Rough Guide to Barbès, paris
Despite its proximity to the Moulin Rouge and Sacré Coeur, the Parisian neighbourhood of Barbès is relatively unknown outside of the Francophone world. Centered on the Boulevard de la Chapelle in the southern part of the Goutte d'Or area, the thronging exterior of the Barbès-Rochechouart metro station kicks off any visit with a lively welcome.
Barbès first entered the popular cultural imaginary via Émile Zola's 1877 novel ‘L'Assommoir’ (The Drinking Den), in which he portrayed a depraved and destitute working-class community. residents has changed due to post-war and postcolonial migration patterns, rendering it a microcosm of the characterful and
varied Francophone pockets of the African continent.
Consequently, it has become a hub of international music. An established haunt of visiting and exiled musicians, as well as fertile ground for the development of Western musical styles among younger artists, it particularly favours those who, like the neighbourhood itself, borrow comfortably from multiple genres and identities.
Underground Raï Love – Mohamed Lamouri
As a grumpy, unyielding urbanite I do my best to glaze over and stare at the ground when a busker appears. The Parisian variety are often miming, which I have little respect for, and competing with the dulcet tones of whatever pseudointellectual podcast I’ve got stuck in my ears. The one busker I am willing to make an exception for is Mohamed Lamouri, an Algerian-born singer who graces the métro ligne 2 armed with a synth tucked under his elbow. Ligne 2 connects Barbès to its equally animated, cosmopolitan neighbours, with a good deal of its route going overland, enabling a bird’s-eye view of much of the 18th, the chosen arrondissement of undocumented migrants and gentrifiers alike. Lamouri’s far-ranging repertoire includes renditions of North African, Andalusian, and American songs – a fitting accompaniment to the view.
RDV Barbès – Orchestre National de Barbès
Orchestre National de Barbès’ name highlights the area’s standing as a ‘nation’ in and of itself, although I would take this a step further and say its diversity makes it representative of an entire continent. Don’t be fooled by the word orchestra in the name – the group has existed since 1995 and have a discography that expands far beyond classical music, incorporating rock, bossa nova, gnaoua, reggae, funk and raï, many of which feature in this number.
Parisien du Nord – Cheb Mami ft. K-Mel
Despite the geographical vagueness of the ‘nord’ (North) in the title, there’s an implicit understanding that this song refers to a specific neighbourhood – Barbès – to which the song provides the perfect soundtrack. In it, pre-eminent raï (Algeria's
most widely consumed genre of popular music) singer Cheb Mami partners with rapper K-Mel, bridging generational listening preferences and pre-empting the wave of ‘Raï‘n’B fever’ that would emerge a few years after this song’s release.
Sapés Comme Jamais – Maître Gims ft. Niska
After a rather disconcerting start – the first line goes ‘On casse ta porte, c'est la Gestapo’ (We’re breaking down your door, it’s the Gestapo’) – this anthem nonchalantly continues onto lyrics that celebrate a bunch of designer brands… Disconcertingly, French rap is full of casual references to the Holocaust which reflect
the need for conversation around anti-Semitism which is often (reductively) blamed solely on the nation’s Muslim population. A thorough discussion about the intersection of rap, anti-Semitism and the French penchant for selective liberte d’expression (freedom of expression) can be found here.
"The music video for this song is a good watch if you ever wanted to see a grown man dress as a zebra or ride a white horse in light-up trainers"
Neither of the artists are from Barbès, but the neighbourhood is the unofficial European HQ of La Sapé which the song pays homage to. La Sape (the Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People) is a stunningly flamboyant Congolese movement dedicated to immaculate, suave
dressing and flaunting luxury brands. Members use dressing up as a means of spiritual and social elevation, which has been theorised (coucou Western anthropologists!) to be a response to the stark living conditions resulting from the country’s civil conflict. It has found a second home in Barbès, thanks to the area’s plenitude of fabric shops, world class tailors, and very own sapeurs who adorn its streets. The music video for this song (below) exhibits some of this and is also a good watch if you ever wanted to see a grown man dress as a zebra or ride a white horse in light-up trainers. Though as an #aesthete I prefer Solange’s Losing You as a visual showcase of the subculture…
Undaground Connexion – Assassin ft. Supernatural
Assassin are one of the standout pioneers of French hip hop and also one of the first to represent the 18th arrondissement. This catchy critique of Babylon is among the earliest and most noteworthy collaborations between a Francophone rap act and a US artist. Despite the immense reserve of talent among French rappers, language barriers continue to limit their sphere of influence and potential for collaboration. This rare example is
undoubtedly, as @drixStalker on YouTube summarises, ‘une bombe intemporel, classique de rap francais à l’ancienne’ (a timeless, old-school French rap classic).
Le Jour du Trente et Un – Boubacar Traoré
"In France 90% of streets are named after men, with precedence given to eugenicists, colonialists and warmongerers"
Traoré’s repertoire is rooted in the traditional Mandé music of the former Mali empire,
which has graced us with the kora, the balafon and the djembe. However, he prefers a guitar and combines this foundation with Arabo-Andalusian and bluesy inflections, resulting in a musical style that reflects the wider geo-histories of the African diaspora. Starting out as a highly popular musician in 1960s Mali, ‘Karkar’, as he is affectionately known, fell out of favour when a coup d’état led to a repressive political regime change. Out of work, he migrated to France as a widower to support his six children, finding employment in construction and living a modest life in Barbès. Two decades later, a series of serendipitous events meant his fortune would change, as his old music was revived, and he returned to his previous career. The fact that as well as touring North America, he has been able to return to France and sell out venues such as La Cigalle, minutes away from his former stomping ground Barbès, make for a pleasant full circle. You can learn more about his
trajectory in this well-paced and heart-warming documentary showcasing both his musical talent and charm.
Guendouzi Mama – Cheikha Remitti
In France 90% of streets are named after men, with precedence given to eugenicists, colonialists, and warmongers. In an effort to rectify this, the state has been attempting to diversify street names and in Barbès Place Cheikha-Remitti has recently been unveiled. The singer and multi-instrumentalist, whose prolific career spanned over six decades, continuously defied and broadened the boundaries for female artists in the Arab world. A bar singer, she earnt the nickname ‘Rimitti’ due to her catchphrase ‘remettez’ (pour another round). She remains a national treasure in Algeria where she, like many residents of Barbès, hails from. Her life and legacy merit more than this short paragraph and are explored in more depth here by one of my favourite Instagram accounts, @theconfusedarab.
Ya Rayeh – Dahmane El Harrachi & Rachid Taha (cover)
More a sung fable than a song, ‘Ya Rayah’ translates roughly as ‘you, the one leaving’ and it laments the purgatorial condition of the economic migrant. It is an example of Dahmane El Harrachi seamlessly reworking chaâbi (popular North African folk music) in a context vastly different from its origins – that of post-war France’s austere working-class neighbourhoods (like Barbès, where he spent much of his time). Originally a classic enjoyed by the Maghrebi community, it became popular among the wider French public when Rachid Taha recorded a cover more than two decades after its initial release, suggesting the perennial appeal of the song.