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"We who live by rock and rai and accordion/On the periphery of commercial hits" is a line from Zebda's hometown portrait Toulouse and that's a pretty accurate capsule description of where the French band fronted by three second-generation North African immigrants fits among the Euro-mix crew. Rough-and-ready ragamuffin reggae and rapid-fire rapped vocals, Arabic flourishes, touches of French café accordion, a savvy command of dynamics, and well-constructed arrangements smoothly blending those elements into a distinctive whole complete the musical picture. Zebda never lost touch with the Toulouse neighborhood roots that nourished its biting social commentaries and street-life portrayals, using its popularity and influence to stage cultural and political initiatives back in the 'hood. Zebda (which means butter in Arabic) formed in 1985 to provide the soundtrack for a music video put out by a neighborhood group in Toulouse. Lyricist/vocalist Magyd Cherfi recruited guitarist Pascal Cabero, bassist Joel Saurin, and drummer Vincent Sauvage from his school friends and roped in brothers Mustapha Amokrane and Hakim Amokrane to fill out the tag-team vocal squad. The band kept playing sporadically at neighborhood functions, but re-formed seriously in 1988 with keyboard player Rémi Sanchez completing a lineup that has remained constant ever since. With the Clash, the Specials, James Brown, and Mano Negra among its main influences, the septet developed a strong following playing at small bars and cafés around Toulouse and throughout southwest France. A triumphant April 1990 performance at the prestigious Springtime in Bourges festival in central France brought Zebda to national attention and led to a tour of France, Italy, and England that year. Zebda then signed with Barclay and its 1992 debut Arene des Rumeurs won widespread acclaim for militant lyrics meshed with humor and its multi-faceted sound. After hitting the national tour circuit again, Zebda staged a major festival in 1993 in poorer sectors of Toulouse that featured several other bands, including major French rockers Noir Desir.
Released in 1995, the hard-hitting Le Bruit et L'Odeur (The Noise and Smell) took its title phrase from a speech by conservative French political leader Jacques Chirac. Cherfi and the Amokrane brothers also formed the Tactikollectif Collective in 1997 to support illegal immigrants and released a self-produced album of protest songs from various periods and countries. The mellower, more melodic Essence Ordinaire was Zebda's commercial breakthrough in 1998 when the exuberant "Tomber la Chemise" (Take Off Your Shirt) became a summer hit. Essence Ordinaire went on to platinum status in France, selling 300,000 albums, and the group received the Victoire de la Musique awards for Best Song and Best Group. Commercial success didn't prompt Zebda to turn its back on its Toulouse roots and, convinced music is an important means of political struggle, the group formed the Motivé organization to run a list of independent candidates in the spring 2001 municipal elections. This group uses lyrics celebrating life and diversity as much as they criticize social ills and a multi-faceted musical mix geared toward making audiences think as they dance.
Zebda is a French music group from Toulouse known for its political activism and its wide variety of musical styles. The group, which was formed in 1985, consisted of seven musicians of diverse nationalities, and the themes of much of their music involved political and social justice, the status of immigrants and minorities in France, and the inhabitants of the French banlieues, or suburbs. Zebda earned widespread recognition, as well as several awards, for its 1998 single "Tomber la chemise" ("Take Off Your Shirt"). In 2001, the band spearheaded an independent political party that won over 12% of the first-round vote in Toulouse's municipal elections. The group disbanded in 2003 but reformed in 2011.
Zebda was first formed in 1985 when Magyd Cherfi, a community organizer at the time, organized a small group of his musician friends to shoot a video for a community organization for which he was working. More members joined the group later—several of the members met one another through involvement in community projects geared towards supporting arts and music involvement among Toulouse youth. The group began performing together regularly in 1988. The band gained widespread recognition when they performed at the Printemps de Bourges music festival in 1990 and then performed on an international tour which included venues in France, Italy, and the United Kingdom.
The group released its first album, L'arène des rumeurs, in 1992, under the label of Barclay Records. As the band toured and performed, the members continued to be active in community work, and Zebda became known for its politicized lyrics. Its 1995 album, Le bruit et l'odeur ("The Noise and the Smell") took its name from a gaffe made by then-president Jacques Chirac in reference to the conditions in the French banlieues, many of which have large immigrant populations. The record itself had a strong critical and commercial reception and has been said to have "cause[d] a major stir" in France.
In 2003, Zebda released its first and only live album, La Tawa, after which the band split up.
The group reformed in 2011 and toured France. A new album, Second tour, was released in January 2012.
Political involvement 
Zebda (زبدة, transliterated Zibdah), the Arabic word for butter (beurre in French), is a play on the word beur, a French slang word referring to French citizens of Arab origin—several of the group's members are of North African and other immigrant descent. As Zebda was originally formed for a community organization and many of the members met through social initiatives and activism, the band remained highly political throughout its existence; Bruce Crumley of the Culture Kiosque has called the group "politically engaged and culturally committed" and "politically progressive." Much of the group's music and lyrics have centered around issues of political and social justice among the immigrant community and inhabitants of the banlieues. In fact, Bangor University's Jonathan Ervine, in a deconstructive analysis of Zebda's music and identity, states that "Zebda's music invokes both the virtues of multiculturalism and the problems that exist within French society regarding the treatment of immigrants, ethnic minorities, and young people from France's banlieues. Difference, discrimination, and exclusion are themes that feature heavily in J'y suis, j'y reste [a song from the album Utopie d'occase]." The themes of Zebda's music were known for dealing in issues of racism and intolerance.
In 1997, three members of Zebda formed a group called "Tactikollectif," which was involved in fund-raising and advocacy for immigrant groups in the banlieues. In the 2001 municipal elections, Zebda sponsored and spearheaded a list of independent candidates, Les Motivé-e-s ("The Motivated Ones"), who ran for office on the platform that the current local government was not representative of all demographic groups in the city; Les Motivé-e-s was also dedicated to encouraging local youth and immigrants to vote and become more involved in local political issues. The group of candidates, two of whom were Zebda band members, won 12.38% of the vote in the first-round elections, and advanced to the second round, where they were narrowly defeated.
After the band's breakup in 2003, the individual members continued to be active in local politics and other activities for social advocacy.
Musical style 
Zebda's music is influenced by these band members' multicultural as well as music from all over the world; the group's songs have incorporated rock, and reggae styles, and musical instruments and styles as diverse as Latin music, Arab, and French accordion. While the content and themes of their music are politically serious, typically detailing racism and discrimination, the group has been said to have a positive and "upbeat" sound that represents the ideal of peaceful coexistence and cultural diversity.
The group is best known for its single "Tomber la chemise" ("Take Off Your Shirt"), from the 1998 platinum album Essence ordinaire. In addition to being a commercial success, the song went on to be named the best French song of 2000 at both the Victoires de la musique awards and the NRJ Music Awards.