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What is French Music? Claude Debussy to Serge Gainsbourg to Rachid Taha


French music has made advances in technological mastery, originality, subtlety of expression [1].

French music, through its exploration of new fields of harmonic effect, stylistic adaptability, clarity and fineness of emotional discrimination, has exercised an influence upon the entire musical world.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, French music, largely given over to opera, had been unduly eclectic in character.

Claude Debussy is seen as the most experimental musician in French music history [2].

Debussy succeeded in drawing from a combination of tones exactly appropriate to his descriptive needs and just as characteristic as those he employed for the orchestra or for ensemble music, from his first attempts [3].

Meanwhile, Debussy’s piano music, too, has its constant poem living in it, moderating or sharpening its infectious nature, which slows down its pace making time freeze into blissful moments of melancholy.

Serge Gainsbourg

Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991) was perhaps the most iconic figure in French musical history. Gainsbourg redefined French pop, from his beginning as a cynical chansonnier and mambo-influenced jazz artist to the ironic "yé-yé" beat and lush orchestration of his 1960s work to his launching of French reggae in the 1970s to the electric funk and disco of his last albums [4].

But Gainsbourg made music with such beauties as Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin, and much of the music explored erotic themes. He was an iconic provocateur whose heavy breathing "Je t'aime moi nonplus" was banned from airwaves throughout Europe and whose reggae version of the "Marseillais" earned him death threats from the right. 

His magnum opus was his 1971 album Histoire de Melody Nelson was only 28 minutes long, and it features lavish songs that featured luxurious orchestra, sharp string stabs and treacly bass. It’s a cinematic tour de force that features a mixture of alluring pop songs that tell a story with sensual wordplay.

Rachid Taha

Rachid Taha is a postcolonial figure who moved to France at the age of 10 from Algeria. Indeed, Taha was one of the most well-known French Algerian musicians working in popular music in France [5].

He also has a considerable following in the English world. Taha’s earth shattering mixture of Rock and traditional Algerian Chaabi music expresses the experience of being identified as neither French nor Algerian while also feeling that both heritages are central to his identity as a Beur. Taha’s first group was formed in the 80s.

Carte de Séjour was a provocative band that attempted to build bridges between the Maghreb and France. It was a punk, rock Chaabi fusion band that expressed Taha’s anger at France’s racist policies.

Starting from a track on their first album, Rhorhomanie. uses phrases from Arabic, French and English. The bands provocative song Douce France was a cover of Charles Trenet patriotic song of the same name.

The North African twist that Taha and his band members sprinkled into the song infuriated nationalists, but it solidified Taha’s status as an activist who spoke for immigrants. In the early 90s, Taha started a solo career and offered unique covers of Dahmane al Harrachi’s song Ya Rayah and The Clash’s Rock the Casbah.

Taha was known for his eclecticism. In the 1970s, he founded the nightclub The Rejects, where he was a DJ who was mixing Oum Kalthoum with Kraftwerk, which was something unprecedented and revolutionary at that time.

His music is full of anger at French colonialism, Arab corruption and religious fundamentalism. His music features an eccentric range of genres, as he mixes rock, rai, Algerian chaabi, rumba pop, electronica, punk, techno and dance.

On his CD's, this translates to a blissful mix of anger and melancholy. Taha reimagined what is possible in the realm of so called "world music". He has created a cosmopolitan dialogue that tears down borders and creates a utopian world that is without corruption and injustice. Taha is a humane visionary who imagines a world filled with love and culture.


[1] Hill, Edward Burlingame. Modern French Music. London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1924. [2] Kelly, Barbara L. French music, culture, and national identity, 1870-1939. Vol. 54. University Rochester Press, 2008. [3] Cortot, Alfred. The piano music of Claude Debussy. J. & W. Chester, 1922. [4] Verlant, Gilles. Gainsbourg: The Biography. TamTam Books, 2012. [5] Stratton, Jon. "Rachid Taha and the postcolonial presence in French popular music." Performing Islam 1, no. 2 (2013): 185-206


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