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.

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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!

A different kind of Concert Hall: Nouvelles Vagues at Palais de Tokyo

pdt-nv-144This summer, my first spent entirely in Europe, I’ve played at being a professional festivalgoer. That meant bidding farewell to the Sydney Opera House and seeing the insides of a lot of concert halls. In Aix-en-Provence, I was blasted to the back of the stalls by the brass section in the Grand Théâtre de Provence, then huddled under a blanket under the stars in the open-air Théâtre de l’Archevêché. In the Grosses Festspielhaus Salzburg, I screamed ‘Bravo!’ at the timpanist in the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra’s Mahler, and spent the following night marvelling at arches hewn out of rock in the cavernous Felsenreitschule.

All prestigious venues, all powerful experiences. But none of them made me smile quite like the Jean Barberis-curated Concert Hall installation, currently on display at the Palais de Tokyo’s summer exhibition, Nouvelles Vagues.

The placard describes a ‘monster installation’, but it’s worth pointing out that we’re dealing with a small-scale, friendly monster. Exploring the gallery’s vast, concrete interiors, I come across a ramshackle hut, probably no bigger than my 20 metre-squared Parisian studio, constructed by the Rabid Hands collective and Brooklyn-based Sunita Prasad using found objects and materials rescued from landfill. You couldn’t fit an orchestra in. Still, cacophony beckons.

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Entrez; it’s like stepping inside a magical, malfunctioning music box. Though of course, everything in this cave-like interior is functioning intricately: automated glockenspiels tinkle away, an accordion hangs suspended from the ceiling, a set of heavy old hardbacks are transformed into a bass as part of a robotic rhythm section complete with mechanised drumsticks. Tangled wires, knobs and dials take over the space like the inside of a greenhouse left to grow wild. If Kubrick’s HAL 9000 had just chilled out and started a one-man band, it might have turned out a little something like this. The ghost in the machine twitches to life through a computer linked to a MIDI system, triggered by and interacting with visitors’ movements.

But the best surprise is that the surround-sound musical results are really rather lovely –far from stiff and robotic, it’s as if the robots gathered together for a tea party. Fans of Múm and The Books will appreciate the tuneful, glitchy folktronica by Julien Gasc, Nick Yulman and Ranjit Bhatnagar.

pdt-nv-146As part of the multidisciplinary collaboration that cobbled all this together, there are kaleidoscopic video installations and flashing lights by maya.rouvelle and Frédéric Durieu; unnecessary in my opinion, but nonetheless making a trip to the concert hall a delightful sensory overload. Patrons, please be advised that this production uses large amounts of charm and whimsy.

See Concert Hall as part of the Palais de Tokyo’s Nouvelles Vagues exhibition, running until 9 September, 2013. Photos by Aurélien Mole.

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

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.