Various Artists: The Rough Guide to Paris Café Music
For several years, the Rough Guide book company and the World Music Network recording label have been producing collections of songs that characterize well-known travel destinations. One of their latest is The Rough Guide to Paris Café Music and it is tres magnifique.
Dominated by swift melodies, the café sound first emerged at the turn of the last century, when Italians immigrants began to settle in Paris. At the time, many of the eateries in the city hired performers to play dance music -- or bal musette -- on small bagpipes. Italian accordionists, however, discovered that the 'wet' reedy sounds of their instruments blended into and contrasted the tight delivery of the pipes easily. And soon, out of the doorways and windows of the cafés came the rich, spinning sound that continues, in fact, to seep through Paris streets at night even now.
Musette, however, has been evolving constantly since its inception. For instance pioneering artists like Emile Vacher and Charles Peguri, who both appear on this collection, used their accordions to imbue the form with new pitches, tempos and emotions. Another important breakthrough happened in the '30s, when Django Reinhardt introduced guitar into the mix, as well as rhythms he pulled from American big band jazz. And though Reinhardt is absent from this collection, some of his disciples show up, most notably Louis Corchia, whose guitar on "La Roulette" swings through the registers, expanding and contracting over a background of swirling accordion harmonies.
Musette proved to be receptive to the human voice, too, and in the '30s, as nightclubs sprang up around the city, bandstand singers enjoyed tremendous popularity. The most famous chanteuse in this circle was 'the little sparrow' Édith Piaf. Represented here by "L'Accordéoniste", Piaf sings, as Guillaume Veillet in the liner notes explains, about "a prostitute who falls in love with an accordionist, who also happens to be her pimp". Beginning with a flourish of chromatic notes, the musicians soon construct a delicate background of strings and piano that complements the operatic aspects of Piaf's seamless voice. Fréhel's "La Der Des Der", in contrast, marries a percussive accordion and a clip-clop bass to the singer's soaring, almost comic vocals to create a perfectly Parisian song that also manages to borrow heavily from other styles, including cakewalk and vaudeville.
The popularity of musette fell off for a while, however. As Veillet points out, "After World War II, the accordion became less fashionable, especially among young people, who found jazz or rock and roll more attractive". And for 40 years or so, the distinct sounds drifting out of the cafés functioned largely as retro come-ons for tourists, much like Dixieland in the New Orleans French Quarter, for example, or, say, the blues on Beale Street. But in the '80s, a new wave of enthusiasts began to revive the accordion and explore musette's rhythms and structures. To represent this phenomenon, the album includes tracks from a wide range of contemporary bands. Ramses' "J'Ai Un Trou Dans Ma Tete", for example, features hard, electric guitar chops, a punky bass line and smashing drums that fill out (and darken) the sinewy sounds of the accordion. Les Primitifs du Futur, with the cartoonist R. Crumb behind the mandolin, presents an odd bricolage of new and old musette styles and instruments on "Portrait D'Un 78 Tard". And Marcel Azzola and Richard Galliano, in "Afro-Musette", generate a slowly reeling sequence of melodies that evokes the nightlife atmospheres of both Paris and Algiers. The most thrilling of these nouvelle-musette tracks, however, belongs to Les Ogres de Barback. With "Rue de Paname", the five-piece group shies away from fusion, building up a beautifully lush waltz, in which male and female voices harmonize over darting melodies.
This splendid collection should indicate, to both new and old listeners, that -- like jazz, rock and, more recently, hip-hop -- musette is a living musical language. It is also an enjoyable one, appealing as it does to our feet, to our hearts and, for some of us, to our memories of Paris at night, when colored lights dapple the Seine, the turnip domes of Sacré-Coeur glow beneath the black sky and the Eiffel Tower looms. . . .
Mon Dieu, c'est un cité formidable. Merci, Rough Guide.