This is What France Sounds Like

Acid Arab’s Jdid

Acid Arab’s second album Jdid is a blast. Like its 2016 predecessor Musique de France it draws equally from different electronic dance subgenres of the 1980s and 1990s and a wide range of vocal and instrumental music from North Africa and the Middle East. But this time, the portmanteau aspect of their tracks feels less random.

Recontextualising their culture. Arab family, Neukölln.
Recontextualising their culture. Arab family, Neukölln.

Part of that has to do with the increasingly collaborative nature of their art.

For Jdid, long-time DJs Guido Minisky and Hervé Carvalho worked with Sofiane Saidi, Cem Yildiz, Amel Wahby and others changing their approach to fusion. Instead of acting like tourists wandering through some sonic medina, they have become better acquainted with the people who pass their time there.

Jdid also seems more mindful of the complex history behind their EDM sources. The finished product has a more curatorial aura. This is one case in which less is more, since we are able to hear what they are borrowing and, to some extent, why.

Nevertheless, Acid Arab’s music is not an innocent pleasure. Their basic move, repeated over and over, still requires collapsing the distinction between cultural and historical distance.

While it is easy to understand why musicians in the West might want to perceive the music of Europe’s predominantly Muslim periphery through a 1990s aesthetic, the seeming disregard for everything that has happened since is troubling.

To be sure, culture from North Africa and the Middle East was nowhere near as peripheral as white Europeans tended to think in the immediate wake of the Cold War. If they were able to appreciate its “exotic” qualities, it was because they refused to acknowledge its literal and figurative proximity.

By titling their first record Musique de France, Acid Arab demonstrated greater awareness of how their homeland had changed than was typical twenty-five years before.

Yet the fact that its tracks often sound as if they could have been made back then complicates the notion that the sounds white people in France were once taught to think of as exotic are as French as Edith Piaf and Serge Gainsbourg.

Although Jdid feels more integrated, both culturally and conceptually, it doesn’t break enough new ground to solve this problem.

Indeed, it is possible to conclude that Acid Arab is deliberately conjuring nostalgia for an era when it was still possible to regard North Africa and the Middle East as a source of musical condiments, a way of spicing up electronic dance music that had become bland and repetitive.

There’s no denying that it is preferable to love foreign cultures for their strangeness than to hate them for that reason. People who are willing to immerse themselves in what they do not understand are less likely to promote physical or psychological violence against the Other than those who fear being contaminated by it.

But the impulse to fetishize, however passionately felt, still has a tendency to flatten complex realities into objects of fantasy.

Despite Jdid’s collaborative dimension, the material that Minisky and Carvalho use from what used to be called the Orient is decontextualised to an unsettling degree. The dominant impression is that they are invested in its ornamental dimension without fully grasping the structure that underlies it.

Although Acid Arab makes music that is undeniably great for dancing, it would be better if we also regarded it as music for thinking.

As the past decade has demonstrated, the arguments Edward Said made in his landmark 1978 book Orientalism have lost none of their relevance. We are a long way from being able to regard them with the same nostalgia as electronic dance music of the 1990s.

In that light, it’s a shame that 2018’s Gul l’Abi, Acid Arab’s collaboration with Israel’s A-WA, didn’t make it onto Jdid. In many ways, it dispenses with the self-consciousness that weighs down most of Jdid‘s otherwise excellent tracks.

Perhaps because A-WA comes from a context that speaks a political language similar to that of French multiculturalism.

Native Arabic speakers, with roots in both Yemen and Ukraine, their regionalism possesses a more realistic worldliness to it that Acid Arab so often forget to include in their music.

Here’s to a little bit more of that, next time.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.