What happens when veteran Kabylian star Idir teams up with the hottest young acts on the French rap and R&B scene to record a collective album? Everyone thinks it’s a clever marketing move, an attempt to cash in on the vogue for duets that has dominated the French record industry in recent years. But Idir’s project is more socially and politically committed than that. La France des couleurs, an album which gives a voice to France’s rainbow nation, may be musically patchy in places but it serves a noble cause.
This new album sets itself apart with amazing collaboration pieces and lyrics. Here, Idir plays with some of the hottest names in the French hip hop and R ‘n B scenes, including Akhenaton, Daniel Manu and Guizmo (of Tryo), Nâdiya, Noa, Oxmo Puccino, and many more.
How did the idea of working on an album of duets with young artists from the rap and R&B scene come about?
Idir: It was pure chance really. We happened to be at the record company HQ one day having lunch with Valérie Michelin. And she told me that Rim K, a singer from the group 113, liked my stuff and really wanted to meet me … Valérie went on to say that a lot of youngsters talked to her about my music, in fact. And that’s where the basic idea for the album came from. We ended up making a list of people (that I could do duets with). Some of them I knew already, but there were others that I was a lot less familiar with because this is obviously a totally different world to mine. As I came to meet the different artists involved in the project I realised, much to my surprise, that they were really into the idea of working with me.
Originally, we thought about calling the album GénérationS. But when I was getting ready to record with Rim K and Sniper, the producer asked me what exactly I wanted to say. And I told him I wanted to talk about France as a rainbow nation. I said I wanted it to be like “la France des couleurs défendant les couleurs de la France”- “coloured France defending the colours (i.e. flying the flag) for France.” And that became a sort of leitmotiv for me throughout the album, guiding the choice of themes.
And you went on to construct the entire album around that central theme of coloured France defending the colours of France, making this, it has to be said, a pretty political album…
The album’s political, but only in the sense that it paints a picture of French society the way it is now – and in the sense that that picture throws up a number of questions and opens up a number of debates. But it’s absolutely not political in the party sense of the term…
Correct me if I’m wrong but the young generation of singers who step behind the microphone on your album paint a portrait of a very different kind of France than the one you found on your arrival, don’t they?
And their vision is all the more different from mine because I’m not French by nationality. I did harbour a few doubts about the project at first, but as we point out on the album, you come from the country where you’re loved. France adopted me and gave me things that I feel like giving back today. I don’t have to be French to love France and its children. I have two countries: Algeria which gave me my origins, my history, and France which, in its own way, has given a meaning to my life.
Given your special relationship with France, did you recognise yourself in the songs written by the artists on the album?
Well, some of them are obviously protesting about things that don’t concern me. And, yes, at certain moments I did have to rein them in a bit… I don’t have the same sense of anger and revolt as Sinik, a young singer whose father is Kabylian and whose mother is French and who was excluded in his homeland for being a half-caste. My role on the album was to accompany the artists and give a little bit of myself in the process. When Akhénaton brings up a subject like Jerusalem, well that fits in with the vision of “coloured France” too, whether you’re a Jew or a Muslim. The main difficulty for me with this project was trying to avoid being the outsider looking in. The best way of showing how I loved this country was showing how sincerely I share things with other people, independently of whether they’re from the left or right side of the political spectrum. This album is addressed to everyone.
Did you know all the artists who ended up featuring on La France des Couleurs?
Well, I was obviously familiar with the work of a fair number of the artists who feature on the album. Having children means you know all the big names. I knew Sinik, Oxmo Puccino… and obviously a rapper like Akhénaton. But I came to discover others through the project… The only thing I knew about Saïan Supa Crew prior to the album was their hit Angela. Funnily enough, they were the first artists I met on the project… And I discovered intelligence and sensibilities that I had never imagined. I have to admit that at certain moments, I did have a bit of a caricatured view of things, just because I didn’t know enough about the scene…I certainly didn’t expect to find such a hotbed of creativity.
Were you systematically involved in the elaboration of every track?
Yes. There were only two or three where I wasn’t. There was a real meeting of minds, a real exchange with the artists. Grand Corps Malade told me that he came to see me in concert in Saint-Denis with his mates. We ended up talking about life on the housing estates in the suburbs and we both thought there ought to be a bit more greenery out there… Things moved on to religion after that and I asked him to write a song about a Muslim father putting aside dogma, tradition and religious clichés in an attempt to lay himself bare and communicate with his daughter. That’s where the idea for Lettre à ma fille (Letter to My Daughter) came from. It’s one of the most important tracks on the album, a song that underlines the fact that you have to have a secular element in society.
On the other hand, it was Disiz la Peste who came up with the idea for his contribution. He started talking about Senegalese infantrymen (who fought for the French) during the war. One of his uncles was an infantryman and two of my grandfather’s brothers were killed – one in the Vosges, one at Verdun – so the subject was very close to our hearts. All I did on that song was add my vocals, nothing else, but the lyrics struck a chord with events in my own life. I feel that with this album I served a concept, but I totally assume it even if at times the subject matter strayed from my own universe… This isn’t the United Colours of Idir. The album’s called La France des couleurs – it’s a sincere reflection of the country as it is right now!
Do you think at the end of the day the album was more difficult for you than the others?
Yes, in the sense that I was worried about not being up to scratch, not finding the right words or hitting wide of the mark. I think I often hid behind a theme. But at the end of the day whether people love certain songs or hate them, the concept works – and, more than that, it’s a vital one!
Idir La France des Couleurs (Sony/BMG) 2007
Idir and the artists featured on La France des couleurs will be performing at Le Zénith, in Paris, on 19 October 2007
Translation : Julie Street