, this generation gathered in cafes and created a vibrant music scene that was turning out hundreds of small-run cassette tapes. The three CD set Maghreb Lyon, released earlier this year on archival French record label Frémeux et Associés captures the output of the North African musicians that made this city their home then.

The music on these tapes is raw and full of life. It contains angst about the plight of North African immigrants in French society. The 80s and 90s were a tough time for North African communities in France. Recognizing the context of this music, Place du Pont Productions and The Center for Traditional Music in the Rhône-Alpes split the CDs into themes. Disc 1 is “Exile and Belonging”, Disc 2 is “Political and Social Chronicles”, and Disc 3 is “Love, Friendship, and Betrayal”. It’s an interesting way to compile some of these recordings, creating a series of historically contextualized concept albums.

The following is an interview with Péroline Barbet of the CMTRA (Center for Traditional Music in the Rhône-Alpes) and Omar El Maghrebi, a Moroccan artist and long-time Lyon resident who’s one of the key artists on the recordings.

Lyon’s not necessarily known as a key place in France for immigrants, or not like Paris and Marseille. What brought people to Lyon? Why Lyon?

Péroline Barbet: It’s economic factors that move people, but in the case of Algeria, it’s also political factors. Lyon is an industrial center, which brings people for work. It’s also a big city and a very culturally diverse city that has welcomed different waves of immigration. Like everywhere else in France, Maghrebi immigration is key, but there are also Armenian, African, Asian immigrants now. Lyon is also a zone of passage for immigrants. A lot of immigrants arrive, in the case of North Africans, at Marseille, and when they can’t set down roots in that city, they head North for Lyon or Paris. I’m not an expert on the history of North African immigration, so I can only give generalities, but it seems like most of the music industry and the cassette tapes in Lyon originate in the East of Algeria. The city of Sétif in particular, and so the most represented genres–genres are not well known in France–are the Sétifi and Chaoui genres of music.

What is Sétifi and Chaoui music? How would you describe this music?

PB: Chaoui music is berber music from the Eastern Aurès Mountains, and Sétifi music comes from around the town of Sétif. They both come from the folklore of Eastern Algeria; music for dancing and popular music.

What are the instruments used? Is this music more folkloric than, say, Raï, which uses a lot of electronic instruments?

PB: For chaoui music, voice, flute (gasba), oboe (zorna) and percussions (bendir) are typical, and sometimes the violin. But these traditional musics, mostly rural, have been mixed in France with electric music and new instruments, and reinvented. That’s why we called them on the CD “urban popular music from immigration.” There is also the Malouf Arabic-Andalusian music from Constantine, Algeria, that is more meditative, and is represented by the artist Salah El Guelmi on this compilation. Moroccan chaabi is represented by Omar El Maghrebi.

Péroline, where did you find the cassettes that made up this compilation?

PB: The project comes from a collection of cassettes that was gathered by a Lyon musician who was also a sociologist, Richard Monségu. In the 90s, he did sociological fieldwork around the musical cafes in Lyon. He studied the cafés and the communities of musicians who played in the cafes. During his fieldwork, he collected over 50 cassette tapes. Once his work was finished, he became a musician and he makes world music today. The cassettes lay dormant at his place. One day, he came with these cassettes to the CMTRA (Traditional Music Center of the Rhônes-Alpes Region). For an event in 2009, we created a little audio documentary around these cassettes, and I got a chance to discover them, listen to them, also to look at them. The covers of the cassettes showed interesting sides to the music as well. At that time, I saw that there was something interesting we could do with these cassettes. What interested me was the unique sound of the cassettes; it’s a very raw sound that is very symptomatic of the 80s. There are a lot of surprises, a lot of special moments that you wouldn’t find on a more planned-out recording by someone from outside the culture. Once I started working on this I saw that it was an enormous project. We had a couple hundred of these cassettes, but there are thousands that were published by the Lyon record labels, stores, and distribution centers. Lots of these cassettes were recorded with musicians from Lyon, but a large part of it was recorded with singers from Paris, Marseille, and stars from Algeria and Morocco who had come to Lyon for a show or for a wedding party. These stars recorded in Lyon studios while they were here and the next day the cassettes were pressed, distributed, and sold in a very rapid market. It is an economy that takes advantage of these circumstances and that establishes itself very quickly according to what’s going on at the moment.

But you didn’t put the famous musicians on this compilation?

PM: The goal was mainly to work with local resources. I decided to focus on the local musicians where music wasn’t a profession; they’d record and perform after hours from their day jobs. Workers by day, musicians by night, one foot in both worlds, the musical world and the factory.

I have some questions for Omar… Omar, you live in Lyon right? Where are you from originally?

Omar El Maghrebi: Yes, of course I live in Lyon. I’m from Morocco originally, from the South, from around Agadir. I go back every two or three years, depending. I’m always in contact with Morocco.

A lot of the musicians on the compilation come from Algeria and Tunisia. Were there many Moroccans in Lyon at the time?

OEM: There’s more of an Algerian community than a Moroccan community in Lyon. There’s a lot of people from the East of Algeria, as Péroline mentioned. There are more Moroccans in the Saint-Etienne region, because of the [coal] mines. So the Moroccans worked there, but now we’re starting to see some Moroccan communities in Lyon.

Are you playing Moroccan music on the compilation?

OEM: I do a little bit. Mostly what I do are topical songs. I don’t do covers, so these are original. I do a bit of research, and I write in between the Moroccan and the Algerian styles, I try to move between the two. I don’t play typical Moroccan music, I try to blend the two.

In this cassette era, were you playing in bars or shops?

OEM: I started performing in the bars in 1976. I write these songs on themes that correspond to the sociology of immigration. What we live between us. I’m creating an image of the Moroccan or Algerian immigrant here, and sending it to people back home.

What inspired you to do this? To be a kind of musical journalist?

OEM: First off, I loved music since I was a child and played percussion. I started at 13 years old. I played Moroccan bass, I played the darbukka, but I sang a bit too. I loved singing and once I got to France I started working, and started playing for evenings with my friends in the housing unit where we lived. We were all bachelors, and Saturday afternoons we’d pass the time hanging out and playing music. Then I met an Algerian musician, a guitarist. He was playing at the bistro in Vénissieux, a suburb of Lyon. He was playing his guitar by himself, and I started to sing and he would accompany me. We had a small group and started playing out and that’s where it all started…

But the inspiration for the songs… I studied a bit of Arabic in school, and I liked philosophy. My first inspiration was to write the song called “Ma mère” (My Mother). I’d met an older Algerian singer who was a nurse in a hospital in Lyon who sang songs that were like recitations. When I met her, she said “Why don’t you make your own songs?” And that’s where I wrote my first song.

Where did you learn to play the oud?

OEM: I started learning the oud afterwards. I was playing the bendir [a North African frame drum]. Living in Lyon, I had the chance to go often to Marseille or Paris, and I met other artists. I met a Moroccan violinist who played in the cabarets in Paris. In Lyon, we didn’t have cabarets like in Marseille or Paris. This musician told me I should learn the oud. I worked on learning the oud while also working full-time at my job.

What was your job?

OEM: I work in a factory. I’m an industrial worker. I came from Morocco to work in France.

Can you talk about your song, “J’en ai marre” (I’m Fed Up)? I loved this song and the lyrics are in French and Arabic, but what is it talking about?

OEM: The song “J’en ai marre” is a song that I wrote in the 90s because the Maghrebi community in France, at a certain point, was the target of all the political parties. Immigration became a bit of a problem in France, and everyone was talking about it. Then we had the Front National [French extreme right-wing political party] talking about immigrants, and other politicians, and I was inspired to write the song because there was too much crap being said. People were getting killed. There were a lot of problems for immigrants like police stops… I was fed up. I was fed up because I was a factory worker. For the immigrants there was nothing to do but go to work and then go home. When we went outside, we’d get stopped by the cops. After writing the song, in 1997, I had two cops who stopped me at a red light. I didn’t see them coming. They pointed their guns at me and wanted to arrest me. And that was after the song! You see, these kinds of things happened at that time. Lots of police stops, and because of that I wrote the song, just to give an idea of what it meant to be an immigrant in France.

Do you think that all those police stops at that time created a kind of insular community? Because people were afraid to go out?

OEM: The problem wasn’t being afraid to go out, the problem was being profiled. We weren’t afraid of the laws or the rules, it was that we were being profiled.

Targeted, you mean?

OEM: Yeah, exactly. That’s the word. Immigrants were targeted, they became a target for everything…

PB: Can I add something? What’s interesting about these three CDs is that they’re thematic. It’s true that love songs, party songs, and songs of exile tied to immigration are themes that run through immigrant music in France and Maghrebi music since forever, or mostly in the 1930s. On the other hand, the compilation shows that in the 80s these community-based singers started taking a position and denouncing the injustices, humiliations, and mounting racism in France. There are two factors in play, first an exasperation at not being recognized (these artists had been around since the 70s), and then there was a more tolerant political context because of the years under [French president François] Mitterand starting in 1981, which allowed a lot more tolerance. So they started allowing more, and then these songs came out. Omar, in particular, was a key songwriter. There was also a singer from Saint-Etienne, Zaïdi El Batni. There were a lot of very virulent political songs. From this came a movement of French rock coming out of immigrant communities that wasn’t like Rachid Taha. The music was different; we could say that they invented a kind of music that came from here, from Lyon.

Do you think that things are better now in France? Is there still a target on North Africans in Lyon?

OEM: The target will always be there… [long pause] The target will always be there.

So there hasn’t been much change, you think, since the 90s.

OEM: It’s up to the people themselves to change. Don’t wait for society to change, because society is waiting for you to come to it. Our generation, we have kids, and these kids are now 20, 25, or 30 years old. It’s different. So, our generation, we see differently. And the other generation, they can’t know what’s going to happen and they have a different mentality. That’s why the immigrant will always be sad and unhappy, because the idea of France that he has when he arrives will be changed by what society has in store for him. People are fragile, dear friend. They have their ideas, their structure, and then things start to crack. The child passes through the crack, the father passes through, the mother passes through, and afterwards, everyone’s trying to find themselves. Despite all this, society hasn’t changed. It’s too bad. It’s too bad because the sadness the immigrant felt at 25 or 30 years old comes back when he’s 60, even when he’s retired, because he couldn’t put anything aside to provide for himself. Target or no target, everyone has to create their own environment themselves.

Are you still playing music, Omar?

OEM: Less and less, because traditional music has less influence today. Since the arrival of pop, music is more for the youth these days, which is normal, but for me I haven’t changed directions. I stayed with traditional music, it doesn’t go very far, but it’s what carries me, you see what I’m saying? I didn’t get into techno music. I try to modernize my music a bit to satisfy people, but not that much because I want to stay in my idiom. I think I’ll get back into it when I retire, and I’ll take up the traditional music again.

PB: Omar’s part of the group of artists who resisted the synthesizers, the drum machines, the wave of modern music that the younger generations in the 80s rode on. There are a couple recordings like that on the same disc that has the song “J’en ai marre.” In particular, that song of Omar’s was recorded with the sound of that era, with reverb, with a drum machine, and all that. But, Omar explained to us the other day that this song was sped up by the demands of 1980s dance music because the producer wanted to get people dancing. That’s what producers of that era wanted. For Omar, his thing is that it’s all about the message, the lyrics, and this isn’t the case of all the other singers, but the texts of his songs make you think.

In any case, I can say that the singers today, the singers who I could meet with who still live in Lyon, all say that it’s not like it was before. It’s a recurring discourse and it’s true that the context isn’t the same anymore. There’s no more music in the cafes, because the cafes don’t play the same role of a meeting place for the community. The support for the music has evolved and the public has evolved also. The young generations speak less Arabic, so they don’t always understand the songs. The themes of the songs don’t concern them anymore, because these songs about the first wave of immigrants don’t don’t reveal their reality anymore: each generation has its own problems and challenges. On the other hand, it’s starting to come back because this CD came out in May 2014, so it’s starting to circulate a bit. I’m starting to meet young people in the second or third generation who grew up with the cassettes and who knew the singers. These people tell me how much these tapes mean to them: “This is my heritage.” These old singers didn’t leave many traces. That’s why the cassettes are so important, they’re supporting the memory and history, and they’re witnessing the past. I hope, modestly, that this will contribute to renewing and bringing back an awareness of the heritage, of the story of this immigration.

OEM: In any case, for my part, I’ve been playing at a restaurant in Lyon with my oud, and people are starting to come by to see me. They’re interested in the words, in the real music. People today are so overwhelmed, and they want to come back to reality. It’s difficult, because there are a lot of things that don’t work anymore. The new generation speaks French. You have to speak to them in a bilingual Arabic and if you sing in this language, you have to sing a lot faster, to do a bit of rock n’ roll. That’s the way it works with them, and that makes sense, because it’s their time now.

PB: The other thing about these old songs is that they use a lot of words in dialects. They’re very hard to understand and translate, because you’ll have these songs in Oranais [from Oran in Algeria] or Sétifi, with words in Chaoui, so much so that when people listen, they’ll understand some singers, but not others. It’s not only a musical diversity; it’s a diversity of languages and expressions.

OEM: That’s what the singers from here did; they were singers from various regions. Each one sang in the style of his region, with his own accent and his mannerisms. You see, if you’re Moroccan and you sing in a style from the Casablanca region, the people of Casablanca will hardly understand, and then the people from Agadir in Southern Morocco, won’t understand anything…

PB: That’s what happened in the cafes. All these regionalisms started mixing together, and with French culture as well, in the same places in Lyon and all of a sudden started influencing and changing each other. The music got blended together and the languages too. As the raï singer Rabah El Maghnaoui told me, as we were speaking about these interactions, “You spend some time with somebody, and you slowly become like him!” 

  • This post originally appeared on the author’s Kithfolk BlogThe interview was translated from French by the author and his father Louis Léger.

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