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.
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.
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.
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