PHILADELPHIA — For Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, the roots of “Philly-Paris Lockdown,” the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts classical-pop mashup that he and Parisian chanteuse Keren Ann will debut Sunday at the Kimmel Center, lie in the City of Light in the spring of 1994.
That’s when the Roots, the acclaimed Philadelphia hip-hop band that now make their living on NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” found themselves with “the sweet misfortune” of being stranded in Paris after a planned tour of Japan was abruptly canceled.
In the time between 1993’s self-released “Organix” and their 1995 major-label debut, “Do You Want More?!!!??!,” the crew straight outta South Philadelphia’s High School for the Creative and Performing Arts had decamped to London, embarking on a Jimi Hendrix-inspired strategy of building up critical reputation by winning over European audiences.
It didn’t work out exactly according to plan for ?uestlove and his bandmates. Being broke by the banks of the Seine meant that the Roots had to find a way to rap for their supper, which usually consisted of “greasy frites and baguettes stuffed with questionable meats,” the drummer, producer, DJ and bandleader recalls.
“That was my first taste of French culture,” recalls ?uestlove, talking on the phone backstage at Rockefeller Center between Fallon rehearsals with organist Booker T. Jones, whose new album (due May 10) ?uestlove produced.
The group spent five weeks traveling to gigs all over France in a beat-up tour bus. “I visited all the museums and soaked up all I could,” recalls the well-traveled drummer, who began his career as a preteen backing his father’s doo-wop band, Lee Andrews & the Hearts.
“When I think of 1994, I think of when we lived in Pigalle and the Moulin Rouge was across the street. There were toothless prostitutes and dogs (defecating) everywhere and we ate crepes for dinner.”
The band, which won three Grammys this year for “Wake Up!,” its collaborative album with soul man John Legend, “is in a strange sweet spot right now,” he says. “But I have good memories of the quote unquote bad times.”
Those memories came alive for ?uestlove when he and Roots manager Richard Nichols were approached in 2009 by the Kimmel Center about participating in PIFA, a three-week-long paean to the artistic ferment of early 20th-century Paris.
The 40-year-old drummer with the big Afro had his own Proustian “moment of the madeleine” that brought 1994 flooding back when he listened to classical composer Erik Satie’s “Nocturne No. 4,” a piece he first got to know on CAPA field trips to see the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The solo piano works of composers such as Satie, Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky are the starting point for the musical and literary experiment that ?uestlove and Keren Ann will embark on.
They’ll be joined by an impressive array of genre-hopping talent that will include jazz saxophonist David Murray (whom ?uestlove first met in Paris in 1994), Philadelphia string arranger Larry Gold, singers Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian and Haley Dekle of the indie rock group Dirty Projectors, Roots keyboardist James Poyser, and pianists Anthony Tidd, D.D. Jackson and Pallavi Mahidhara.
When looking for a French collaborator for the project, ?uestlove and Nichols — who says that “Philly-Paris Lockdown” is about “taking something that’s not supposed to be funky, and making it funky” — considered actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg and ambient-electro duo Air.
Eventually, they realized that the perfect choice was Keren Ann, whose gentle 2005 single “Greatest You Can Find” was remixed by ?uestlove. Even if the talented writer and arranger isn’t actually French by birth.
The singer, whose last name is Zeidel, was born in Israel to Russian and Dutch parents. And her sleek, unsettling new album, “101,” is sung entirely in English. Keren Ann moved to Paris with her parents when she was 11, and though the guitarist also spends time in New York, Tel Aviv and Reykjavik, Iceland, she’s primarily based in the artistic Parisian enclave of Montmartre.
“I was brought up in a way where you don’t fit to one religion, you don’t fit to one nationality, or to one language,” she says, speaking on the phone from her home in the 18th Arrondissement.
“You choose what’s right for you. But I spent my very important teenage years in Paris. And I think when you live somewhere when you’re a teenager, that’s where everything begins. And then I feel that everything I hate about the French I have in me,” she says with a laugh. “So I guess I’m more Parisian than you could imagine.”
Zeidel has been e-mailing music files across the ocean for months now in preparation for actual rehearsals, which won’t begin until she arrives in Philadelphia on Wednesday. She came up with one of “Lockdown’s” most intriguing elements: Adding words taken from writers including James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound, all of whom lived in Paris as expatriates in the 1920s, to musical tracks that meld classical piano with modern rhythmic instrumentation.
“We’ve been sending things back and forth for awhile now,” says Zeidel. “Every time they send me something, I’m overwhelmed by the beauty of it. I’ve been working on things in Paris or on the road, and they’ve been working in Philly. It’s the modern way of working. I’ve done many projects like this.”
When he opened an e-mail and heard how Keren Ann had transformed Pound’s poem “Medallion” into a “subversive pop song,” Nichols knew the experimental project was coming together. “It’s cool (stuff),” the Roots manager and former jazz DJ says. “It’s really melodic and melancholy. It’s pretty dope.”
When the “Philly-Paris Lockdown” musicians gather on the Verizon Hall stage next week, they won’t be doing Roots or Keren Ann songs, or even playing hip-hop per se. But the way the music will combine century-old classical compositions with modern elements will be “in the spirit of hip-hop,” says Nichols.
“I was always obsessed with the story of (Stravinsky’s) ‘Rite of Spring,’” says ?uestlove. “He composed something that basically set off a riot in the audience because they felt he disrespected classical music. It made me think of the outlaw way that hip-hop is looked at. Maybe ‘The Rite of Spring’ is the ‘Straight Outta Compton’ or Public Enemy’s ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions’ of its time.”
With “Philly-Paris Lockdown,” “I want to present it like I do with my DJ gigs, where I play the original sample first and then show how the sample has been utilized,” he says. “We’ll do the original composition first. And then we’ll do our own radical interpretation.”
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