Protest out my window #1- Pro-Gbagbo March

As French troops surround Laurent Gbagbo’s resident in Abidjan, it’s time to roll out a series I’ve wanted to do on this blog for a while: Paris’s protest marches as seen through my window, but with an angle on causes that reflect the city’s diversity.

Yesterday hundreds of pro-Gbagbo supporters marched in front of my apartment, offering a fascinating window – literally – on how diaspora communities express themselves as unrest divides their home country.

I live in the 11th arrondissement in Paris, on a side street off the largest protest/strike route in the city between Republique and Nation (see below). The 2010 retirement age protests, the 2006 “equality opportunity law” student demonstrations – I’ve seen it all from my window.

Every once in a while I’ve opened the shutters to a march that defies French protest clichés of worker unrest, disgruntled public sector employees or screaming students. I’ve seen communist Kurds, Malian immigrant workers, supporters of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and much more. Yesterday was new.

The large Ivorian community in Paris is divided between supporters of Gbagbo and internationally recognized president Alassane Ouattara. Support is still strong in France for strongman Gbagbo, according to the AFP. Here’s the view from my window, hastily put together (apologies for poor quality):

Demonstrations have taken place throughout Paris since the disputed November 28 presidential election but yesterday protest was all the more tense as UN and French troops lay siege to Gbagbo’s home in Abidjan. Add to this France’s complex relationship with its former colony. Until recently the Ivory Coast was feted as the jewel of West Africa, with its large French ex-pat community and booming cocoa-based economy. Things went sour in 2002, when France got involved in Ivory Coast’s civil war. Nationalist youth groups linked to Gbagbo’s regime attached French-owned businesses in 2004 and a wave of Francophobia hit the country.

I saw some of that anger yesterday. “Sarkozy/Juppé: Murderer” was the most common slogan, after “Gbagbo: President.” Protesters brandished disturbing placards of charred bodies, claiming that French attacks have already left 2300 civilians dead. I ran down to talk to a few protesters.

“You live in a country with a media controlled by its President,” one man told me two seconds after I reached the boulevard. “Of course you don’t read about the atrocities in the papers.”

Will be interesting to see how the unfolding crisis plays out in Paris… That is if this sunny weather holds out.

Touche pas à mon Cirque!

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s clampdown against Romanian and Bulgarian Roma immigrants took a new twist recently when France’s only gypsy circus announced that their performers could soon be “invited” to leave their caravans for a one-way flight back to Romania. The French government has already paid for the “voluntary” repatriation of over 1,000 Roma back to the Balkans following clashes between the police and French Roma this summer. The performers at the Cirque Romanès claim they are next. “They want to put us in an airplane,” according to the website of the beloved circus a few weeks ago.

A poll this summer showed that almost half of the French support their government’s controversial drive, which includes dismantling illegal squatter camps. Nevertheless, resistance is strong amongst the French left and the Cirque Romanès is rapidly becoming a hyped-up symbol of the peril facing the Roma in France.

Why has a group of circus performers captured the attention of France? Although Newsweek has hinted that Sarkozy represents the new “extreme right” and European Commissioner Viviane Reding was reminded of the deportations of the Second World War, you simply can’t take a circus away from the Parisians. Certainly not the beloved Cirque Romanès, an old-school tented act that has charmed the city for almost 18 years with a frenetic combination of classic circus numbers and traditional Romanian music.

This Monday, almost a thousand fans and a horde of television journalists packed under the circus tent for a benefit show organized by the flamboyant founder of the circus, Alexandre Romanès. The Cirque is always a chaotic affair – jugglers, contortionists and trapeze artists vie with a 6-piece Southern Romanian band for precious space on the tent’s carpeted floor. For the benefit, it was especially cramped, with dozens of camera crews and photographers throughout the tent. On several occasions acrobats literally had to hop over crouching cameramen.

The city’s artistic bohemian elite was also out in full swing, providing plenty of fodder for celeb photographers. Actress/singer Jane Birkin was among the various notables that joined the performers. The show went on as always (see my hastily put together video below) but everything felt a little awkward with the surplus of media and celebs.

The media frenzy has reached such levels – a photo of a ten year old Romanès performer graced a major weekly (see photo below) – that the French government issued a statement the night of the benefit show. According to the Minister of Immigration Eric Besson, the circus organizers have engaged in a “gross manipulation” and their plight has nothing to do with the government’s “fight against illegal immigration from Romania and Bulgaria.”

In reality the situation is more complicated. Alexandre Romanès was born in France, making him, his Romanian-born wife Delia (and resident circus diva) and his immediate family of performers all French citizens. In fact, it is his five Romanian musicians (fiddle, accordion, trumpet, clarinet and bass fiddle) that are in trouble as their request for renewal of work papers was recently denied. In his opening speech at the benefit, Mr. Romanès, had no doubts why their papers were turned down after years of easy renewals. “It was the word Tsigane that caused the administrators to block,” he said.

The French administration has directly responded to the accusations, claiming that the circus pays below minimum wage, employs children and has unacceptable working conditions – the performers do live in caravans behind the circus tent. In an argument repeated throughout the French print and television media, Mr. Romanès has insisted that his musicians are well-treated, (“they are paid twice the minimum wage”) have free electricity and that his musician’s paper troubles have everything to do with the government’s efforts to combat Roma illegal immigration.

Since the government crackdown this summer, misunderstandings in the media have been rife. Confusion has been sown between French Gypsy, Romanian Roma, French Roma and so on. There are around 300,000 “French Gypsies,” known as gitanes, largely in the south of France. Most came to France in the 19th century and form a distinct semi-nomadic cultural group of Roma that includes the Spanish Gypsies. On July 22 in the town of Saint-Aignan, a group of French Gypsies surrounded a police station to protest the killing of a young member of their community by a policeman.

Sarkozy’s reaction was immediate – he described “problems coming from the behavior of certain itinerant populations and Roma.” By “Roma,” he meant the some 20,000 Roma immigrants that came to France after escaping aching poverty and discrimination in Romania and Bulgaria. So, on one side there are French Gypsies who have been French citizens since generations and the other side Romanian/Bulgarian immigrants, who by European Union law can legally stay in France for three months.

A few weeks ago, a government memo that was circulated to police chiefs over the summer was leaked to the press, identifying Roma camps as a “special priority” for dismantlement. The government quickly distanced itself with the memo and had it retroactively modified to remove the nasty ethnic reference. Yet this only increased public misunderstanding of Roma, Rom, Roms, Romanian, Gypsy, Gitanes etc. It is gaffes like this that give credibility to the Cirque’s claim that their problems stem from simply “being Gypsy,” despite their French nationality. (Alexandre is a French Gitane and widely published French poet)

It remains to be seen if the media circus around the circus and its paper problems will help break the impasse. A petition has gathered well over 10,000 signatures and I’m sure Alexandre and his performers will continue to raise awareness of their problems, and hopefully shine some light on the issues faced by French Gypsies and Balkan Roma throughout France. (I’ve covered the plight of a Moldovan musician with similar problems in this space)

The Cirque and its performers reflect many common clichés about the Roma. The image of free-living, musical bohemians juggling in some caravan-strewn abandoned lot outside of Paris fits perfectly into our common Roma fantasy. Perhaps that is why they have become such media darlings. But isn’t this romantic/nostalgic image so quintessentially “French?”

I asked a circus worker if he thought the circus’ future was in jeopardy and he seemed surprised. “Of course, can you imagine a circus without music?!” I guess he took me for the dumb blogger I am, or thought I was. Little did he know I cameo as an accordionist/banjoist/guitarist/drummer in the smallest Circus in Paris, the Zebre de Belleville.

I remember the first time I went to the Cirque Romanès. I was fascinated by the well-behaved kids in the audience enjoying old timey Romanian music and classic circus acts. I couldn’t help think, “jeez this is the coolest country.” A few years later, when I found myself playing Romanian accordion in a dimly lit Paris circus I felt like this New Yorker had truly integrated and was on track to becoming French, or at least my conception of what seemed so quintessentially French.

Maybe I was wrong…

Ramadan Rush for Taarab in Zanzibar

It is Eid ul-Fitr here in Paris, so a little post on music in Zanzibar from this summer, sorry for the non-Paris content. (more Paris stuff coming soon!)

It is hard enough these days to chase down authentic traditional musicians, so imagine trying to find accordionists and fiddlers in the serpentine streets of Zanzibar… all the while racing against a rapidly waxing crescent moon over the Indian ocean.

Ramadan started early this year and on the island archipelago of Zanzibar off the coast of East Africa, most of the devoutly religious Muslim population observes the month-long fast from sundown to sunset. Unfortunately for intrepid amateur ethnomusicologists like yours truly, this also meant that the local music scene goes silent for the month. Zanzibaris wake up at 4am to eat and break the fast at nightly Iftars with their family – musicians more or less go on hiatus. So although we cursed ourselves for planning a trip to one of the most fascinating cultural melting pots in the world during its most solemn and introspective moment, we made sure to arrive at least three days before the onset of Ramadan in early August.

The crescent moon signals the start of Ramadan so we were literally up against the moon to catch some great local music, particularly the exotic, languid sounds of Taarab. Zanzibar is considered the spiritual epicentre of the Swahili culture that covers most of coastal Tanzania and Kenya and Zanzibari Taarab is this culture’s defining musical style.

Zanzibar was home to the 19th century Omani Sultans, and is a colourful mix between Arabic and mainland African culture. Arab and Indian traders have been plying the coasts of East Africa for thousands of years, giving birth to Swahili, a Bantu language with strong Arabic roots. Walking around Stone Town in Zanzibar, with veiled women darting into dark, spice-scented alleyways past ornate ancient wooden doors inscribed with passages from the Koran, this diverse culture heritage is plainly evident.

Taarab music exemplifies this pungent mix between Africa and the Middle East. Today, electrified modern Taarab blasts out of storefronts throughout Zanzibar, but we were seeking “old school” Taarab, the famous music of the court of Sultan Barghash bin Said of Zanzibar. We’re talking Middle Eastern melodies and ornamentation with strong African rhythms topped off with classic Western touches, such as the cha-cha-cha (yeah!). The classic Taarab orchestra includes oud, fiddles, kanun, some African percussion all topped off with Western touches like the accordion and upright bass.

Suffice to say, I was determined to catch some of this before the holy month started.

Night 1: Wedding/Bar Hopping

A local friend told us that our best bet for catching some old-timey Taarab would be a marriage. There are always plenty of weddings before Ramadan on the island. Some said it was to get in a last bit of partying before the holy month. Others said it was because local men wanted to be sure to have someone cook to for them during the holidays. Whatever the reason, our first night we got in a taxi and started hitting bars and wedding venues.

As the cab speed down the poorly lit and chaotic streets in the outskirts of Zanzibar city, we passed plenty of weddings in huge open-air courtyards, live modern Taarab music blaring while women in colorful veiled Kangas danced in circles around the bride. But no old timey Taarab.

Night 2: Taarab School and a Game of Dominoes

With the clock (moon) ticking, we decided to visit the two modern temples of Taarab music, the Dhow Countries Music Academy and the Culture Musical Club. Although the Academy offers obligatory drum courses to dreadlocked Italian tourists, it also plays an important role in passing down Zanzibar’s musical traditions to the next generations. The Club is well-know, but we were sure to find what we were looking for.

Like many buildings on the waterfront of Zanzibar city, the huge Academy had an intense rundown, ex-colonial charm. A security guard at the entrance sleepily asked us sign to sign a resister – Tanzanians love registers – and we walked up to a vast open-air courtyard on the top floor. It was quite a busy scene. Music students were running around with accordions, fiddles, ouds and upright bases. There we met Moh’d Othman, an instructor at the Academy and got him to share some Taarab tunes:

(2nd part with one of his fiddle students)

Later that night we crossed town to the see the revered Culture Musical Club. Founded in the 1950s as a political youth movement, the Club today are the foremost performers of old style Taarab and often travel abroad. They play pure Taarab in all its orchestral glory and still have a busy schedule of wedding gigs.

Like Buena Vista, the Culture Music Club is a real social club and members gather at its HQ to hang out, play dominos and one imagines, occasionally play music. Moh’d told me to go there and catch a practice but when we showed up at the the Club HQ, there was just one accordion player reading a newspaper in a vast empty room. “No practice now, come back later” he told me. And thus began our epic journey with the fine gentlemen of the Musical Club.

We did come back later, only to find a few more men lounging around. “No practice, come back tomorrow,” was the answer, something we got used to hearing.

Night 3: Negotiating with the Board of Directors

After repeated attempts (“no pratice, come back later”), we returned to the Club one last time. About twenty men were deep in a dominoes game  and a large group of women sat in another room, gathered around a blaring TV. After an exchange of pleasantries, I popped the question.

“What practice?” asked the same man from the other night. “There is no practice tonight.” “Come back in a month,” said another. My ethnomusicologist dreams crumbled in front of my eyes. Ramadan was starting the next day and we were leaving Zanzibar for the mainland. Would I actually set foot on the archipelago and not see a full Taarab orchestra in action?

Luckily, I happened to be surrounded by 20 of the best Taarab musicians in the world who just, erm, didn’t feel like “practicing.” After all, the Cultural Musical Club is a social club, and tonight the ordre du jour seemed to be dominoes and Nigerian soap operas.

An hour of negotiation followed. If Taarab is a mix between cultures, the Culture Musical Club is a mix between a Bingo Hall and a government ministry with all the requisite bureaucracy and administration. I discussed/negotiated with the Treasurer, Accountant and finally Secretary General of the Club, in that order.

Finally, after an hour of high-level “negotiations,” the band set up: 3 fiddles, 2 accordions, 2 percussionists, kanun, upright bass, ney flute, keyboard and oud. The women got up from around the TV and lined up plastic chairs next to us – we naively thought they were there to listen. The band started with a powerful overture and eventually one of the women stepped up from the crowd to sing. Women singers dominate Taarab and the lyrics can be quite bawdy, dealing with rough-and-tumble subjects.

It was at that point that we realized why negotiations were so tough – the women weren’t audience members. They were in fact a 12-women chorus, filling the dingy club HQ with some of the most powerful ensemble singing I’ve ever heard. They never got up from their plastic chairs, belting out achingly beautiful call and response to the lead singers sensual lead vocals.

The Club’s Board of Directors wasn’t so hot on filming, so I only have a few shots, taken during the 1st song when we realized that the rest of the  “audience” wasn’t an audience.

Mission =  successful

Night 4: Ramadan Begins

Content with our musical adventures, we went to the roof of our hotel at dusk on our last night to welcome the beginning of Ramadan. High up over the tin roofs and windy streets of Stone Town, we could hear at least 10 different amplified muezzins calling to prayer, all the voices mixing together in one glorious harmony. Down in the harbour a group of fisherman crowded on a wooden boat for their evening prayers:

After running around town rushing in music before Ramadan, we were treated to one last wonder of Zanzibar before we left.

Fishing boats 3


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:

Adrian Receanu – Playing By the Rules

Photo: Alexis Rimbaud

One piece of advice you might hear when pitted against the French bureaucracy is “don’t play by the rules.”

It’s been eons since my last post (time-consuming job), but I’d thought I’d make a comeback with an entry about a young clarinetist from Moldova who has done everything humanly possible to play by the rules. While Paris is swarming with illegal musicians – be they Romanian subway accordionists or American ex-pats – 30 year-old Adrian Receanu has filled out every last page of paperwork.

And now he is deep, deep căcat [dans la merde in Romanian]

After living, studying and performing legally in France for ten years, on March 11th Adrian received an avis d’expulsion du territoire français, a dreaded document among immigrants here. In short, the avis orders you to leave France in one-month’s time – giving Adrian until April 11th to get out of le Dodge. Today’s Canard Enchaîné, a well-known satirical weekly, summed up Adrian’s sticky situation: “He made two mistakes: the first, to get married, the second to divorce a Frenchwoman de souche.” [most appropriate translation I could think of, ”blue-blooded Frenchwoman]

According to Adrian, he simply tried to update his immigration status. But at some point during the complicated process of changing his marriage residency card to a student visa, he caught the attention of the immigration officials. A simple administrative nightmare – anything involving paperwork in France invariably becomes horrific – turned into a spiralling descent into a bureaucratic hellhole. Having already clocked three bureaucratic nightmares in my five years living here I can only sympathize. But Adrian is facing exile from his home, friends and workplace.

Luckily, Adrian has many friends.

This Wednesday, the glitterati of Paris’s Romanian and Klezmer music scene were out in full force for a benefit concert at the Cafe de la Dance in central Paris. Adrian has a hefty lawyer’s bill to pay to deal with the paperwork and try to gain the upper hand in his immigration proceedings. Luckily, Adrian is a transatlantic Eastern European music superhero. The some 300 fans and supporters that showed up and gave to the cause were testament to this.

The concert was a real spectacle. France’s reining Gypsy Queens were there: Norig, Rona Hartner (from Gadjo Dilo fame) and an up-and-coming young Franco-Hungarian Gypsy singer Erika Serre were among the headliners. At the final onstage jam, Adrian found himself in a Gypsy Diva sandwich, surrounded by legions of admiring Klezmer musicians. After all, Adrian has a special place in the hearts of those of us that are obsessed with old time Eastern/Central European Jewish dance music.

Photo: Corine Goldberger

He stared playing clarinet at the age of 12 in his native Moldova, eventually going to a “folk music” conservatory to master Moldovan folk music. Moldova, a former Soviet Republic, was at one time a melting pot, with ethnic Romanians, Russians, Hungarians, Greeks, Jews, Roma and the Gagauz, a Turkish ethnic group, to name a few. Moldovan traditional music reflects this rich heritage.

Adrian, curious about the diverse roots of Moldovan folk music, is particularly fascinated about the shared roots of Moldovan and Klezmer music. Since moving to France, he has plunged into the repertoire of German Goldenshteyn , a Moldovan Jewish clarinet player that was one of our last links with old time Jewish music. Although German died in 2006, Adrian picked up many of his tunes, and just, well, plays them right.

He is a member of the all-star “Other Europeans” ensemble project, which explores the common roots of Yiddish and Roma music. Pending future visa problems, Adrian should be touring with them in the US soon. Check out a short clip of Adrian playing with his band in Paris:

Despite the festive mood at the benefit concert, conversation quickly turned serious. France’s ongoing debate about immigration is well-known. The current government, which was pummelled at regional elections last week, recently called for a controversial public “debate” about French national identity. France’s far-right wing party, the National Front, made a surprising come-back at the polls in last week’s elections, scoring over 20 % in certain regions. Many observers blame the current government’s obsession with immigration and identity for the rise of the far-right.

At the concert, there were dark rumours that Adrian was part of the government’s rush to deport as many immigrants as possible. Since Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in 2007, the government has made public the number of “expulsions” of illegal immigrants – last year they announced 30,000. Was Adrian a victim of number-crunching?

“Our goal is also to show that Adrian has a real life here in Paris – friends, fans, supporters and all of the well-known artists that he works with,” Elie Petit told me outside the venue. Elie, a Klezmer clarinet player himself, is the treasurer of the Union of French Jewish Students. The largest Jewish student group in France was out in full force to support Adrian, taking time off their busy schedule of throwing clown noses at the Iranian President.

A personal note: Adrian is one of the kindest, sweetest and most genuine musicians I have ever met. Back in 2004, I spent a couple of weeks in Romania to learn local accordion styles and got my ass kicked (musically) from Wallachia to Bukovina. I did leave with enormous respect for the local musicians and their dedication to playing their musical traditions “correctly.” Yet I’ve been terrified of the wrath of Romanian musicians ever since. Meeting Adrian – and sharing a few tunes with him – has changed everything.

No doubt that Adrian has more than a vie privé here in Paris. He is an essential part of the trad musical scene here… and abroad. Check out and join his facebook support group.

This being France, there was some heated discussion in and around the concert if the organizers should also use Adrian’s plight as an opportunity to raise the awareness of the situation of immigrants in France. If anyone wants to voice their opinion on this, feel free to do it the comments section: [en français si vous voulez..]

Geopolitics and Exotica at the World Travel Market in London

Now for a little detour from the grimy streets of Paris, to the vast halls of the ExCeL exhibition centre in London Docklands, where I attended the World Travel Market (WTM) last week for my new job. WTM is an absolute madhouse of speed dealing and wheeling, yet I found some time to conduct some ersatz ethnology and see how geopolitics plays out in what is the main event for the travel and tourist industry.


The World Travel Market (WTM) brings together more than 50,000 travel industry professionals every year for four days to exhibit, network and conduct key business deals, often à l’ancienne with just a handshake. At first I was a bit disappointed at the coldness and impersonality of the exhibitions – giant flashy pavilions are set up by tourism authorities and tour companies to showcase countries and regions.

It is in the myriad of make-shift offices, strategically scattered around the pavilions (see photo), that the real business happens at WTM. After all, the event is for industry professionals – not travelers.

But I couldn’t help but wonder how geopolitics played out at the event, which represents one of the largest industries in the world. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the  industry employs approximately 220 million people and generates over 9.4 per cent of world GDP. Would they drop border disputes and ethnic conflicts in the name of good-natured economic competition?

It seems business was the rule and conflict was the exception, yet a careful examination unearthed some items of interest. Continuing with this blog’s focus on quirky and little-known ethnic subcultures, I was able to find some tourist stands for self-declared states and disputed regions. And with a little investigation, we found some fun examples of how politics seemed to play a role in the strategic placement of certain expositions.

The scoop this year among journalists was the participation of Iraq – I looked in vain for their exposition. I did meet their tourism officials at a cocktail reception and they were the life of the party. The Iranians had a harder time getting to WTM.

Other observations of a distinctly geopolitical or anthropological interest:



I got my favorite tote bag from Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008 and got its CIA Factbook entry ten days later. Kosovo’s statehood has been recognized by the US and most EU states, save Serbia’s orthodox buddy-state Greece and a few others. From the former Soviet Union, only the three Baltic countries have recognized Kosovo. In the name of avoiding conflict, I respectfully put my Kosovo bag away when passing through country pavilions of those hostile to Kosovar independence. I just liked the bag and the following brochure, thats all:


Pavillon Diplomacy – The Chinas

I also set out to see how the WTM dealt with complicated territorial issues, as countries are more or less set up by region and geographic location. Solution for the China-Taiwan problem – put Taiwan next to Mongolia, far from the China exposition:



I also noted that Israel’s exhibition was not located in the Middle East region next to the pavilions of its geographic neighbors, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. Instead, Israel’s exhibit was in “Europe – Mediterranean.” Ok… If it makes everyone happy I guess.

The UEFA Champions League also considers Israel European. So close but so far…

Ethiopia and Eritrea

Relations have been iffy between Ethiopia and Eritrea since the 1998-2000 border conflict, which the international media described as a “war between two of the world’s poorest nations.” The war cost each side thousands of lives and occasional artillery duels still flare up across the border. While we were at WTM Ethiopia accused Eritrea of supporting a rebel uprising in its Ogaden region. All seemed calm at the WTM in London though.


I was really excited about this one – Nagorno-Karabakh isn’t even an internationally recognized state. Its actually a de facto “independent republic” located in Azerbaijan.

After the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, a “frozen” ethnic conflict in the South Caucasus thawed into full-blown war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Karabakh, an Armenian ethnic enclave nestled in the mountains of Western Azerbaijan. After a three-year war, Armenia gained control and an independent “Armenian” republic was set up. I was in Armenia in 1999 and couldn’t find a ride along the one road connecting Armenia with Nagorno-Karabak, the “Lachin Corridor.”

Oh well, ten years later I got to peruse the Karabakh tourist stand in WTM and check out pamphlets for new luxury hotels in Stepanakert, the republic’s once heavily bombed-out but now rebuilt capital.

North Cyprus

Another de facto independent republic, North Cyprus is only diplomatically recognized by Turkey, after they invaded the northern part of the island in 1974. The island of Cyprus is now a member of the European Union and most of the international community recognizes its sovereignty over the self-proclaimed “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.” Just details I suppose for the average tourist. The violence has died down and the beaches are nice, even if you can’t really figure out in what country/autonomous republic you are actually sunning yourself.

[In their recent Berlin Wall anniversary issue, Le Monde called Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyrpus, the site of the “last wall” in Europe. For some reason I found that article really simplistic, but it could just be me.]


Further down the de facto tourism route, I couldn’t help but linger around the Georgia exposition. I found it ironic that a country as beautiful and culturally rich as Georgia has such a bad tourist-reputation these days. Georgia =  wine, food, cute seaside towns, polyphonic singing, mountains, the world’s longest toasts (the average is over three minutes long).  Its doubly ironic when you consider the fact that Georgia was thought of as the “resort republic” of the Soviet Union.

In 1992 the region of Abkhazia broke away from Georgia proper after war and ethnic cleansing/population transfers occurred on both sides. Yet before the the breakup of the Soviet Union Abkhazia was dotted with popular seaside resorts .

The self-proclaimed “autonomous region” of South Ossetia also fought a separatist war with Georgia in 1991-92. A flare-up of hostilities there was one of the causes of the Russian-Georgian war last summer. As part of the totally intense geopolitical situation in the Caucasus, Russia has sided with both Abhkazia and South Ossetia against “pro-Western” Georgia.

Suffice to say, with so many breakaway regions, Georgia’s tourist map was pretty much messed up – I guess they get points for being honest:

Its a little hard to make out, but on the legend they’ve marked capitals, capitals of autonomous republics and three types of internal borders, including a red one with the disclaimer “at the time of printing these regions are not under the control of the central government. Thus, travelling to these regions is not advisable.” Again, BIG points for honesty.

I do wish Georgia luck in getting back the tourists, although they probably won’t be getting back those autonomous regions anytime soon. It really is an amazing country, and I’m not just saying that because I love polyphony and long-winded toasts.




A little bit of action, quand meme. On the last day of the WTM, a group of protestors from the “Burma Campaign UK”  showed up in front of the exposition entrance. Brandishing signs criticizing Burma’s military dictatorship, they were protesting international tourism in Burma and the foreign bucks they claim supports the military junta. According to them, Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi – lauded around the world for her peace activism – has actually asked that tourists not visit Burma.

The protestors spent the better part of the day just standing twenty feet or so from the entrance – they were quite peaceful, no slogans or hooting. The hordes of  chain-smoking, deal-making expo participants gabbing in their cellphones took little notice. Business first:


On to some amateur ethnology. Not much to report – this wasn’t an event for anthropologists, but I did find some rootsy things among the multi-media/interactive exhibition stands. Some panamanian accordion music, Afro-Columbian dance, Argentinean tango.. I ran out of time and camera batteries though. Managed a little field recording though:

Like this Carpathian string band from Western Slovakia:

By the way, Slovakia’s tourism slogan was “Little Big County” and brochures heralded its capital Bratislava as the “Detroit of Europe.” Genius. I miss Central Europe. [by the way, Slovakia is really the Michigan of Europe. Automobile production represents 26% of its industrial output and 30% of its imports. A strong automative industry has helped Slovakia earn the name “The Tatra Tiger.]

Lesser-Known Languages of Paris – Insults in Judeo-Arabic

Most New Yorkers have been exposed at least once to Yiddish, probably after passing a few Hassidic Jews on the street, but does your average Parisian know that they’ve probably crossed paths with another arcane Jewish language, Judeo-Arabic?

While Yiddish – a mix between Hebrew, German and various Slavic languages  – was the lingua-franca of European Jews, “Judeo-Arabic” (and its various dialects) was spoken by Sephardic Jews from Casablanca to Istanbul. A mixture of Spanish, Hebrew and local Arabic dialects, Judeo-Arabic evolved over time after Sephardic Jews left Spain in the 15th century and settled in and around the Mediterranean.

Most of the remaining speakers of Judeo-Arabic today are in Israel, with small pockets in Tunisa and Morocco, which both still have small Jewish communities. But France’s Sephardic community – about 60% of the total Jewish population of around 600,000 – also boasts a few older speakers, due to large-scale Jewish immigration to France from North Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. And like Yiddish, most of the language disappeared with the second generation.

For American Jews, only the most juicy Yiddish words have endured, such as schmuck or putz, (idiot, fool). Interestingly, second-generation North African Jews in France have also retained a colorful arsenal of insults.

For this post, my second so far, I’ll have to backtrack a bit to a previous job of mine at a Paris-based Jewish organization, where I shared a room with two Tunisian Jews. I quickly found out that when the stress escalated, my Jewish colleagues would unleash invective in what I initially assumed was Arabic.

I was soon corrected – Tunisian Jews don’t swear in Arabic, according to my former colleagues. They swear en Judeo-Arabe.

More specifically, my roomates were cussing in Judeo-Tunisian, a sub-dialect of Judeo-Arabic. Ethnologue cites a Judeo-Tunisian lexicon of 5,000 words in 1950 that documented 79% words of Arabic origin, 15% Romance loanwords and 4.4% Hebrew loanwords. Unlike the ghettoized Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, Jews and Arabs lived in close proximity, sharing language, music and culinary traditions. Judeo-Arabic reflected this co-existence.

Although many Jews in Morocco and Tunisia spoke Judeo-Arabic, by the late 19th century Algerian Jews were mainly French-speaking, following the “Crémieux Law” of 1870 which gave French citizenship to 37,000 Algerian Jews. As a result, Algerian Jews began to assimilate to French culture even before they immigrated to France after Algerian independence in 1962. Moroccans and Tunisians, on the other hand, retained both Arabic and Judeo-Arabic, carrying it with them into France.

Judeo-Arabic has not made the inroads into French that Yiddish has into American English. Nevertheless, modern French slang is full of words of Arabic origin like bled – city, kiffer – appreciate, reflecting both French colonialism and post-war immigration to France from North Africa.

Today Judeo-Arabe is disappearing, along with plenty of other vestiges of Jewish culture in North Africa, as second and third generation Sephardic Jews assimilate in both France and Israel. But there are plenty of traditions that exist in Paris – mostly in private – that I hope to get at in later posts.

If you find yourself on the streets of Belleville or other heavily Sephardic neighborhoods in Paris, listen closely and you might hear the final breaths of a dying language. And if you are really feeling adventurous, arm yourself with some of the useful insults below, you might just impress someone, or at least send them into an amusing rage:

Insults – Field Recordings and a Lexicon

Between bouts of screaming in Judeo-Arabic, I finally took it upon myself to start writing down some of the more colorful phrases that were let loose in the pitched battles that were a daily occurrence at my office. At first, my colleagues were perplexed that a New Yorker would want to learn their insults – distrust and mutual incomprehension are somewhat endemic of the Sephardic/Ashkenaz divide in France.

But by learning their curses like Naal din rassa taik, I was able to slowly gain their trust and dive into my anthropological research:

Here, a former colleague, “M,” a second-generation Tunisian Jew, effectively demonstrates a Judeo-Arabic tirade, replete with the all-important hand gestures. Roughly translated: “Cursed be the religion of your mother, may she mourn your passing, you f****r.”

Next up we have “A,” born in Algeria, offering what she claimed was a “polite way to say f**k off.” Unfortunately she wouldn’t translate it. Deeply religious, “A” wasn’t going to partake in the often scatological insults used in her mother tongue:

Worlds apart from A’s shy prudishness, we have “G,” born in Tunisia:

“G” also refused to translate, but upon consulting my excel spreadsheet of insults, it seems he is saying “f**k off you American dwarf” along with some unfortunately unpublishable material. [ed: my grandmother reads this blog]

For those that want to delve a little deeper into the venomous couscous of Judeo-Arabic insults, I’ve listed some of the more printable insults, unfortunately edited down a bit, so my Bubby doesn’t get verklempt when she reads this:

Chrabonne boul a lik ya carba – je vais pisser sur toi – i’m going to urinate on you

Ishou omok fik – que ta mere sois en deuil de toi – may your mother mourn your passing

Nadeen ram bok – maudit soi la religion de ton dieu enculer – cursed be the religion of you mother, f**k you

fuk a lia fout ma la paix – get the hell out of here

kul mogalti tai – eat me [edited down version]

bara neeyik – f**k you

in tee jnoun – tu es un petite nain – you are a small dwarf [notice that the word for dwarf, jnoun, resembles “Djinn” or genie, a supernatural creature in Arabic folklore]

Naal din rassa taik – polite f**k off [Judeo-Moroccan version]

atini le flush ya zhnoun – give me the money, you little dwarf

ya bouftak – you have a giant butt [ahem, edited a bit]

meuftouk – screw you

ya ta han – you voyeur

kruzhl zu bit ai on boul a lik – I will urinate on you [other version]

irrdum yaf fin yen – Weakling!!

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.

Picture 3

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