If ever there was a group that reflected the area from which they hail, it's Orchestre National de Barbès, the collective which claims the multicultural Parisian quarter after which they are named as a nation in its own right and pays tribute to the area's tough, bustling diversity with a thick stew of spicy Arabic-French rock music.
North Africa provides the main foundation for the sound, more specifically Algeria (where the principle members' roots belong), so rock clashes with chaâbi, soukous guitars augment tight gnawa grooves, whilst Rai's urban rebellion and a streak of inner-city radicalism run like threads through most of the songs (the semi-acerbic anti-ID cards attack song Residence hits its target with a particularly satisfying Congolese-guitar-led élan).
The album opens at ninety-miles-an-hour with the hard-rockin' Civilise and speeds up from there, rattling between Arabic and French language songs driven by relentless beats and the twin electric guitar attack of Fathellah Ghoggal and Khlif Miziallaoua.
Most songs work from a Taha-esque dark-glasses-and-leather-trouser rai-rock template - although Fatah Benlala' vocals are more cool Khaled than rough Rachid - but there's a distinct Parisian influence as well, not least on La Rose on which a waltzing java accordion pushes along a jaunty, ironically delivered sing-along-a-love-song.
There's only one real bum note (if we pass over a barely-passable French-language cover of the Stones' Sympathy for the Devil) in Madame, more shabby than chaâbi in its crude plastic punkiness, and it is to be hoped that this song (and the album's general leaning towards a more rock-orientated edge than previously) doesn't signal too much of a change in future direction. It's true to say that admirers of the Orchestre National de Barbès of old might be slightly disappointed at the loss of many of the rootsier elements of the band's sound (there's nothing on the album that comes close to the gloriously hypnotic desert blues title-track of Poulina, for example) but with the flame of originality still burning strong, there's plenty here of interest for now.
UK distribution via Discovery Records
This review first appeared in fRoots magazine.