Every June 21st the Fête de la Musique, the Music Festival, goes on all over France. It's an anything goes, amateur/professional celebration of music where anyone who can play an instrument is encouraged to play in the streets and everyone else is invited to the party. This all got started in 1982 after one of François Mitterrand's Ministers (the political not the religious kind) came up with the idea. Maurice Fleuret was a composer, music critic and in 1981 Director of Music and Dance in the Ministry of Culture (Do we have anything like that?). He read in a government report that around 5 million people in France had been taught to play a musical instrument and, being also a music festival organizer, thought a day of free music would be cool. It's now one of the biggest events of the French summer and you can read all about it here in clumsy but at least not Google Translate English.
|You might be able to make out the gray-haired American under the mike.|
Being able to participate in this was not only a blast, it was one more big step in finding my French sea legs. A couple of months ago, I finally got tired not only of being unable to have a conversation but of having no regular place to play my horn. While browsing in one of the local music stores, I used my best Pirini Scleroso French to ask where a barely competent trombone player might find a gig. Fortunately for me, the store guy's English was better and he gave me the name of a local big band he thought could be in need. It took me about a half an hour to write a two or three line email to the Carrément Jazz big band and they could indeed use a trombone.
Most towns of any size over here have a public music school funded in part by the municipality and a lot of these have adult bands affiliated with them. Carrément is one of those and it's connected to a school in the Bordeaux suburbs. As I got the story, for adults there is supposed to be some kind of subscription or tuition involved but nobody pays and nobody makes them. Like community bands in the States, some of the players are pretty good and others not. If it's a big band, instrumentation can be a bit informal and in my group the trombone section consists of two slides and a valve trombone, a tenor sax and bass trombone. The sax section has a full time flute player. Luckily for me, some of the players speak English and all of the charts, so far, have come from the States so I'm not having any real problems. It's pretty cool to see how much jazz means to people here and as an American it makes me feel pretty proud. And this band is unlike any I've ever experienced in that, before every rehearsal and every gig, each player makes it a point to greet every other player individually with a handshake or bises. Camaraderie is, in fact a French word.
My Fête de la Musique gig was across the river from Bordeaux and opened with what would have been a pretty good second line parade had there actually been a second line. The band, which called itself Psyché Funky, had done its homework on New Orleans brass bands and I'm damned if they didn't sound good enough to make it in Vieux Carré. My band picked up on the energy, I think, and don't seem to have ever gotten the word on playing behind a singer. By the end of our set the poor girl's pipes and my chops had taken a pretty good beating.
As I left the little riverside park, headed for home, the bar next door had what I can only describe as a Middle Eastern trio of a singer, hand drum and stringed chingadera. As a colonizer, France soaked up a lot of people from the Levant and various parts of Africa so it's not hard to find the sounds and rhythms of all those places here. In fact, scanning the line-ups for Bordeaux's Fête venues you find arabo-andalous, (Arab by way of Spain), Moroccan, Brazilian, Alternative hip-hop (your guess is as good as mine), banda and fanfare, (a catch-all category that takes in everything from New Orleans style to whatever-you-got street bands), rock, jazz and stuff I've never heard of and might be too old for anyway, like electro-dub.
Around 11, as I rode a packed tram through the heart of Bordeaux, the streets were filled with music and musicians. It seemed like just about every plaza had a stage set up and every bar had either a live band or DJ. I was completely unprepared for how big this was. If you want some idea of what you might see and hear, click here then go to Youtube and search Fête de la Musique. If you add Bordeaux to the search you'll get to hear a 14- minute concert from a local groupe de ukulele, singing in English. The Beatle tunes are my favorites.
So next year, when June 21st comes around, I'll be ready. This isn't just the longest day of the year, it's the coolest.