Le Carillion and Friday 13th Paris Attacks: An Ode to the Café Concert

Cafés and concerts were the principle target of the Friday 13th terrorist attacks in Paris so I thought it would be appropriate to offer a brief tribute to the “café concert.” There is something about the café concert that is so uniquely Parisian, and so emblematic of that little Bohemian chunk of the Right Bank that was targeted by the terrorists last week.

Pictured here are a few snaps from a run-of-the-mill café concert in 2009 at the Carillion in the 10th arrondissement. As millions around the world now know, the Carillion was one of the cafés attacked on Friday the 13th, with at least 12 deaths. One widely-circulated photo showed sheet-covered bodies in front of the bar’s distinctive red façade. I’d like to share some memories of the bar before the attacks.

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My old time band the Ol Timey Messengers had a series of café-concerts there, playing Sunday afternoons for a motley crew of bar regulars and occasional “fans.” Like many Parisian bands, we had been searching for years for the perfect café , speaking with countless dive café owners throughout the 10th, 11th and 18th arrondissements. Our buddy Claire-Sophie introduced us to the Carillion and it seemed like a good fit. After all, organizing a café-concert in Paris can be wonderfully informal – often a brief conversation with a barman over a pastis can seal the deal. No press packets, references, demo CDs. Just a handshake.

Virginia fiddler and guitarist Thomas Bailey joined the band for some shows at the Carillion and his wife Mozell snapped these photos before succumbing to the bar’s potent “ti’ Punch,” a sticky rum-based cocktail from the Antilles.

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At the time, the Carillion was still building up its hipster cred and had many traits of the classic neighborhood Paris dive café. Like many cafés in Paris, it was run by ethnic Berbers from the Kabyle region of Algeria. Bordering a number of working-class Parisian neighborhoods, the café had a diverse clientele of Arabs, Berbers, Chinese, Afro-Caribbean folks and all other sorts of permanently inebriated chain-smoking characters.

In other words, the perfect audience for Appalachian fiddle music and a few Elvis numbers care of infamous Paris-based English Rocker Brad Scott (pictured above on ukulele). Where else but in Northeast Paris could a group of American and English folk musicians serenade a bar of Chinese, Jewish and Arab shmata salesmen with obscure Kentucky fiddle tunes, Hawaiian ballads and sea shanties? That’s the Paris I love.

The café concert, like Parisians themselves, is a moody beast. Sometimes you are playing to room of people fully engrossed in their conversations, barely looking up to acknowledge the band. Clearly your music is disturbing their hushed conversations about politics, sex and film (in that order). Yet other times, you play to a café jam-packed with sweating drunken lunatics standing on bar stools, yee-hawing at every song. Other times you play to that perfect Paris music-going crowd of respectfully quiet chin-stroking intellectuals. Or sometimes your audience will consist of just one drunkenly waltzing couple, swaying majestically on the tiled floor.

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Like so many good things in Paris, café-concerts are firmly rooted in the past. Starting in the 19th century as a form of light entertainment, the café-concert evolved into a truly egalitarian Paris pastime. Manet and others took a liking to the café-concert at the turn of the century. We all know what happened in the 20s and 30s. Café-concerts took a dive after World War Two but the 1980s saw a revival with, many rock and punk shows held in cafés in Belleville and other Northeastern Paris neighborhoods.

When I left Paris last year, the café-concert seemed to be going strong, although the ongoing economic crisis was taking a toll. Some of my best memories of the city were playing or attending café-concerts. Nothing beats walking down a cobblestone Paris street in the middle of night as the sounds of an accordion, fiddle, or manouche jazz guitar drift out of the one dimly lit café. Its damn cliché but I saw it thousands of times. Let’s hope it doesn’t stop.

Photos by Mozell Miley-Bailey

 

A Night of Creole Square Dancing with Caribop

A square dance rages deep in the suburbs of Paris and a mixed crowd of French and West Indian locals shake their booties and toss partners to the sounds of funky mazurkas, quadrilles and waltzes.

Dos-a-dos, promenade votre partenaire…” The dance calls and partner swinging might be familiar to your average American folk dancer, but this is no Appalachian square dance. We are at a “Creole Ball” and both the music and dance – a heady mix of African rhythms and 19th century European dances known as Kwadril – come from the French West Indies.

On stage, the house band Caribop maintains a pulsating tropical dance groove with saxophone, accordion, tuba, tambour (long drum), triangle and other assorted percussion. At the same time, bandleader Marc alternates between explaining the dances, calling out the steps (assuming the role of a “caller” or commandeur) and playing saxophone and diatonic button accordion.

Caribop does the whole song and dance (literally) and it is testament to their dedication to playing and teaching the disappearing musical traditions of the overseas French “territories” of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Marc, like most of his band mates, was born in France but is of Afro-Caribbean origin. He is an ardent traditionalist, but with the younger generation of Guadeloupians and Martinicans both on the islands and in France losing interest in their musical traditions, Caribop has been reaching out to other folk music enthusiasts. As Paris has a vibrant folkdancing scene, Caribop has found some new fans of old-school Kwadril and Biguine.

This particular night, his biggest challenge: getting folk dancers, used to dancing “straight” dances à l’européen, to biguiner (swing) like it’s done in the French Caribbean. Just imagine shaking yer booty while doing a ballroom waltz. Not too easy, but it’s at the essence of French Caribbean music. Check out some footage:

The Dances

 

Behind the traditional dances of the French West Indies is a tangled transatlantic cultural conversation. Most North American musical forms have their origins in the marriage between African rhythms and European melodies – country music, blues, jazz, rock, etc. French Caribbean music is similar and the dance traditions reflect this.

Starting as early as the 16th century, the urban European upper classes began to adopt and “refine” wild rural peasant dances, such as the “country dance” (contredance). By the 18th century, these had evolved into new forms, such as the Quadrille or other “square” dances, which quickly became all the rage in ballrooms throughout Europe. These dances made their way – along with French colonists – to the plantations of the Caribbean. Lost yet? It gets more confusing.

Over time, the contredance and quadrille were “Creolized” by African slaves, who initially adopted the dances to mock their masters. After the abolition of slavery in 1848, Afro-Caribbeans took the dances and music to whole new levels, adding a bit of tropical sultriness into the genteel and courtly dance patterns. Quadrille became Kwadril, and other new Caribbean styles emerged out of European dance forms. Yet the dances still kept some of the aristocratic trappings from Europe – curtsies, bows etc.

Take the “Mazurka,” a popular 19th century ballroom dance that actually comes from an ecstatic triple meter dance form in Poland. Along with other courtly European dances, it was taken up and altered by Afro-Caribbeans. In Europe, it’s a stately waltz, while in the Caribbean it is at the essence of many musical forms. Marc breaks it down here how the triple meter Mazurka (a waltz in Europe) became a penultimate Caribbean groove:

 

For those familiar with modern Caribbean music, “zouk,” probably the most popular style in the West Indies, has its root in this dance. Mazurka became “mazouk” in Creole and was eventually shortened to “Zouk.”

Caribop’s Music

For years now, Caribop has been holding Bal Creoles in Paris and its suburbs, bringing Kwardril and other styles to a new audience. Like square dancing further north, French Caribbean traditional dances require a caller to guide the dancers. To make the dances more palatable, Marc spent time hanging out at French traditional regional dances throughout Paris and has integrated some of their moves. Might not be “traditional,” but it allows your average French folk dancer to pick up the dances without hard-core schooling in booty shacking (his words, not mine). After all, cultural fusion is at the essence of Kwardril and mixing some steps from Breton and Auvergne dances just adds to the historical funkiness of West Indian music.

Marc has decided to do his calling in French and not in Creole – to the chagrin of some of his band mates. “Imagine if you had to translate James Brown songs into French,” percussionist Gilbert told me. Yet Gilbert obliges.. And has a chance to belt out some Creole song when the occasion calls for it:

Caribop’s music is also a fusion of different Caribbean styles. In Guadeloupe, Kwadril in the 19th century was accompanied by fiddle and percussion. Since then, accordion has taken over from the fiddle. The last Guadeloupe fiddler died a few years ago, a certain Elie Cologer (his wonderful music can be heard on this CD, highly recommended for fiddling nuts). Marc will play button accordion on a few tunes, but Caribop mostly incorporates a bit of Kwardril music with a strong brassy Biguine style.

After all, Caribop is not the first time Caribbean music has come to Paris. Biguine is another funky West Indian mixture (between slave bèlè chants and the polka) and was brought by the first wave of Caribbean immigrants in the 1930s. Biguine orchestras were all the rage in Bohemian Paris in the 1930s. The Bal Creole were legendary in Paris counterculture until WWII and definitely merit further research for this blog…

Caribop is pretty much the only band in Paris playing old-style Caribbean music. Might be some other stuff lurking around and I’ll have to gather up some fellow weird music buddies to go check it out. (Paris music blogger extraordinaire cocoringo has also blogged about Kwadril and we will be hitting the scene soon). More to come, check out some Creole accordion a la caribop:

The Failure of the Magic Baguette

Welcome to Gangs of Paris, my attempt at urban ethnology in a city renown for the world’s largest concentration of French people, but lesser known for its spicy potpourri of cultures. This blog will document all sorts of exotica found here: ethnic enclaves, sordid counterculture, cryptozoology, historial oddities and all sorts of things that make this a vibrant and fascinating metropolis.

Paris is often derided as a mono-cultural “museum city,” with a fine crust of outlying immigrant hellholes, while New York and London get the all the kudos for being cosmopolitan melting pots. But scratch the cliché-ridden surface of today’s postcard-perfect Paris, and you’ll discover a city bubbling with ethnic and social diversity. You just need to dig a little bit. Why?

France has perfected what I like to call the “magical baguette,” to bastardize the French term (baguette magique) for Photoshop’s “magic wand,” a tool that selects areas of the same color (baguette actually means wand in French). For our purposes, we’ll define the magic baguette as an ideological tool that eliminates what the French deride as communautarisme, or the lack of social cohesion due to ethnic parochialism.

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Baguettes and stones

Beginning in the 19th century, in order to assimilate waves of European immigrants, France waved the “Magic Baguette” on the Polish, Italian, Spanish and German huddled masses yearning to be libre. Immigrants were welcome, as long as they adhered to “Liberte, Egalite et Fraternite” and eschewed American-style ethnic ghettos.

Result: A good chunk of French population is of immigrant descent – a study in 2004 showed that 23% of the country has an immigrant parent or grandparent. Yet prima facie, the country does not really have the equivalent of “Italian-Americans” or “Irish-Americans.”

They just became, well, French.

Then figure in the Auvergnants, Corsicans, Bretons – each with their distinct regional identities and languages. Napoleon got rid of that stuff and attempted to dismantle the patchwork of regional cultures in France. [more on that later] Did the magic baguette work?

In 2005, riots in the banlieus – the immigrant suburbs outside of Paris and other French cities – showed the world at large that the magic baguette wasn’t as powerful previously thought. France’s social contract and model of integration was dealt a serious blow and for many, the riots were a sign that communautarisme was decaying the fundamentals of the Republic – the baguette was stale. But maybe it never was that fresh anyway.

Paris might not be “La Rue de Sesame,” but after living here for five years I’m impressed how so many different cultures continue to interact and exist together. Paris is in fact a melting pot, and quite a unique one at that, reflecting a particular French Touch to diversity.

I’m hoping my day-to-day experiences here – reporting, playing music (see here and here and here and here) and generally being an obsessional and over-analytical type – will shine some light on the lesser-known necks of the woods in this fair city.

In this space, we’ll deal not only with ethnic communities, but we’ll look at the fringe of French culture, political movements and anything else a little piquant that I stumble upon during my experiences here. Its a blog, after all..

– Ilan Moss

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