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  • Musique

    The ‘Je ne sais Quoi’ of French Music

    By Vincent Hanon 19 November 2016

    WHY is French music so addictive? There are a number of reasons to be passionate about Gallic music.  Whatever it may be, there is no doubt that it has a certain je ne sais quoi which is constantly evolving yet somehow still manages to stay, well, French.

     

    Romantic and expressive, this peculiar sound remains the perfect way to sing about love, sorrow or The City of Light’s, Paris. Think of Edith Piaf. In French slang, a piaf is a small bird, which fitted with the physical appearance of the singer. Her powerful mezzo soprano voice continues to be revered as a national treasure in France. In 1954, only a few years after her signature song  ‘La Vie en Rose’, Piaf was perched on the gates of the royal château in Sacha Guitry’s film ‘Si Versailles M’était Conté’, la Môme as she sang ‘Ah! Ca ira!’, the hymn of the French Revolution. ‘La Marseillaise’, written by Rougest de Lisle, was adopted in 1795 as the nation’s anthem, with the potential of being one of the most popular anthem’s in the world.  In their hit ‘All You Need Is Love’, The Beatles even used the opening bars of the revolutionary song as an introduction. And if you don’t remember the lyrics, just check the iconic scene in famous Michael Curtiz’s movie ‘Casablanca’, named by Barack Obama as his favorite film ever.

     

    Bal musette is a music and dance which grew in popularity around 1870. This was a time of optimism and progress, or also known as à la Belle Époque. Parisian musicians played the accordion, and the romantic sounds of the instrument became one of the musical icons of the city.

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    For many, jazz remains one of America’s original art forms. With that being said, it holds an equally strong affiliation with France, more than what is generally acknowledged. During World War I, this traditional and popular genre of music arrived in France and provided the perfect soundtrack for these trouble times. In the 1920’s, black artists started to migrate to Paris, gathering in Montmartre. Josephine Baker became a French citizen in 1937, and dazzled audiences with her erotic dance in the cabaret music-hall Les Folies Bergère.  At the end of World War II, jazz literally became the sound of liberation. The bebop style emerged, and for many African American’s, Paris became a synonym of freedom and a refuge from the Civil Rights Movement. Iconic artists including Sidney Bechett, Lionel Hampton, Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Bud Powell, Chet Baker and Archie Shepp all moved to Paris. They played in the jazz caves of Saint-Germain-des Prés, cellar clubs like le Vieux-Colombier or Le Tabou, where Boris Vian and Jean Cocteau were regulars. It was in this very environment that Miles Davis fell in love with Juliette Greco, Jean Paul Sartre’s muse, and that the Prince of Darkness wrote the score for Louis Malle’s film noir ‘Elevator to the Gallows.’ It has now been 60 years since that beautiful mix of existentialism and new black music is over, but there is no doubt that its legacy still endures today.

     

    Another example is Jazz manouche. It may sound old-fashioned to some, but it has a strong following in France. The style was popularized by Django Reinhardt who fused gypsy and swing rhythms into a propulsive and original sound. With violinist Stéphane Grappelli, the legendary French guitarist of Romani descent formed the influential group the Quintette du Hot Club de France. With its deliberately retro sound, gypsy jazz has a strong following in France and can even be counted as a French contribution to jazz.

     

    The wonderful thing about French music is that you don’t necessarily need to understand the language to embrace the song. Yet, if one wants to improve their grammar, why not listen to the beautiful lyrics and subtle tournures of classic singers and songwriters of la chanson française such as Charles Trenet, Charles Aznavour, Barbara, Jacques Bre, Léo Ferré or Georges Brassens. Much like the rest of the world, French music suddenly evolved circa 1963, when the pop movement yéyé moved in. More so than food and wine, the charming melodies of Françoise Hardy, the sardonic garage grooves of her suave husband Jacques Dutronc or the erotic tales whispered to Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin by Serge Gainsbourg are enough to make you appreciate French culture.

     

    In 1981, the newly elected French president François Mitterrand finally allowed the licensing of free radio stations. Created in 1986, Skyrock is a private national radio dedicated to young people. This renowned station plays musical novelties and with a preference to mainstream rap and R&B, it significantly influenced the development of hip-hop.  It is by no surprise that 30 years later, the second biggest market for rap in the world, outside the US, is still France. Black M and Oxmo Puccino write lyrics which reflect the way French is spoken in the streets – right now. Today, new singers and bands such as Christine and the Queens to Brigitte, The Liminanas or Izia, seem to jump without a problem from one language to another.  Often, artists like Rachid Taha or Lou Doillon sing in English or in Arabic, without even bothering to sing in French: what is important is that the emotion prevails.

     

    Nevertheless, French songs definitely have a more significant impact when they’re in the language of Molière or Arthur Rimbaud, which might explain the worldwide success of Stromae (Belgium). Some call it the French touch or maybe it is because people enjoy dancing to the electronica soundtrack of the early 21st century such as the robotics of Daft Punk, Air or Justice? But most of the others don’t call it anything, they just sing it in the shower, naturally. After all, it might be just a matter of style. Actresses like Emmanuelle Seigner or singers like Soko are artists who almost don’t even need to sing to enchant their listeners. It’s a question of flow; the flow of The Seine, sung by Vanessa Paradis and M in the animated musical comedy ‘un Monstre à Paris’, that will always be more charming … than the ‘Monster in Paris’ of the English version. C’est la vie!

     

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