“Marseilles isn't a city for tourists. There's nothing to see. Its beauty can't be photographed. It can only be shared. It's a place where you have to take sides, be passionately for or against. Only then can you see what there is to see. And you realize, too late, that you're in the middle of a tragedy. An ancient tragedy in which the hero is death. In Marseilles, even to lose you have to know how to fight.”
Sale Caractère - which translates roughly to “dirty character”(or personality) came out in June this year, after a seven year hiatus by Massilia Sound System. This group of gentlemen have been playing together since 1982, so the camaraderie expressed in the album is the real deal, and they take their roles as socio-political troubadours very seriously indeed. The band mixes dub, ragamuffin, reggae with lyrics in French and Occitan- a mix they refer to as trobamuffin- to create urgent, passionate music about the city and the contemporary ills that plague this most spirited of places.
“Stories and tales, the basket’s full/ Stories of shepherds, of sailors, of labourers/ Prayers of witches, secrets of buccaneers/ All this will served for that big night/ The struggles flowing in the blood of our elders/Old war cries, calls from the ancients/ Whiffs of brandy, smiles, high spirits/ It’s the big night we’ve gotta get the energy goin'” - lyrics from “Uei” (Today)
This album is a full-on critique of social injustices and inequities mixed with a profound love for Marseilles – a place I know well, and have been missing greatly during Covid- and this album provided a sunlit, socially conscious, musical reminder. Founded in 600 BC by the Phocaean Greeks as Massilia, it is one of Europe’s oldest settlements and the oldest city in France.
Marseilles is a port city famous for its heat, a unique bouillon of culture, a special fish soup with spicy rouille sauce, and for being rough, rowdy, and deeply cosmopolitan. It has a reputation for organized crime and macho swagger and boasts an astonishing mix of Mediterranean cultures. This is a place where Arab, Italian, Manush, African, Provençal and global maritime influences jostle. Like all great port cities, it boasts a fascinating history and checkered past. It’s vantage point to the sea is breathtaking with huge container ships and massive cruise vessels replacing the more picturesque wooden boats that once streamed in and out of the Vieux Port.
My favorite song -“Drôles De Poissons” (Strange Fish) - which echoes Abel Meeropol’s song/ poem “Strange Fruit” made famous by Billie Holiday- references the all-too-common situation of unseaworthy boats crammed with desperate refugees wrecking in the waves:
“Strange fish in the sea /They look as if they’re alive. /They’re floating, stomach up/Tossed by the currents/ Strange fish in the sea/ Small fish, big fish /Some are perhaps fathers/ Others look like children./The great container ships/ Don’t like going through their shoals/And the cruise liners/ Ignore them magnificently/Strange fish in the sea/ There are more than a hundred/ They float face up, face down/ Tossed on the swell, indifferent/ Some have their eyes open/ Some are covered with blood/Strange fish in the sea/ Wearing clothes.”
This is one album you really need to read the lyrics to. Sale Caractère is an extremely word-based effort, full of biting commentary and a heady mix of anger and joy. At turns crude and poetic it is a collection of rants addressing wealth inequality, homelessness, violence and the capitalist system. It is not always very nuanced, as in “Lo Mercat” (The Market):
“Capitalism is a disease That destroys our humanity… The Earth is a dump, They have burned our house, The sea is a sewer, Profit is always right. The super-rich and the bankers/ Always greedy for money, Shitty shareholders, Killers of the little people... Now that the scientists/ Are warning us about extinction, Now it’s urgent/ That we find solutions, Now I remember it, it’s coming back, To find happiness again, the old dream of the oldies: Kick out all the profiteers”
I found myself wondering who exactly this record was aimed at. It is so specifically about Marseilles itself – could it have durable appeal to those outside that location?
Massilia Sound System offer themselves and their music as a kind of rallying point against the various social imbalances and harsh realities that plague most contemporary urban spaces but is also so deeply peppered with very detailed references to themselves, places, various historic events and people, that I do wonder about its wider appeal.
But then again: most of us are forced - via necessary global pandemic bans- to stay put and armchair travel, voyaging vicariously through the arts, through food, through film and music. So maybe something that speaks so loudly of a certain place is perhaps more welcome than ever? It offers a glimpse of something real, something relatable.
Alas, the world is small, and our stories are manifold but oft repeated narratives. News everywhere is full of tragedies involving migrants in leaking boats, the ruthless privileges of the 1% at the expense of everyone else, the rise of tyranny over democracy, the relentless machine of global capitalism blithely ignoring all warnings of the climate crisis, and, of course, the endless rising numbers and battles of the homeless, disenfranchised and left behind. People betrayed by those systems charged with protecting us all.
So on second thought, actually: pretty relatable, regardless of how uncomfortable I am with the violence.
It is worth noting that France has a long tradition of musical hard-core leftists. It is not for nothing that the national anthem- “The Marseillaise”- a bloodthirsty battle cry sung by the volunteer Marseille armies marching in Paris- was adopted during the Russian Revolution as “The Workers’ Marseillaise.” This album draws from that tradition, updating and echoing it with rousing songs that veer towards the directly violent, particularly the title track “Sale Caractère“ which also invokes Victor Hugo for good measure:
“Are we able to control our temper all the time? Is it even a good idea? is it always wise? Am I pathetic when I get angry? For a good or honourable cause, when necessary, When someone is an arsehole and tries to get up my nose/ And when, without good reason, they tread on my toes/ Sometimes it’s better to let me get angry, To let me go and punch their lights out /Yeah, we should be charitable, but what’s charity? Some people just can’t cope with it, don’t want to give anything away. Remember Les Misérables…”
Sale Caractère’s imagery and songs are a raw, oddly festive mix, good for singing along to while doing chores, bouncy even. The imagery in the booklets echo this: solidarilty and friendship, camaraderie, making faces! Black and white photos of heads mingle in a design that offers scrawly hand drawn confetti and a typeface that veers towards comic sans. This is dominated by an ebullient pig-tailed gamine as the central album mascot- making a moue, sticking out her tongue, laughing. Bad behavior as a joyful healthy sign of humanity in the face of greed.
Despite the reggae vibes, the ghost of Georges Brassens looms musically large here- with all the serious subject matter this is wry humor with scatological scatterings and a delight in cursing- so not really rated-G listening. And yet beauty and hope live here too:
"On a summer’s night when the mercury’s way up/We saw it fly away in a spiral through the hot air/ A pretty song that everyone wanted to sing/ And the chorus line was “Long live solidarity.” /Blasting out of the speakers of a furious sound system/ Playing good ol’ reggae, playing the music we love/ It followed its path and suddenly disappeared /Around the bend to the left, over there at the corner of the street. /In the halls, the corridors, in the attics and in the courtyards, /You can see people dancing wherever it goes…”
Despite liking it, I find I do not want a steady musical diet of this. After repeated listenings, I put it away for a bit. Like its namesake, it is harsh, sunny, salty, fishy and a bit rude. Rich and strong tastes churn through this album. Sale Caractère offers a deep dive with a historic and a complex background. Looking through their extensive bio I noted that intriguingly, Massilia Sound System do, in fact, have a movie- a documentary, released in 2017, which is now on my watchlist. Marseilles is an acquired taste, a particular flavor, one which I both miss and mourn as I listen.
We would like life to be beautiful/That it would stay beautiful forever/Sometimes it becomes cruel/And we say that everything is seeping away/ It’s like a game of hopscotch/ When you move forward by hopping/You go from earth to heaven/We live all that in the present/When your world falls apart/Is it the end or a new beginning?/ Difficult to say/But you’d going to have to do it, sooner or later.
Find the band online.
"Massilia Sound System: Le Film"
Moussu T e lei Jovents
Daniel Malavergne, Patrick Vaillant and Manu Théron
Lamia Bèdioui and the Desert Fish