New Media for a Forgotten Massacre

The killing of up to 200 Algerian protestors in Paris by police on October 17th, 1951 has been called France’s “forgotten massacre.” Exactly fifty years later, it seems light is finally being cast on the events of that cold autumn night –with a distinctly new media flair.

At the height of the Algeria’s war of independence, thousands of Algerians gathered in Paris to protest a curfew imposed by the city’s police chief Maurice Papon (yeah, that Maurice Papon). The Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) had called for a demonstration against what they considered a racist curfew imposed solely on the capital’s Algerian residents. Up to 30,000 peaceful protestors filled the streets. But most historians believe that Papon had planned in advance for a violent crackdown against the demonstrators. Throughout the night, over 10,000 protestors were beaten, arrested and then sent to detention centers in series of attacks throughout Paris. Anywhere from 50 to 200 protestors were beaten to death or shot dead by police.

Most horrifyingly, dozens of dead or unconscious protestors were thrown into the Seine. Bodies were found downstream, some as far as Le Havre, 100 miles away on the English Channel.

Until recently, the events have been little covered by the mainstream press and still are not included in school textbooks. In fact, many French historians and commentators claim that the government has covered up the killings. The government has yet to officially apologize and authorities still question the death toll.

This year marked a real turning point, with plenty of coverage of commemoration events in the print media and a deluge of new books. Moreover, the French talent for multimedia web production was on full display, with an impressive amount of content available online. After all, the French love the web documentaries, which they lovingly call webdocs (every self-respecting bobo is “finishing up their webdoc”). Webdocs are a perfect meeting ground for the French love of photo, video and quirky storytelling.

Here’s a quick round-up of what I’ve found online this week:

La nuit oubliée (The Forgotten Night)

A fantastic webdoc combining comics, video interviews and much more. There’s also a great interactive map of Paris. Click below for the webdoc (french only):


Another webdoc, with interactive map and plenty of interviews. The trailer is below and you can find the webdoc here: (also only in French)

Intro 17.10.61 from Cosmografik on Vimeo.


The youngins over at Owni are Paris’s own data visualization gods, widely worshiped in new media circles. They featured a great visualization (below) and an article with scans of official documents showing that French authorities planned out the illegal incarceration of thousands of “FMA,” or  French Muslim Algerians:

Ici on noie les Algériens (We drown Algerians here)

The French talent for documentaries has also been poorly applied to the events of October 17, 2011 – up until now, very few films have been produced about the massacre in the center of Paris. Seems this is changing as well. Here’s a trailer for one that opened in select Paris theaters yesterday:

The Godfather Comes to Montreuil?

A violent attack on a squat in the eastern suburbs of Paris last weekend has received a considerable amount of media attention for what has become an almost banal Parisian summer event: squatter evictions.

Over the weekend around twenty masked strongmen wielding iron bars and tear gas lay siege to a group of “activist” squatters in an abandoned house in the municipality of Montreuil. What the press has called an “armed raiding party” smashed the building’s entrance gate on Saturday, roughed up some inhabitants and returned two times over the weekend to wreck more havoc. According to witnesses, police showed up 30 minutes after the attack started but did nothing to stop the casseurs (hooligans). One usually reads about staged battles between casseurs and the police – this was a weird turn of events.

In a series of short statements released to indymedia, the squatter “collective” said they had occupied the house since 2007 with no outside ownership claims. Despite calling the squat La Maison qui Pue, (the House that Stinks), the collective insists that they lived in harmony with their neighbors. According to the collective, this weekend’s attackers were hired by a local real estate group called IAD that professes to have bought the house and wants to avoid a lengthy legal battle.

There was a surprising amount of mainstream buzz this week. Even the mayor of Montreuil chimed in, condemning the raid to the AFP. Local politician and teacher Bruno Saunier wrote an editorial piece on the website of news channel France 24 describing the owner’s “mafia-like methods.” The attack has received a large amount of coverage, including center-right Le Figaro, thanks to a video taken by a resident of the neighborhood:

But evictions at the numerous squats in the Eastern Paris suburb of Montreuil are an old story – squats have been sprouting up in this famously far-left neighborhood for decades, bringing in artists and anarchists alike. French law forbids evicting tenants during the winter, so the warmer months see a number of evictions, especially in Montreuil. It’s somewhat of a spring fertility rite in the area. Whole streets are blocked off for massive police operations, as screaming anarchists are dragged out of the large and often charming turn-of-the-century houses typical of Montreuil. The squatters have an impressive support network and always manage to attract local attention to their cause, while shunning the mainstream media.

This weekend’s event was different. It almost seemed that French press sniffed a whiff of the Godfather in the air. The media buzz has had an effect: According to Bruno Saunier’s personal blog, the two employees of the real estate company that ordered the attack have already been fired.

Squatters versus casseurs versus the police versus squatters. The gangs of paris never cease to amaze me.

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