God Smokes Cuban Cigars

Emmanuelle Béart enjoying a ciggie, while she can.

Thanks to the upcoming ban on smoking in public places, smirting may take France by storm. That’s all Parisians need: another excuse to stand in the street in loving embrace.

Appreciating a glass of wine whilst enjoying a smoke may seem scandalous to budding oenologists, but the French have been doing this since foreign stereotyping entered the modern era. With France set to become the next European country to succumb to the anti-tobacco domino effect, however, French smokers are about to quite literally take to the streets.

The French sense of culture seems very much rooted in the earth that makes up the French territory. Perhaps because of its geographical position at the crossroads of Europe, the French notion of nationhood soon integrated the concept of the law of the soil (droit du sol in French, ius soli in Latin). On the ground, at street level, pounding the earth in public protestation has almost part of one’s civic duties, la manifestation acting as a middle chamber between the lower house, l’Assemblée nationale, and the senate. And this can be done to great media effect, as the student demonstrations this year demonstrated.

What goes on in the ground has also helped define French culture. But far more goes on in the soil than the slow ageing of the elixir of life. Two years ago, a fully functioning cinema was discovered in the catacombs of Paris. The subterranean clandestine cinema covered an area of more than 300 square metres and even had a bar and restaurant area. This may all sound terribly romantic but burial dumping grounds are not particularly well-known for their air conditioned facilities or pavement terraces, so where did all the guerrilla cinema-goers light up? Perhaps they refrained from such a dangerous activity. Perhaps. But this seems doubtful.

Let me try and explore this point by staying beneath the surface of the earth, but climbing up from the municipal ossuary to 'the underground'; not the Paris subway system, but the hotbed of cultural and social resistance, or if you prefer the hush-hush version of street level defiance.

As Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton recount in their book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, after World War I Paris became a haven for black American jazz musicians, many of whom gained celebrity status. But then came World War II and the Nazi occupation. Although many of the black musicians had to flee or face internment, jazz standards continued to be played as protest songs. One particular group of jazz-fuelled resistors took their name from a Cab Calloway scat and called themselves the Zazous. They were known for their long hair, glam fashion sense, and for smuggling their records into cafés off the Champs Elysées and in the Latin Quarter. It wasn’t long before the Vichy collaborationists held the Zazous in their sites, hunting them down and literally scalping them. This pushed their activities into the caves and sous-sols of Paris and in these places, one could posit, both the discothèque and the idea of 'underground music' were born.

These literal underground venues can still be found in Paris, such as La Maroquinerie ('the tannery') in the 20th district. It was there that last September I went to see Hot Chip. It’s an intimate place and ideal for seeing a band still high from Mercury Prize nomination but not yet charging over-inflated prices. Entrance to the venue is down a flight of stairs (as you would expect) and through a single door. A simple structure provides you with slightly elevated standing room if moshing in the pit isn’t your thing.

The place soon filled out with a keen Parisian crowd doing what Parisians do best: smoking. It was then that it dawned on me that the elevated area I was standing on was made out of wood and that the solitary door doubled as both the main entrance and fire exit. And, of course, there were no windows BECAUSE I WAS UNDERGROUND! You may think that this type of reaction is extremely uncool of somebody at a Hot Chip gig. Well, I have no qualms admitting that I have reached an age that has put me firmly in touch with my own mortality (though not yet at the age where I have nothing left to lose).

I am myself a reformed smoker but for years I resisted giving up. "I’m no quitter!" I would shout at those who would scold my habit. Because I knew that the new century would bring with it a fresh virulent form of health fascism, I had a whole battery of weapons ready for my defence. I based my whole philosophy of life in the screenwritings of Robert Mark Kamen. Indeed, in my life little art has come close to offering me such insight as that which is given to us in Karate Kid. How can you deny the sagacity of Miyagi explaining to Daniel LaRusso the merits of personal focus?

Walk left side, safe. Walk right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later get squish just like grape. Here, karate, same thing. Either you karate do "yes" or karate do "no". You karate do "guess so"…

Either you smoke do "yes", or you smoke do "no". But you cannot smoke do "guess so". There was a time I would even laugh at the fate of relapsed reformed-smokers what with all their 'born-again do-goody tutting' every time you want to light up when they reform and all their 'ah wells' as if their surrender was unavoidable when they relapse. What did they expect – had they ever caught a fly with chopsticks? Of course not, so how could they expect to accomplish something so impossible?

That was then. Now I’ve given up cigarettes but allow myself the occasional Cuban cigar. Does that make me a smoker do "guess so"? Perhaps, though I would argue my interest in cigars lies in the aroma-enhancing experience they bring to a Bas-Armagnac. And because I think they make me look cool when out in fancy Parisian brasseries.

But French culture as we know it is about to disappear in a puff of non-smoke. As from the 1st February 2007, smoking in public places will be banned and France will join a growing list of European nations leaving smokers out in the cold. The first European nation to impose an outright smoking ban on all public places was the Republic of Ireland. From the 29th March 2004 it became illegal to smoke in anything from a pub to a company car on the Emerald Isle.

Hang on a minute. In 1991 Claude Evin, France’s then Secretary of State for Social Affairs, ushered in an early version of a law banning smoking in all public spaces. So what’s the difference between the 15 year-old loi and this new version? Well, as far as I can tell, not much. Except that this time we’re assured that the law shall be enforced. If this is the case, then France’s tobacco-consuming culture is set for a definite upheaval, undoubtedly more so than in Ireland or, indeed, Britain which also has recently voted in favour of an all-out ban.

When I first came to France as a young man 15 or so years ago, I was surprised to see perfect strangers stop each other in the street and ask for a cigarette. Cigarettes were considered expensive in Britain even back then, and this behaviour of casual sharing was something that was quite literally foreign to me. At the time, however, the gesture seemed to embody all the positive values of the cigarette: it was a symbol of solidarity and freedom. After all, when soldiers liberate an occupied people they offer cigarettes, don’t they? Or they did once, didn’t they? Soldiers in the Second World War were given cigarettes in their rations. Perhaps this was simply a romantic vision that played up to my bohemian expectations of life in France: sitting around a table talking about music and anarchy with the likes of Jacques Brel, Leo Ferré, Georges Brassens while we all shared a large ashtray. Okay, so I had been schooled at the University of Cliché, but I had also seen the photos of the holy chanson trinity taken in 1969 ( and from what I witnessed on the streets the sociability of the cigarette still seemed to hold true.

Since that time, however, taxation on tobacco has seen the average price of a packet of cigarettes shoot up by over 350 percent. Salaries haven’t. And yet there are still those that will stop you in the street to ask for un clope much to growing annoyance. Once smokers have been pushed out of the bars and restaurants and quite thoroughly into the streets, then surely this will make for rich picking grounds and perhaps increased problematic encounters.

Mind you, this hasn’t been the case in Ireland. The only tension there seems to be amongst groups of smokers standing outside the pub is sexual tension. Smirting – a mixture of smoking and flirting – has sprung from the arbitrary contact between sexually active people who are brought together by their habit. There is no doubt that the shared addiction takes both the cringe and sleaze factors out of those opening chat up lines. And according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, more young women in Ireland smoke than men, so it would seem that things are looking up for Humphrey Bogart wanabees.

Of course, Serge Gainsbourg was already singing about the amorous effects of smoking back in '80. In his song Dieu est un fumeur de havanes, a duet with the smouldering Catherine Deneuve, God is a smoker of Cuban cigars who even smokes at night just like Serge:

Dieu est un fumeur de havanes

Je vois ses nuages gris

Je sais qu'il fume même la nuit

Comme moi ma chérie

And after being chastised by Deneuve for bringing tears to her eyes (all dodgy double entendres fully intended), even Serge has to admit that smoking is heaven in more ways than one:

Dieu est un fumeur de havanes

C’est lui-même qui m’a dit

Que la fumée envoie au paradis

Je le sais ma chérie

Indeed, the heart attack that killed Gainsbourg was undoubtedly brought on by his chain-smoking and this just two months after the 1991 loi Evin was ratified – albeit not enforced.

But perhaps romance hasn’t been dragged out of smoking just yet. Smirting may well be set to take France by storm. That’s all Parisians need: another excuse to stand in the street in loving embrace. The question that remains is what the French will call smirting -- can I be the first to suggest drumer (from draguer to flirt and fumer to smoke)? Although in this globalised age, I’m sure they’ll go with a Frenchified version of the verb smirter which pronounced in the French way actually sounds quite naughty.

In the meantime, I'll feel a lot more comfortable at underground gigs come next March.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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