Soaked to the bone: a not-strictly-legal descent into the secret Catacombs of Paris

Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort”

1602104_10203116135248469_848792991_oIt’s just as well my new year’s resolutions don’t bar me from taking part in silly and slightly dangerous high jinks around Paris. My proper French hangover had hardly worn off after le réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre when the first harebrained adventure of 2014 presented itself: a formerly dreadlocked acquaintance invited me to join his five vigorously dreadlocked friends on their nocturnal crawl through a forbidden section of the catacombs.

“D’accord!” I chirruped, without a moment’s pause to think about what such an expedition might entail. “Just a leisurely stroll around the Empire of the Dead,” I told myself, happy to forgo a long queue in the cold outside the carefully maintained public face of Paris’ sprawling underground ossuary. With construction commencing during the 1780s in disused quarries as a solution to the irksome sanitation problem of overcrowded cemeteries, the catacombs comprise a 321km labyrinth of caves and tunnels housing the remains of six million people — half the population of the City of Lights thriving directly above.

A ‘cataphile’ is not somebody with a loyalty card for the Café des Chats, but a passionné who frequently makes the journey between the worlds of the living and the dead. In doing so, they risk being caught by a police task force charged with patrolling underground (something I wasn’t aware of when I took the plunge, scout’s honour). Some devotees make amateur maps to distribute within an exclusive community, some dig their way into hidden sections; others organise secret film nights or even flame-throwers’ parties, turning these subterranean dungeons into their personal playground. Some respect the space; others don’t.

My cataphiles were of the respectful variety, leaving not so much as a cigarette butt or breadcrumb behind (yes, we ate down there), and insisting that they would never add their own tags to the long stretches of graffitied rock face crowded with leering skeletons and SpongeBob SquarePants. The team came well prepared, I noticed as I glanced at the photographer strapping on her thigh-high military combat boots, then looked down sheepishly at my own rainbow children’s sneakers and yoga pants. Oh well, allons-y, I guess.

1559502_10203116131088365_668358842_oFrom our rendezvous at the 14th arrondissement Alésia métro — after nightfall, of course — we scrambled down to an abandoned railway and marched along the track until the group leader (who prefers not to be named) pointed to a rocky hole in the ground. My heart sank a little when it became apparent that I would be spending most of the evening wading down narrow passageways up to my knees in cold, cloudy-brown water, but we remained in high spirits despite grisly surroundings, greeting every other explorer we stumbled upon with the customary “Bonne année!” My non-dreadlocked companion fixed me with an intense look and pledged that he was responsible for my life, moments later splashing me with mud as he raced ahead. Even at under five feet, easily the shortest in the group, I often had to Quasimodofy as I stooped and squeezed my way through uninviting openings.1518673_10203116137288520_454846250_o

Long corridors led to chambers equipped with stone tables and benches. At each one we wiped our hands on dry patches of clothing and ripped into the supply of baguettes and beer (bon appétit), pointing headlamps under our chins to tell jokes and ghost stories — a strange yet comforting camaraderie. A visitor long before us had chiseled the outline of a skull into the wall and set tea lights in the eye sockets; thankfully not the most romantic candlelit dinner I’ve had in Paris.

An hour after our initial descent, already deep inside the belly of the beast, and we had yet to see any real human remains. Unlike the restored 2km segment of the catacombs accessible to the public, where bones line the passageways in patterned formations, most of the skulls here have been stolen, our ‘guide’ explained. I was just starting to feel disappointed when we were ushered through a crawlspace; suddenly I found myself on my hands and knees atop a sea of femurs. Tastelessly, a member of the group clacked two together like a heavy metal drummer; another picked up a brainpan and suggested it would make a good ashtray, before gingerly placing it back on its bed of bones. A few femurs had been brightly painted and stood upright, macabre totems.

2014-01-03 21.37.13 2014-01-03 21.47.14The mood and purpose of one space could differ vastly from the next. We went from a cavernous, film-themed graffiti room to what appeared to be an eerie shrine for a young girl who left us too soon; a flawlessly pretty teenager smiled up at us from a photograph placed next to a preserved rat floating inside a beaker. The entire randonnée took around five hours. But according to one cataphile within the group, people camp down here for days on end — some to get high, some to immerse themselves in silence, and some to commune with the dead.

I got nervous each time the guide, who has been exploring the catacombs since he was a teenager, stopped in his tracks to look at the map (the Paris street names directly above us are etched onto the walls) or herded us back the way we came after taking a wrong turn. We piped reggae and rap (what else?) through mobile phone speakers to keep energy levels high, facilitate a swift exit and avoid getting separated, at last clambering out just before midnight. On a whim, the group decided on a different route back to civilisation, jumped a stone parapet and narrowly missed the police who, we later discovered, had been stationed along our original path. It felt good to take in the crisp, cool air. And even better to take a bath.

Photos by Claire Narkissos. Un grand merci to the group that allowed me to infiltrate their field trip.

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Liberté, Égalité, Soeurité: Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées

des_carmelites_jansenistes_1There is a wonderful moment in Olivier Py’s new production of Dialogues des Carmélites that sums up the composer Poulenc’s approach to music — and to life. While the stern young Sister Blanche scrubs the floors of the convent, her more carefree yet equally pious companion Sister Constance blows bubbles from a bucket of soapy water. Francis Poulenc, an openly gay yet deeply spiritual man who returned to Catholicism in his thirties after the traumatic death of a friend, was once described as moitié moine, moitié voyou (half monk, half rascal) and you get glimpses of this duality in his later vocal music: austere harmonies grounded in medieval chant, enveloped in lush orchestral sound and leavened by pungent, playful details.

The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées marks the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death (overshadowed outside of France by the bicentenaries of Verdi and Wagner) with this stark yet elegant production of his second opera, which recounts the tragic history of the Compiègne nuns executed in 1794 as enemies of the French Revolution. Far from an obvious choice for a libretto, it lacks romantic interest and consists of long, sombre meditations on matters metaphysical. But its sense of encroaching doom, the conquering of fear and the acceptance of fate are universal themes, treated at times with unexpected, whimsical tenderness, as when the novices wonder if their Mother Superior was accidentally dealt too painful a death for someone who had served God so faithfully, like someone being handed back the wrong coat from the cloakroom.

Poulenc created the role of the high-born Sister Blanche for regal soprano Denise Duval, but would have been thrilled with the current French line-up, with the swooping, ethereal tones of Patricia Petibon’s volatile Blanche, Véronique Gens’s steadfast, velvety mezzo as the new prioress, the agonised death throes of Rosalind Plowright’s Mother Superior; although an indisposed Sandrine Piau’s Sister Constance was taken over by Anne-Catherine Gillet, I didn’t feel at all short-changed by the latter’s sparkling soubrettish tone, which provided much-needed lightness.

DeathThe interplay between light and dark guides Pierre-André Weitz’s bold, stylised staging, in which the nuns use simple props, during Poulenc’s musical interludes, to enact striking religious tableaux including The Last Supper. In the powerful, tour-de-force death scene of Act Two, Madame de Croissy’s bed is suspended vertically against the wall, casting sharp shadows, so that we see her suffering writ large like a crucifixion. And in the final scene, the fifteen singing nuns, clad in crisp white, stride single-file to their deaths — the unison voices cut off one by one by the chilling slice and thud of a guillotine in the orchestra pit — against a black backdrop illuminated by stars.

The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées celebrates its centenary this year alongside the Poulenc anniversary, and has mounted an exhibition in the opulent art deco foyer of Poulenc’s association with the venue, from his days as an enfant terrible in the group of French composers known as Les Six. The selection includes posters from their 1920s concerts, Poulenc’s contract for the commission of Dialogue des Carmélites, a manuscript of the work with music that never made the final cut, and the last known photo of the composer.

Poulenc said of his 1956 opera, “You must forgive my Carmelites. It seems they can only sing tonal music.” One can imagine him unburdening himself thus at the confessional booth, with a glint in his eye.

Anarchy dans le Musée: Europunks storm Paris at the Cité de la Musique

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It’s not too often you walk into a museum and the girl at the counter presents you with ribbons that read What The Fuck, l’Anarchie and Do It Yourself, along with a wet sponge to daub on fake tattoos. (‘Not to worry, I brought my own.’) But the Cité de la Musique is going through its rebellious teens with the new exhibition Europunk, launched at a packed vernissage Monday night.

i-hate-french-cooking-jamie_medThis is a journey through an explosive musical, artistic and political movement with a lasting influence, from its raucous underground beginnings in England circa 1976 (this year being the 35th anniversary of Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols) through a short but intense burst of activity to the post-punk/new wave days crowned by Joy Division in the early 1980s. In between there’s all manner of French, German, Italian and Dutch punks making their hoarse voices heard — most of which I heard right here for the first time, having arrived on the scene a decade late on completely the wrong side of the world.

Putting aside the issue of whether displaying punk ephemera in a major government-sponsored institution legitimises it culturally or simply strips it of its street cred, the first question that might come to mind for those on the other side of the world is: why separate the American and European scenes? Head curator Éric de Chassey argues that society seemed more closed in, the urgency of creative expression as anti-establishment statements even greater. The Berlin Wall was in their backyard; the scars were still fresh from events like the student uprisings and wildcat riots of May 1968 in France; and ongoing trials for war criminals meant the stain of the Holocaust had spread to the next generation. The result, he says, was more defiantly counter-culture than sub-culture:

On a du mal à imaginer aujourd’hui combien la société de l’époque était fermée, combien le contexte politique et social pouvait sembler bloqué. Cela paraît déjà très loin… En Europe, les punks ne veulent pas faire de l’art, la question de l’anonymat est centrale.

‘Les Américains, eux, se posent en permanence la question de l’art. Les chanteurs se prennent pour des poètes, les musiciens recherchent des cautions esthétiques… Le punk européen présente également la particularité de se penser comme une contre-culture, plutôt que comme une sous-culture. La contre-culture, c’est vouloir tout changer. La sous-culture demeure dans une niche.’

This is very much the message put forward in more than 500 original DIY pieces crowding the walls: fanzines, record sleeves, posters and flyers; Sex Pistols collagist Jamie Reid parodying the French Revolution, a fat sow decked out in the crown jewels, Vivienne Westwood chemise that looks suspiciously like a concentration camp uniform bearing the scrawl ‘Only anarchists are pretty’ and ‘Subversion: it’s fun’.

PHOb19b4690-34d1-11e3-95fe-3bac7a191126-300x400The French collective Bazooka certainly thought so. These ‘graphic commando’ heirs to  the Dadaists — Kiki Picasso, Loulou Picasso, Electric Clito and Bananar — emerged from the prestigious École Nationale des Beaux-Arts ready to fuck some shit up, launching their own zine, taking over art direction of the leftist paper Libération, and illustrating album covers for Elvis Costello and Iggy and the Stooges. Theirs is some of the most striking, even shocking work featured in the exhibition.

My man-bag for the evening, and one of the most heavily inked guests at the opening, was street art photographer Alex Tassot. Together we ran amok through the two halls of the Cité de la Musique until they kicked us out, listening to loose spandex-clad German girl bands like Kleenex, turning our noses up at the throbbing gristle served in the food truck on site, and peering in the window of the supervised DIY studio where you can flail wildly at a drum kit or eke out the three chords required to form a punk band. (Children, thankfully, not allowed). A grumpy attendant machine-pressed my DIY badge for me.

Outside, properly hands-on and grimy in the true spirit of DIY, tattooed man-bag and I fixed the rickety mudguard on my vélo with a bit of wire we found outside the metro. I rode home feeling proud of my inner punk.

Europunk runs riot at the Cité de la Musique until 19 January, 2014. Programmed events in October include concerts from old punks (the Buzzcocks, PiL) and new punks (Cheveu, Holograms, Kap Bambino), and onsite cinema screenings.

Helicopter String Quartet above the Seine: or, just another Saturday night in Paris

Last year, the Elysian Quartet took to the Birmingham skies in four helicopters to perform Stockhausen’s wildly improbable Helikopter-Streichquartett, in the staged premiere of his even more wildly improbable magnum opus Mittwoch aus Licht. (Thank goodness he decided to leave the defecating camels on terra firma.)

That performance was broadcast live to an audience at the Argyle Works, a disused chemical plant in Digbeth. Bravo Birmingham Opera Company. There’s just one problem with this scenario, though: it’s not very pretty. Depite its thriving arts scene, Birmingham has always seemed a bit blah as a city.

So on October 5, Paris borrowed the same English string quartet for a joyride over the Seine, transmitted onto a ‘giant’ screen (actually rather modest) on Pont Neuf and inside the palace of the Monnaie de Paris along Quai de Conti. Rich 18th-century interior aside, it seems appropriate to present a performance that costs so much to produce from within an institution dealing in coins.

Press were invited to view the event within these gilded walls but I preferred to be among the peasants for the brouhaha on the bridge. There, under the bleak grey sky’s occasional killjoy droplets, I nursed my thermos of tea (and fesses sore from sitting on those little bastard cobblestones), awaiting the big moment.

Say what you like about the late, loopy Stockhausen’s interplanetary pretentions; his most infamous work drew an enormous and diverse crowd perhaps unprecedented in avant-garde classical land. There were old ladies with their hands pressed over their ears, children on scooters, balcony dwellers peering out from sous les toits, and even someone’s parakeet in the front row, released from his cage to get a better view. To my right a bald man in sweatpants played Plants vs Zombies on his phone while he waited; to my left a composer set up her tripod and prepared to measure volume levels: 88–100dB from our location close to the loudspeakers.

The collective excitement of this ‘happening’ was palpable — and powerful, since it’s hard to find a Parisian who isn’t blasé about the endless parade of cultural events on his doorstep. There was cheering when the screen first flickered to life. Cheering when the quartet had liftoff from the launch pad of a military base outside of Paris. (“Ave a good flight!’ the bumbling French compère told them; ‘Quel connard, griped the old chap behind me and my date.) Cheering when the French pilots were acknowledged alongside the musicians as co-performers. Cheering following the gros mots when scrambled images and dropouts caused by the plane flying overhead were resolved, though I personally enjoyed how this transformed the music into spontaneous minimal glitch.

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Cheering, above all, when the tiny specks appeared directly above us, one by one crossing the Seine. In my head I heard a flash of Ride of the Valkyries, but Stockhausen’s fierce tremolos won out as they beat against the rhythmic whir of chopper blades.

It was an historic event, the sixth performance in the world, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Franco-German of the Élysée Treaty signed by Charles de Gaulle in 1963. But never mind all that; people really just wanted to see the hélicos. The crowd dispersed after 30 minutes — as soon as these instruments of war re-purposed as instruments of art had passed overhead — even though the musicians were still sawing away at the strings.

For me, the greatest moment was when cellist Laura Moody, in the top-left corner of the screen, stopped all that intense sawing and looked up from her music. A dazzling smile as she admired the view. Sorry Birmingham: ‘Sous le ciel de Paris s’envole une chanson…’

Footage coming soon.
More official photos here, by Jean-Baptiste Gurliat and Marc Verhille.

This was just the beginning of a very strange night. To be continued…

Du monde au Balcon: Pierrot Lunaire at the Théâtre Athénée

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I was nervous about this one. An ensemble of twentysomethings staging Pierrot Lunaire sung in French by a man? Would the Sprechstimme sound like Serge Gainsbourg? And could a young troupe like Le Balcon, led by suspiciously hip 27-year-old Maxime Pascale and making their debut as resident ensemble of the Théâtre Athénée, really shed new light on this dark and twisted masterpiece?

The changes they made to language and voice type are apt: Pierrot is a sad creepy French clown after all, and the German texts Schoenberg chose for his 1912 atonal melodrama are translations from the original French poems by  Belgian symbolist Albert Giraud. The male transcription that replaced the usual shrill soprano recitations allows Pierrot himself to stand before us in all his grotesque glory. And so Damien Bigourdan donned the wig, daubed his face with a bit of Rorschach-inspired fluoro warpaint, squeezed the teats of his trannie vest and leered at his audience, all the while singing in a plangent, haunting high tenor.

As if that wasn’t disturbing enough, there were the spookhouse-gone-too-far projections of Colombian video artist Nieto for him to interact with, both on stage and on the large white orb hovering high over the musicians. As part of this nightmarish trompe l’oeil with its occasional black humour, Pierrot ripped open his torso to reveal beating heart, viscera and spleen (the symbolists did love their spleens); grumbled when his head was impaled on a cello spike; smoked a pipe made out of a live bird skeleton, and lurched into the orchestra pit to terrorise the quintet with a handycam, which he shoved into the conductor’s mouth, gleefully extracting a tooth.

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La lune malade really was sick as they come, reflecting by turns an all-seeing eyeball, a nipple, flowing blood mingled with a dash of red wine, the ‘pallid drop of blood [that] stains the lips of a consumptive’… All writ large on a full moon to make you froth at the mouth. And I for one couldn’t look away.

The rich yet intimate interior of the rococo-meets-art-nouveau Athénée Théâtre Louis-Jouvet was the perfect fit for such a richly decadent vision. At interval from the comfort of my private box, while smokers crowded onto the ornate balcon, I frottaged every surface I could: red velvet railings, thick velvet curtains, velvet-upholstered doors, velvet ropes and velvet seats. Wisely, Le Balcon followed the eerie sensation overload of Pierrot Lunaire with Morton Feldman’s radiophonic Paroles et Musique (Words and Music) to sparse text by Samuel Beckett, with the musicians and voice actors (Bigourdan and Éric Houzelot) hidden behind a screen until the very last moment. Apart from a few major themes like paresse, amour, âge and visage, I missed a good chunk of the stammered French translation, eventually closing my eyes and resting my head on something soft (I think it might have been velvet?) as each austere, repeated musical gesture washed over me in surround sound.

Pierrot Lunaire plays until Saturday 28 September, tickets from €7. Photos by Meng Phu.

Heart of Glass, Heart of Gold: a festival the French can’t quite pronounce

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Now that I’m here in Paris, I never want to leave. But believe it or not, I occasionally I get wind of something going on somewhere in the world outside of Paris that’s tempting enough to travel for. I hate it when that happens. It’s usually with a heavy heart that I board the outbound TGV.

Not so for Heart of Glass, Heart of Gold, a new alternative music festival tucked away in the Rhône-Alpes’ medieval village of Ruoms with a line-up of more than twenty artists including Efterklang, Au Revoir Simone and even a Kiwi, Connan Mockasin. With access exclusively for those who book one of the in situ bungalows housing groups of four, six and eight, this three-day indie music idyll is for hipsters who love the vibe of an outdoor festival but don’t like getting their ripped jeans dirty pitching a tent (or, as in my case, don’t know how), and prefer to queue for waterslides than for portaloos.

1237971_653163621395369_362065384_nI didn’t exactly have to cross the ocean to get there. A two-hour TGV plus 100km in a big black tour van careening along verdant paths past scarecrows holding bottles of wine, and before too long we were sipping Ricard on the balcony of a wooden hut bigger than my Paris apartment, admiring the sunset daubed across the mountain ranges and joking about how this was ‘le camping sauvage’. In this shantytown of a summer music camp you really got to know your neighbours — my roommate, hitherto a complete stranger, told everyone she had ‘slept with the Australian’, leading to much giggling and confusion whenever I passed by. They tended to be the sort you’d love to meet in Paris, though many hailed from nearby Marseilles, Grenoble and Lyon. (It wasn’t smiles and hugs all round though: a few bungalows were inevitably cased for laptops and smartphones, the more naïve cabin dwellers horrified to discover that bad people could dig good music.)

You also got to know the bands. In the al fresco dining area overlooking the rocky little amphitheatre, there was no such thing as the cool kids’ table — everyone was approachable. The first people I offered to share my mustard and mayo-smothered barquette de frites with turned out to be one of the bands, who reciprocated with two water bottles of smuggled refreshment: one of strong screwdriver vodka orange; the other just plain vodka. The frontman, on 42 days of sobriety, amused himself instead with my hula hoop; as did the tomboyish young daughter of festival founder Melville Bouchard who was wandering the grounds. At a karaoké session that kicked off at 2am, after playing a dreamy set under the stars, Connan Mockasin again took up the mic to wail and whine to Purple Rain. I chose Trenet’s La Mer, sung in spasmodic duet with a German synth wizard who jovially fumbled through the French.

At this inaugural Heart of Glass, Heart of Gold (HOG HOG) festival, the atmosphere was lively but relaxed; the crowd of around 700 was intimate enough that I never had to struggle on tiptoe to view the stage or squeeze my way through a sea of elbows to the front. One reveller took her dog into the pit with her on a leash; they both seemed to enjoy the music. Two balloons bobbed gently along our heads.

With a name like Au Revoir Simone the all-girl synth trio could easily be mistaken for French ingénues, but are in fact all-American sweethearts. ‘Merci beaucoup!’ they cooed demurely after their first song, and then: ‘It’s so nice to be here with you under this beautiful moon’ — can’t argue there. Like Samson’s power, much of their effortless glamour seemed to come from their hair, a uniform of fringe and long tresses that seemed to be the only part of them that moved when they danced. I enjoyed their austere arrangements but occasionally longed for some Andrew Sisters harmonies.

London neo-disco foursome Gramme was just the ticket to shake everyone out of their twilight reverie. As if dancing on hot coals, frontwoman Sam Lynham Taylor didn’t stop twirling and kicking her heels for a moment, and really put her backbone into bashing that cowbell. Energy kept building from there with the duelling drums of French group Zombie Zombie, whose brute-force ritual beats were suffused with Etienne Jaumet’s eerie sci-fi and B-grade horror synth. Around 2am, primed for the festival nightclub, the crowd dispersed.

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During the day, my fellows were either too hungover to explore the village 2km away, or simply content to drape themselves over the deckchairs by the sparkling Hollywood pool-party pool and let eclectic DJ sets wash over them. A few of us banded together for a spot of yoga cosmique, offering up our lazy sun salutations to the golden rays of the Ardèche. On the Saturday morning I sauntered down to the old centre historique — ironically one of only two places I managed to get wifi — to peer into stone medieval cottages still occupied by French families today.

Before the bands started up again at 2pm, it took only a couple of hours of my morning to kayak, mostly leisurely, through the granite gorges of Pradons and Chauzon. Fortunately three singing Belgians (not affiliated with the festival) were on hand in canoes behind me when I plunged straight off the edge of a waterfall, having failed to take advantage of the nifty channel to the far right. This made an excellent adventure story to tell festival folk, who were impressed that I had strayed from the campsite at all.

A few French superlatives for the second sunset viewed from our balcony, and off we went for more music. Efterklang’s synth-pop was over-polished; I admired the pitch-perfect,Screen Shot 2013-09-25 at 7.06.02 PM swooping vocals of guest soprano Katinka Fogh Vindelev but longed for the experimentation of early albums, and even when the dapper Danes tried to be raucous it came out too refined. Though Casper Clausen’s bowtie and smile were too tight for my taste, he managed to charm the appreciative crowd.

Connan Mockasin, by warm and welcome contrast, grinned Connan Mockasin 204sweetly from under his shock of albino hair — a magician on guitar as he toyed with the structure and mood of his psychedelic love-ins. That fey, shaky little voice of his gave the fluid sensuality of the music a vulnerable core, and endeared him to me almost as much as his Kiwi-speak (sitting down at the edge of the stage to ‘goss’ intimately with the audience, then launching into another song after ‘stuffing around’– gems I hadn’t heard since moving to France).

IROK 230Wisely, they saved the most energising and uncivilised for last. I.R.O.K (Intergalactic Republic of Kongo) is the kind of musical collision that could only have come out of London: a swarthy part-Moroccan pirate of a frontman, a Eurotrash keyboardist who would have thrived in Klaus Nomi’s band, a bassist channelling the cowboy from The Village People, a cockney-as-they-come drummer, plus an African drummer for good measure — Rage Against the Machine meets Fela Kuti might just about cover it. Thrashing about under the strobe, the manic Mike Title invited the audience to climb up on stage with him for the customary crowd surfing, shouting breathlessly that we should be equal to the band. Two minutes later he was ordering us all to sit the fuck down. You could say they were one big mixed message. And that is no bad thing.

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The next day we cleared out our bungalows, lolled by the pool declaring we didn’t want to leave, delayed leaving as long as possible, and eventually left, though not without a song or two in our hearts. The covoiturage I rode back in took twice as long as the train — a full six hours on the road — but in the company of new friends it seemed like half the time. They delivered me to my door at exactly midnight, just in time to watch the bulbs of the Eiffel Tower sparkle in a paroxysm of delight at my return. Paris was just as I had left it; maybe even a little brighter.

Band photos by Vincent Arbelet. Other photos by Yasmine Ben Hamouda.

Fatoumata Diawara: Jazz (et environs) à la Villette

Fatoumata Diawara par Samuel Nja KwaFrom Montreux to Melbourne, festival curators these days are treating jazz as more of a gateway drug than a main event. (And who knows what John Zorn was imbibing when I saw him here in Paris last weekend.) If we revisit the mummy mascot of Jazz à la Villette, we see that the names streaming from his grisly gauze to prove that ‘le jazz n’est pas mort’ colour our cadaver shades of afro-funk, soul, electro, blues and pop. The only concession to sepia-toned jazz à l’ancien comes from an unlikely source: Bryan Ferry, British rocker of Roxy Music fame.

I guess that’s how I came to be dancing atop my seat at the Cité de la Musique salle de concert watching Paris-based Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara whip her beaded braids hypnotically around her head in a frenzied musical trance. Like her album Fatou, the gig began intimately enough, with solo acoustic guitar and gentle, plaintive vocals in the statuesque Diawara’s native Wassoulou language. Only the bold colours and traditional patterns of her off-the-shoulder dress — coupled with soon-discarded pink sneakers — hinted at the seismic force she would unleash along with her band of guitars, keys, kit and conga.

Before I knew it I’d succumbed to a hypnotic beat; the human kaleidoscope on stage had traded her acoustic for an electric; somehow, like one of those snake nut cans bursting open, the red and yellow turban popped off high into the air to reveal those dancing medusa braids. Every other part of Diawara danced too, as she twirled, stomped, gyrated and kicked up a voodoo can-can around her bandmates, blowing into a whistle at full volume to martial her audience.

With rhythms as infectious as her constant smile, it was easy to comply. Helpfully, Diawara offered a lesson in traditional African dance: ‘à droite, à gauche…shake it!’ Simple enough that the septuagenarian couple in front of me could follow the steps while wildly groping each other, the monsieur’s suspenders scandalously slackened.

In between dedicating songs to young African women subjected to genital mutilation and cries of ‘Je suis fière d’être touarègue!’ she checked in with the audience: ‘Est-ce que ça va? Vous n’êtes pas trop fatigués?‘ Stoically we summoned the last of our stamina, no match for her untameable energy and charisma.

What’s jazz again? Who cares. Shut up and dance.

Jazz à la Villette finishes tonight, Saturday 14 September, with slightly more jazzy fare. Photo of Fatoumata Diawara by Samuel Nja Kwa.

Dream team of screams: John Zorn in Paris, Jazz à la Villette

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While most Australians were downing chilled beers with an eye on the vote-count, awaiting the anointment of our next Prime Minister, I found myself thrashing about in a former abattoir-turned-arena in Paris, listening to Mike Patton screaming for two hours straight. A timely alternative to following the federal election back home.

The late-night screaming match came towards the end of a marathon trio of concerts celebrating the 60th birthday of John Zorn, a major event at this year’s Jazz à la Villette. The festival’s logo is a mort-vivant, a mummy in motion — rushing to a concert, judging by the names of musicians printed on the bandages streaming behind him. The slogan is borrowed from Frank Zappa: ‘Le jazz n’est pas mort, il a juste une drôle d’odeur.’

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Zappa’s words ring true for his successor Zorn, the New York saxophonist/composer who wears his free jazz as loose as his army cargo pants. Over six hours, braving queues several hundred metres long at the Grande Halle de la Villette, audiences were subjected to the full force of his schizophrenic acid-bop, with its fits of death metal, psychedelia and chaotic klezmer.

The first of the three sessions, kicking off in the Cité de la Musique at 4pm, exposed fans of this hardcore Zorn to his softer side (though no less potent or complex) as avant-garde composer. Nice to open these Parisian concerts  with a French connection: Illuminations for piano, bass and drums is an atonal jazz tribute to Rimbaud, from Zorn’s 2012 album named for the symbolist poet. The Holy Visions featured Australian soprano Jane Sheldon in an a cappella female quintet, each singer armed with a discreet silver tuning fork to navigate harmonies that slip from Hildegard von Bingen into Berio and back again via the occasional doo-wop detour. The group ended not on a chord or cadence, but on the gesture that usually opens a vocal work: a collective drawn breath – here a self-contained, silent rhapsody; a feather on the breath of God. The Arditti Quartet maintained this meditative mood in The Alchemist, with that special blend of impassioned abandon and pinpoint-focused sound that places them among the greatest interpreters of contemporary music for strings. For their efforts, founding violinist Irvine Arditti earned an appreciative kiss from the composer atop his Einsteinian shock of white hair.

phpThumb_generated_thumbnailjpgIn the 7pm session, The Dreamers explored Zorn’s distinctive take on Jewish jazz with excursions into surfer rock and Sephardic melody. Like a volleyball coach seated on the sidelines, he directed his eccentric septet with wild gestures, excessive spirit fingers and eyebrows dancing well above spectacle line. You could almost see the resulting live wire pass fiercely but playfully from him to vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen (mallets flailing in a blur), to guitarist Marc Ribot as he whiplashed his head about in rhythm, to drummer Joey Baron, whose explosive energy came tumbling out on the toms. Zorn at last picked up his saxophone in the Acoustic Masada quartet, duelling in close combat with trumpeter Dave Douglas. ‘They told us to stop at 8.15 but we’ve got too much music to play! We’re gonna go til 10!’ he yelled out extravagantly. In other words: it’s my party and I’ll jam for as long as I want to.

In the final concert’s Electric Masada, Ikue Mori’s computer and synth textures (she’s listed mysteriously in the French program as playing machines) and the spectacularly bearded Jamie Saft’s swirling keyboards created an eerie intensity that was still buzzing in my ears as I descended into the métro at 1am. If extreme crooner Mike Patton sounded at times like a squealing pig led to the slaughter, Zorn on sax often looked and sounded as if he was trying to strangle a flamingo that had no intention of becoming foie gras at the birthday dinner.

Throughout the three concerts, the quality and diversity of collaborators demonstrated that this is a true musicians’ composer. He may be 60, but Zorn is as hyper and innovative as ever. Jazz isn’t dead; it just smells like teen spirit.

Jazz à la Villette continues until September 15. Australians can catch John Zorn’s 60th birthday program (isn’t it always the case that touring composers celebrate major milestones over two years instead of one?!) at the Adelaide Festival in March 2014, tickets on sale October 29.

So you think you can busk in Paris? Eight trade secrets from a pro (not me)

Melissa Accordion 6I’m ashamed to say it. My 48-button pearlescent-red accordion — a beauty purchased three years ago on a previous visit to Paris — is lying dormant in the fireplace and has not left the building since I moved here 1 July. Apart from the odd Yves Montand or Henry Purcell cover eked out as far as the end of the first chorus, she’s a woefully neglected squeezebox in need of a good squeeze from a more talented owner. If she were a French poodle, the la SPA would be sending me threatening letters.

This post is for her, for me, for la vie bohème and for wannabe buskers all over the world, especially debutants here in Paris.

Desmond Huîtres, busker extraordinaire, has agreed to share the secrets of his success as a hapless street musician, so you can prepare to audition for this year’s Musiciens du Métro scheme. I’m already inspired, and solemnly swear to report back as soon as I’ve roused my accordion and taken the plunge.

Busking in Paris: the world’s second oldest profession in the city of light

SamIt’s the middle of August in Paris. Your English-language students have gone south for some sun and the city has been left to the tourists. Thinking of supplementing your summer income with some busking? Maybe it’s time to test your mettle on the streets of Paris. Follow my top eight tips and you can profiter de your busking experience!

1. Go for it!

Don’t be afraid! Putting yourself out on the street and exposing yourself to the scrutiny of passers-by, competing with other street performers, beggars and monkey-stick-wielding organ-grinders is a thrilling but terrifying prospect. If it’s your first time – or your first time busking in a new city – the only way is to jump in the deep end. A ‘nothing to lose’ attitude will hold you in good stead. And remember: they can smell fear and desperation.

2. Ask yourself: ‘Why are you busking?’

The English word ‘busk’ comes from the Spanish verb buscar ‘to seek’ (i.e. fame or fortune). But what are you really searching for? Whether it’s emergency beer money you’re after (la vie bohème doesn’t come as cheap as you might think), an audience for practising your special skill or just for fun, being clear about your motivation (or at least open to thinking about it as you go) will help you hone your act and make the most of the experience.

3. Location is everything!

This busker extraordinaire’s best advice is to find somewhere you feel comfortable with plenty of people around and not too much background noise. Some popular locations in Paris include tourist hotspots such as Montmartre and Notre Dame as well as the Paris Métro. Here are the pros and cons:

Métro

Stars have been discovered on the Paris métro, but if you are a debutant and feeling a bit shaky you might like to think twice about like to think twice about bursting your equals in a crammed carriage. Regardless of your expertise, make sure you choose a good line (1 and 2 are recommended) and a good time of day (rush-hour 5-7 weekdays is not a good idea — especially not on line 13 — unless your act revolves around impersonating a soggy crêpe). Playing in the metro stops is also a possibility, and you will often see performers in large stations such as Châtelet, Opéra and République, although these areas are more stringently policed so take care.

The Pros: Playing on the métro is a real test of your act! It can also be a beautiful spot – on line 2, you can watch the city roll by as a captive audience watches you.)

The Cons: Your captive audience may turn on you. Aside from the risk of finishing your number on your arse on the wobbly line 11, there are some other technical challenges, too. For instance, after you perform you will need to pass around your hat (which takes a lot more guts than leaving one in front of you on the ground — do you have the guts?). Technically, you also require a permit (auditions for 300 spots are run by RAPT and start in September) and although nothing like Henry VIII’s decree to ‘whip unlicensed minstrels and players, fortune-tellers, pardoners and fencers, as well as beggars’ (which I believe is still on the books in London) is enforced in the Paris métro, punishments range from a stern telling off (in French) from the gendarmes to confiscation of busking paraphernalia, including money-hats and monkey-sticks.  Even fines are not unknown. You might also get robbed on the métro. Keep that in mind.

Tourist spots

Mime MontmartrePopular locations are around Notre Dame and Montmartre (a classic for accordionists and mimes). The streets around the basilica are full of little nooks and crannies and enterprising performers might rally a crowd in front of the church itself. You could also try in front of the Centre Pompidou or on the Île Saint-Louis (formerly known as Cow Island).

The Pros: These places are always packed. Also they are large so you can find a spot you like and make it your own! Often they are also quite beautiful.

The Cons: People live around Montmartre, so you may be abused by residents about noise if you get too far off the tourist trail. Also be aware that, like in any city, many buskers have their favourite spots and if you’re on someone else’s turf expect to learn some dirty French!

4. Smile and dance and sing!

Whatever your act you must be charming. This applies to busking in general but especially to busking in Paris, where smiles from strangers can be hard to come by. ‘Where does my charm lie?’ you must ask yourself.  If you’re a walk-by busker you really only have a few seconds to impress people. Dancing is always a winner. Especially in boots. And especially if this is not your skill. Know your act and play to your audience!

5. Be prepared for anything! To get the best of the experience, say yes to everything. If you get a song request try your best even if you don’t know the second verse. If you are approached by fellow buskers and invited to form an impromptu group, pourquoi pas? If you are asked directions and don’t know the way, give ’em anyway. If you are mobbed by a group of elderly German tourists, dance a polka for them. When you busk, you’re throwing yourself over to the unexpected. Embrace the wonderful surprises that come your way and you’ll make the most of it.

6. Really: be prepared for anything.

More specifically be prepared for being harassed by angry neighbours, angry buskers, angry children, angry commuters, angry policemen, angry restauranteurs, and perverts who are not-so-discreetly taking photos of your crotch… Unfortunately, this stuff happens. Chin up. It’s part of the fun. That being said, Paris has gained something of a reputation as a city unfriendly to buskers. Really, this is based on the high number of buskers, schemers and scammers chasing tourist euros and les flics trying to control the situation. But realistically, you’d be unlucky to have a problem. In several months this busker extraordinaire has had zero run-ins with the authorities and only one with a pervert taking photos of his crotch.

7. Think about your act.

Spending a little time thinking about your act will help your chances. Ask yourself if it will it work in the space you are performing in. If you are playing an instrument and/or singing will you be loud enough? Will you be visible from a distance?

Eugène_Atget,_Organ-grinder,_1898–998. …But don’t think about your act too much!

Unless you are really a pro who can comfortably manage a large group of people surrounding you and you have a specially trained monkey that goes around collecting money at the end of the show, you’re probably going to be pretty unprepared. But that’s part of the fun. The best way to improve your act is by trial and error! If it’s not working out, try to pinpoint the reason. Maybe you need to move? Maybe it doesn’t matter; just play and enjoy the beautiful view of Paris (See No.3: location is everything).

Best of luck, fellow buskers — see you on the streets of Paris!

Sofar Sounds Paris: un endroit secret, un concert intime…

Untitled-4 copyAs Sofar Sounds state on their website, ‘We are passionate supporters of musicians and the magical nature of live performance.’ This international organisation hosts free concerts by emerging musicians in people’s living rooms around the world.

And where better to do it than in Paris?

Sign up for updates on these monthly gatherings, then RSVP for the gig you want to attend. If you’re accepted, you’ll be contacted with the address a day or two before.

I wince when I see that the latest postcode they’ve provided doesn’t begin with the 75 denoting Paris proper, meaning I’ll have to venture out into the Banlieue. But it doesn’t take long to locate the rambling terrace in Bagnolet – part enchanted garden with its vegetable patch, part Marrickville share house – taken over by casually dressed visitors stretched out sur l’herbe, soaking up the sun.

Usually Sofar Sounds is an indoor affair, but it’s summer in Paris, and Parisians love any excuse for a picnic. The afternoon’s line-up features six acts from France, England and the United States, all playing in the sun-dappled backyard chez Dimitri to an audience of around 50 mélomanes. Fairy lights have been draped along the picket fence; a garden of miniature gnomes is now a Heineken holding zone.

I find a patch of grass and, upon offering my Portuguese neighbours some 3-euro rosé, am promptly admitted into their circle. Squeezing along the garden path to load up a plate, I discover bearded French folk duo Kid With No Eyes (much less macabre than they sound) rehearsing unplugged out back and am introduced to the two Cléments that make up the group.

But it’s a gamine English songstress, Sophie Jamieson, who ascended the two concrete steps in flip-flops to sing in dulcet tones in front of the pink stucco façade. She plucks her guitar almost as quietly as she whispers shyly in halting schoolgirl French between songs, nearly drowned out by the kids playing basketball in the street outside our fenced secret garden.

Still,  the captive audience listens attentively and applauds her efforts warmly. The girl next to me munches chips in time to the music while her fella nods off in the grass. No one is bothered when Sophie makes a false start and has to begin again; when they are invited to click their fingers to the chorus, they join in heartily. After her set, she grabs a plate and joins us on the lawn to watch the next act. I’ve never seen Parisian concert audiences so well behaved and supportive, having come from the world of opera where they are quick to boo and whistle. (Do I even need to mention The Rite of Spring?) Perhaps it’s because we’re just outside the Paris postcode I know and love. Tant mieux.

Sign up for updates at www.sofarsounds.com – there’s also an Australian branch