Aïcha – Celebrating Diversity


cultural diversity


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As with photographs, music has the ability , as a kind of universal language, to express directly and simply a range of emotions and ideas, bring back memories through association and can work in such positive ways without the barrier of language difference. As a professional photographer I describe myself as “polycentric”, that is to say with a kind of childlike eye I have held onto throughout my life which does not discriminate or merely work within a narrow range of subjects but finds the joy and positives in all things around me whether taking images for my own pleasure or working to meet the needs of clients from various walks of life and helping promote their interests.

I take the same childlike joy in listening to music of all sorts from all places and cultures.  Sometimes too as with music , images can impact so strongly , help articulate ideas and promote understanding where words alone fall short. The phenominum of how music can impact on us , even unite us,  has always interested me  and here I want to examine just one song which is important to me , holds fond memories but also shows how art can contribute to change whether it is photography  or music. It is not uncommon to witness festivals and recorded live concerts where the audience sings every word along with the artist as if the mood and sentiments of the song have articualted things they think and feel and with which they identify.

The song I am thinking  right now about isn’t even in my native language but I learned the entire lyrics and each time I hear it it raises my spirits not just because of its personal associations or that I know a lot about its origins and significance to the singer and the writer but simply the sheer joi de vivre on the face and in the tone of voice of the artist performing it who, instead of physically fighting injustice through violence, sang about it in the most subtle way and transcended language and race to become a European smash.

Happy teaching days when I specialised in teaching French to  children in an inner city special school with a variety of often complex special needs & I remember singing  a song which combined French and Arabic  by the Algerian singer and sometimes political  activist Khaled , the song ” Aïcha” , sung joyfully all the way through, out loud with disadvantaged teens at special school disco, at the charity funded IME (Institut Médico-Éducatif)  in the North of Paris in Saint Ouen ( the docklands area of Paris) during one of  a series of educational exchanges I organised. This is one of my favourite songs  and let me explain why because whilst essentially a simple love song it has so much more significance. Here is a link to a video of the full length version of the song.

Aïcha  – sung by Khaled


Photography can be a valuable tool in recording and informing cultural differences and commonalities.

Photography can be a valuable tool in recording and informing cultural differences and commonalities.

The IME was unusual , actually set up by a charity where ,  in France,  special schools based in towns are very rare ( most kids are shipped out to regional centres under the control of the medical profession in the main and where there seemed to be tension between medical practioners and educators) but also, being what was the docklands area of Paris, it had a very broad range of ethnic groups notably of Arab descent and many  from Algeria, Morocco. Immediately noticeable that the class and indeed the school had a disproportionately high number of kids from Arab speaking homes and many  with relatively disadvantaged  and marginalised backgrounds.

With some of the Saint Ouen Twinning Committee helping on their association's stall  during the town's annual muitl-cultural celebrations.

With some of the Saint Ouen Twinning Committee helping on their association’s stall during the town’s annual muitl-cultural celebrations.

Saint Ouen has a special place in my heart and for a number of years I was associated with co-operative town twinning ventures . That link was set up after the second world war in a spirit of working together between nations and cultures  to ensure that peace and understanding reigned and as an antidote to conflict, lack of respect for differences that helped fuel that war.

town twinning

Significantly the town celebrates diversity annually with its town fair where associations representing  every ethnic community gather together for a fun weekend and this is a town which has been run by the communist party for years doing great things for all its citizens.

With French  town twinning friends - direct dialogue breaks down all barriers.

With French town twinning friends – direct dialogue breaks down all barriers.

(As well as school exchange trips I also travelled there on different cultural exchanges over several visits with fellow committee members fron the City of Salford and also helped host events for our French counterparts on their visits here. On my first visit my French was relatively poor and yet I had to make a very brief speech in French. But by the third year I was able to make a presentation at the Saint Ouen Town Hall in front of several hundred guests  and managed quite a long and impromptu speech  having made so much progress in my spoken French people commented on it and was by then bi-lingual and as  comfortable in the language as my own. On another ocassion I took it upon myself to do some PR for my city taking a significant amount of merchandise from the city’s tourism shop to Saint Ouen taking it in my car.

Using and respecting different  languages enriches interactions with others.

Using and respecting different languages enriches interactions with others.

Of course sadly, for the French, it is still relatively uncommon to find English folks either able or willing to  speak French whereas I thought and still think it is discourteous to presume the world and his friend speaks English and it is important to show rezpect for different cultures by at least trying to learn a little of the language. Of course any effort in this area is alwlays appreciated and however good you get likely it is going to be obvious you are English but that adds to the positives in trying  and errors in grammar and gender will always be forgiven and possibly ocassionally gently corrected !   )

Music is a language that is common to us all and direclty communicates in ways beyond the mere words of song

Music is a language that is common to us all and direclty communicates in ways beyond the mere words of song

So there we were in the disco with all the kids and me amongst it singing along- should there be anything remarkable about an English teacher from Salford having fun and singing along with kids in French and Arabic ? It is certainly one way of showing respect for people of  any age and their culture. I also fondly remember singing it as we drove around Paris in the Town’s official coach with kids from my own school and Saint Ouen’s and also when I drove the French children in our own school minibus when they visited our school here.

The song was written as a collaboration between the French song writer composer, Jean Jaques Goldman  and the muslim , Arab /French speaking Algerian singer Khaled . Goldman had an  immigrant Polish Jewish father  and a German Jewish mother. Khaled left Algeria for his own safety where fundamentalists outlawed and persecuted musicians. Ostensibly a love song , Achïa  (“Reine de Sabbat” in the lyrics  – Queen of the Sahara) is full of political irony and patriotism but also defiance.  Khaled had amazing success with this single and it grabbed the attention, of course, of Arab speaking minorities including marginalised , mostly muslim, immigrants from the African continent  around the world but also was able to cross over and be embraced by a much wider audience.


Khaled is a charismatic singer and Achïa is for me enchanting and full of infectious joy and testament to the defiance and durability of the human spirit against repression and persecution. It was a major hit across Europe. What is even more impressive is that in France, where the extreme right have quite a grip, the song won the prestigious annual “Victoires de La Musique”  for song of the year in 1997  and album of that year and well as earning him Artist of the Year in 1995.

cultural diversity

According to Goldman when he worked on the lyrics on behalf of Khaled , he had intended it initially as a snub to a Jewish Arab ally of the French National Front. Goldman had decided to work with Khaled because not only his voice and musicality but also his personal courage for his stance on Islam in the face of extremist institutionalised aggression at home in its relationship  with music and the very real danger of being killed performing and promoting “westernised” music. I  included a link to  not one of the three versions I have at home of this great song  but the moment when Khaled took the stage in front of French TV singing live  at the 1997 Victoires de La Musique awards ceremony, clearly rather nervous at the start of the song when , completely unknown to him, Jean- Jaques came on stage and went into a duet with him. Goldman holds back the mike when Khaled sings the last verse in his native Arabic but Goldman can be heard singing phrases in Arabic from the song with Khaled in the reprise .  His appearance on stage is clearly an act of respect, empathy ,affection and above all a public display of solidarity  and fraternity with an artist from a different race and nation who so often have been marginalised in France.  (Follow this link to the You tube video of that meeting at the awards and their duet – the sound isn’t great – scroll on to 47 seconds to hear them duet.  Khaled & JJ Goldman)

cultural diversity



cultural diversity

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