Les Siestes Électroniques à Paris, Musée du Quai Branly

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un DJ

 Sunday 28 July, Musée du Quai Branly

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At Silencio I complained that the VIP crowd was too fashionable to do anything so uncouth as dance to some catchy Asian pop, lest someone’s gangnam a-go-go be deemed outdated. But on Sunday I attended a completely different musical gathering – as relaxed as Silencio is pretentious; free and open to the public where David Lynch’s nightclub is pricey and exclusive; sur l’herbe and sous le soleil, hours before the underground bar opens its doors to the well-heeled, well-coiffed clientele.

And still, despite two stellar DJ sets, nobody in the crowd of 300 revellers danced. Not because they were too cool; simply because they were too lazy.

This was, after all, a siesta, held annually on every Sunday in July, during which the Musée du Quai Branly invites music lovers into its sprawling zen garden to listen “à l’horizontale”. That is, to stretch out and veg out while the DJs keep the tunes fresh as the surrounding greenery of the Théâtre de Verdure.

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There are plenty of idyllic parks and public spaces where you can claim your own patch of Paris to doze on in the dappled sunlight – the Jardin du Luxembourg and the Canal St-Martin among my favourites – but there’s something special about the Quai Branly museum’s vast bamboo gardens that make them the ideal venue for Les Siestes Électroniques. Designed by the renowned botanist Gilles Clément as a space “conducive to meditation and dreaming”. Their mascot is a tortoise, the very emblem of laid-back tranquillity. As soon as you penetrate those long glass partitions that seem to stretch on forever, you’re shielded from the urban noise and pollution in an oasis of plantlife as exotic as the contents of the museum.

Fittingly for a museum that goes by the motto “là où dialoguent les cultures”, the DJs and musos chosen for these Sunday sessions were of the sort that dabble in exotic sounds, and were invited to dig around in the Quai Branly médiathèque recording archives for music from five continents to integrate into their own styles sortis des sentiers battus.

This year’s line-up for Bastille Day included one of my favourite French adventurers, Pierre Bastien, working his sonic wizardry on African recordings sampled from the museum, accompanied by his robotic ensemble Mecanium on his own collection of instruments from Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Morocco and still farther afield. Weird, I know. And the effect is hypnotic; sublimely soporific but never boring.

But on the final Sunday a trip through Asia was just the ticket with Gangpol, who served up a mai tai of Cambodian funk, Filipino anti-colonial anthems, coquettish Thai duets, tacky Taiwanese pop, Cantonese mambo, and whatever other delights fell from the shaken coconut tree — along with the occasional French spoken-word radiophonic interjections.

Through half-closed eyes I could see the mild-mannered, silver-haired gentleman behind the decks smile, jive and air-drum his way through the hour-long Asiatic reverie. He faltered only once, explaining to the crowd that a “coccinelle” (ladybug) had landed on the disc he was spinning; gently he coaxed it onto the loudspeaker. I was enjoying the music too much to nod off, but not enough to offer myself up as the sole dancer in a sea of bodies in sweet repose on mats and cushions provided by the museum.

The whole shebang ended with Air on the G String arranged for marimba – Bach’s is a universal language, after all.

Les Siestes Électroniques return to Paris July 2014. Stay tuned for next year’s offerings. In the meantime, head to the Musée du Quai Branly and check out the L’Invention des Arts ‘Primitifs’ exhibition, running until 22 September, 2013.

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Club Silencio: A Peaks Freak in Paris

Club Silencio
Dengue Fever
July 10, 2013

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A wise man known as Agent Dale Cooper once said, “Every day, once a day, give yourself a present.” Tonight, mine is a pilgrimage to 142 Rue Montmartre in the first arrondissement — an unremarkable, unassuming edifice from the outside. But as David Lynch fans know, things are not always what they seem.

Cut to me ensconced in an underground Paris den, watching the Cambodian chanteuse of a band named after a viral infection sing in Khmer about shaving a beard. No, I’m not trapped in a Lynch movie. I’m just soaking up the atmosphere at his swanky bar/performance art space/vanity project, opened in 2011 and named after the rather more bizarro Club Silencio in his LA noir Mulholland Drive.

And appropriately enough, we are plunged into eerie silence as we descend the six flights of stairs (described by my companion as “rapey”) into the belly of the beast – a sleek yet intimate space decked out in gold-leaf and smooth crystal, designed by Philippe Starck to the iconoclastic director’s specifications. As a discreet sign on the wall indicates, taking photos is strictly forbidden, and I just couldn’t bring myself to defy the revered creator of Twin Peaks and Eraserhead.

While I wasn’t expecting a David Lynch-themed amusement park, in spite of myself I did keep an eye out for dancing dwarves, one-armed men, cranky log-toting women and, of course, the distinctively coiffed auteur himself. None of these materialised. Neither the directions from the metro nor the interior layout were as confusing as those associated with The Black Lodge. But there were irrefutably Lynchian touches, like the heavy velvet curtains (not in his trademark red or blue, but a muted coral), the retro proscenium arch low and wide over the small stage, and toilet seats as black as midnight on a moonless night. Lynch oversaw every detail right down to the plush cube seating (upholstered in – you guessed it! – velvet), which he designed to “induce and sustain a specific state of alertness and openness to the unknown”.

I’m not sure it worked, because the dispassionately chic VIP crowd was reluctant to vacate them to dance – a crime with such hauntingly tuneful Cambopop gems to dance to. Chhom Nimol, the feisty frontwoman of Los Angeles-based Dengue Fever, wasn’t too impressed with all this Parisian hauteur, but her coy, infectious energy soon spread like, well, a tropical disease. “Don’t be shy!” she teased – then, tossing her tresses impatiently, ordered everyone to “make your body hot; shake it, baby!”, one moment coaxing the audience to sing and dance à la a-gogo; the next quieting the band to sing a cappella, accompanied by her own delicate hand gestures and the traditional finger cymbals known as chhing.

In a red sequined dress and gold stilettos, here was the perfect Lynchian siren, who chirruped and cooed, warbled and wailed her way through 1960s and ‘70s covers from her native Cambodia and a sprinkling of originals. (Many of the songs come with tragic histories of their authors and performers victims of the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to such upbeat pop with its psychedelic organs and Californian surf-rock flange.)

Pogoing across the stage, the band matched Nimol’s high spirits from first chord to last. Together the five-piece looked an unusual bunch; they could have walked right out of a Lynch film, what with the guitarist’s Eccentric Artist-certified beard and a bassist in a Hawaiian shirt who towered over his bandmates.

So there was a giant, after all. That’s one thing I can tick off my Twin Peaks list.

Club Silencio’s membership criteria and door policy warrants a post of its own, soon to follow. silencioclub.com/en

Cendrillon does the Charleston

Bal du Centenaire
Tous Dehors, Bart & Baker

Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, 5 July

View photos here

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The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées had its first succès de scandale a hundred years ago just weeks after it opened, when the world premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring incited the most infamous punch-drunk riot in the history of classical music. In 2013, concert halls and theatres the world over are commemorating that seismic moment, but Parisians haven’t forgotten where it all started, judging by the crowd that turned up dressed to the nines for the venue’s Bal du Centenaire in the first week of July.

No brawls or virgin sacrifices on this balmy Friday night: the theatre celebrated its birthday with a very different danse sauvage from the annals, tipping its top hat to Josephine Baker’s 1925 Paris debut (and riding on Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby coattails) with the salle de concerts transformed into a roaring twenties music hall for one night.

To make it all about me for a moment, as all good bloggers must, I felt a particularly personal sense of occasion: after all, it was a sort of premiere of my own in the city’s most elegant Art Deco theatre. There I was, barely unpacked a mere five days after relocating from Sydney to a 20m2 studio in Montparnasse, and my French marraine fée was whisking me off to a ball — more Cendrillon than La Baker, a debutante stepping out in Parisian society.

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That said, admittedly, I stepped out with two left feet, and if I scandalised anyone it was by tripping over them. Doing their best to give me a wide birth as I stumbled to and fro, Parisians of all ages twirled, shimmied and rumbaed their way around the planche de danse constructed on the stage. One fleet-footed, silver-haired fox took pity and dipped me — that is, turned me dramatically upside down. Pearls, fringed hems and Edith Sitwell turbans brushed up against me. (Sadly, no banana skirt in sight.) I fanned my sweating man-bag with peacock feathers as he sank into a plush velvet seat; my heart sank when I spied two girls of around ten years old apiece who were not only better dancers than me but also more chicly attired.

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The band was so taut and energetic that it hardly mattered. Windman Laurent Dehors’s nine-piece Tous Dehors had us kicking up our heels in authentic 1920s style, from the inevitable In the Mood via “un petit tour de Carmen” to Zez Confrey’s novelty charmer Kitten on the Keys (the latter’s piano cascades played by tubaist Bastien Stil, alternating comically between keyboard and hulking brass). On the other end of the size spectrum, I was delighted by Damien Sabatier’s solos on what I initially thought was a tiny tin whistle but turned out to be a “graille” (catalan oboe).

During a late intermission, waiting for the deuxième danse DJ set to get underway at midnight, revellers took to dancing in the street while front-of-house staff in top hats and capes sashayed across the marble floors inside. But the elation didn’t last long; Bart & Baker’s jazz remixes were old-fashioned (and not in the good way), Véronique Hubert’s video projections lamentably amateur. It was unclear what age bracket the theatre hoped to attract. Dancers dragged their feet. This Cendrillon promptly turned into a pumpkin. All night, the spotlight from the Tour Eiffel remained fixed on the theatre, one icon illuminating another. Joyeux anniversaire.

Things have calmed down a bit since The Rite of Spring premiere, then, but the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées remains one of Paris’s classiest and most beloved.

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More centenary events at www.theatrechampselysees.fr