Marseille-based outfit is multiculturalism in action.
Louis Pattison 2011
Multiculturalism has become something of a hot-button topic in recent times, both in the UK, where David Cameron has declared state multiculturalism "failed", and in France, where the state has worked to legislate against Muslim women wearing veils. Against such a fractious backdrop, a group like Marseille-based Watcha Clan cannot help but represent something more than a simple pop band.
Bringing together vocalist Sista K, the daughter of a Jewish Polish mother and an Berber freedom-fighter father, with a cast of musicians from the French Alps, Corsica and Algeria, this group are multiculturalism in action. And by calling their new album Radio Babel – a reference to the Biblical city of Babel, where all the languages of the world were spoken – they posit the blurring of cultural boundaries as a central facet of their work.
The blending of distinct musical styles, however, is a parallel issue, and while crossbreeding can be a driving force for innovation, it can also have a diluting effect. We hear both on Radio Babel, which flings together live instrumentation with dance beats, Balkan brass and Sephardic folk with dubstep and drum’n’bass at speed.
There are some broadly successful fusions. With or Without the Wall fuses Tinariwen-like desert blues guitars and thudding breakbeats, a combination of lyrics and samples offering a critique of the Israeli West Bank barrier. Im Nin’Alu, featuring Merlin Shepherd on clarinet and duduk, is a take on an ancient Hebrew poem that cuts up the vocal and adds a spot of pneumatic dubstep wobble in the process. Gypsy Dust, meanwhile, sets Balkan brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia centre stage for a raucous workout augmented by occasional d’n’b percussion.
For all the skill of its participants, however, Radio Babel sometimes veers off course. Hasnaduro’s conflation of Arabic song with crunchy nu-metal guitars is an odd fit, while the trip-hoppish We Are One brings some rather platitudinous lyrics ("Nobody owns the land / Land is free so why wars, why borders?") to the table. Of course, this is less a symptom of the flaws of multiculturalism than an illustration of the difficulties inherent in mixing slogan and song. With Radio Babel, sometimes you feel it’d be best to let the music do the talking.