The old bal musette music of France is known nowadays for its accordions but the name itself suggests a different instrument—musette are small bagpipes. In the bal musette‘s home region of Auvergne, these pipes were of a specific local kind, made from the stomachs of goats and nicknamed cabrette or “little goat”. During the 1800s, the music travelled to Paris when Auvergne’s farmers began to migrate to the city, a journey that has been taken by more than one provincial genre that later became known as a signature tune of the urban world. Cameroon’s bikutsi followed the same path, from countryside folk music to Yaoundé pop, hitching a ride with country people searching for the same thing that drove Auvergne’s farmers into the city: the prospect of well-paid work.
Bal musette spread through the city’s dance houses. A piper named Antoine Bouscatel is credited with introducing the accordion into the mix. At first, the new instrument accompanied the pipes, then it pushed them into the background and superseded them completely. The airy ripple characteristic of bal musette‘s little diatonic accordion is supposed to have originated with Emile Vacher, whose portrait you can see in the liner notes of World Musette. He wears a bow tie and stares out of the page with waiting eyes, prepared to start playing as soon as he hears his cue. Vacher died in 1969.
By that time, bal musette had lost its old popularity. During the later part of the century, it became more of a sound cue than a living genre. It appeared occasionally in movies and television shows as a form of scene-setting shorthand. “Listen, dear audience,” the accordion said, “we are in France. Doo doo de doo. Doo doo de doo.”
Les Primitifs du Futur is one of several groups of musicians who are working to retain the old tunes, concerned that they will be lost. The band is of greater casual interest to non-French listeners than other musette-revival groups because it contains Robert Crumb. On this album he plays the banjo. His involvement is obvious as soon as you look at the CD—the front cover is illustrated in a style that is clearly Crumb and nothing other than Crumb: it’s his usual linework and hatching. Inside the notes you can see a number of other Crumb drawings, the portrait of Vacher among them. In one picture, the artist shows himself holding his banjo and knotting his thighs around one elbow as his body jellifies with masturbatory shudders. You’re not going to hear anything quite that orgasmic on World Musette.
Faithful to its title, the album blends bal musette with music from other parts of the world. In most cases, these portmanteau tunes are credited to Dominique Cravic, the guitarist and collector of old records who introduced Crumb to the other members of Les Primitifs when the American visited France to attend the Angouleme Comic-book Festival in 1986. It’s Cravic who is responsible for “C’est la Goutte d’or Qui Fait Déborder la Valse”, which begins with the sound of an oud, played by Mohammed el Yazid Baazi. “Valse Oriental”, observes the subtitle. You wouldn’t think that the spaciousness of an ‘ud and the contained twiddle of the accordion would have much to say to one another but the tune comes together fairly well, with the Arabic theme underscored by the pottering of Khriddene Medjoubi on the darbouka.
It’s Cravic, along with Guy Lefebvre, who takes credit for “Maldita Noche”, a kind of musette-tango, the accordion twitching in time with imaginary dancing Argentineans before veering away into a Frenchified ripple. There are also a number of vintage songs on here: the swaying “Chanson pour Louise Brooks”; “Rêve Secret” with its singing saw; and “La Valse Chinoise”, an old waltz by Joseph Colombo and the accordionist Georges Ghestem, which is authentically Chinese in the same way that tiki bars are authentically Fijian. You’ll recognise the standard tinkety-tonk Chinese melody that Jean Michel Davis knocks out on the xylophone as soon as you hear it.
But the foreign country they address most often is the United States. The members of Les Primitifs have an interest in blues. The café where Crumb was introduced to them is described in the notes by Pascal Anquetil as “the blues Mecca of Montparnasse” and their first short album, Cocktail d’Amour, “contained six tracks that mingled blues and musette with a tender fervour”. (I’m not sure what kind of relationship Anquetil has with the band but his language is entertainingly flowery. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the phrase “world music” described as “whoremongering” before. Even David Byrne didn’t go that far.) “Scattin’ The Blues” is a recreation of the kind of old-style blues that they would have come across while scavenging for antique vinyl and shellac; it’s not musette at all. “Le Blues de Dix-Neuf Heures Trente” lopes along on the back of a piano and harmonica, straddling the boundary between blues and jazz.
Those two tunes are fine enough on their own, but bal musette is so good, so grabby, so devil-may-care, and so criminally overlooked, that the blues dilutions that come later in the album seem beside the point. They’re taking valuable time away from the accordions. World Musette could use less world and more musette. You’d be better off finding a compilation of old recordings stripped off the original records and remastered onto CD and buying that. The old songs are durable—and by that I mean that they sound as if they were made to kick around on the hit parade and take knocks from the competition. World Musette doesn’t have that air of commercial authenticity. Go for the pure stuff. Leave this for afters.
// Notes from the Road
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