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…

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.

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

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