By Aaron Cohen – Special to the Tribune
October 29, 2006
When accordionist Jeremiah McLane and clarinetist James Falzone talk about an early tour of their group, Le Bon Vent, both bring up a minor act of vandalism that turned out to be somewhat defining.
“We played at this historic hippie club in Cambridge, Mass.,” Falzone said. “Our sign said, ‘Playing the music of France and lands touched by French culture.’ And somebody crossed it out and wrote, `Veiled euphemism for imperialism.’ That’s actually right, but music itself goes back to colonialism from Day One.”
Le Bon Vent (meaning “The Good Wind”) has been researching traditional French music and creatively reworking this source material, for the past three years. The mostly New England-based sextet will perform at the Chicago Cultural Center Nov. 5 and recently released its disc “Goodnight Marc Chagall” (Epcat). While McLane and Falzone have immersed themselves in the musical and lyrical dialects from different French regions, they also take into account how French music has reached, and responded to, the wider world.
At the same time, Le Bon Vent is part of an international movement of musicians who are drawing from Gallic inspiration. Guitarist Dominique Cravic’s Les Primitifs Du Futur take cues from classic Paris cabarets. Paris Combo has been touring the world with its version of traditional chanson. Every November, New York’s Birdland jazz club hosts a tribute to French Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, while Alfonso Ponticelli pays homage to him Wednesdays at Chicago’s Green Mill. American singers ranging from Madeleine Peyroux to Cat Power are covering the laconically lewd Serge Gainsbourg.
Still, Le Bon Vent and its contemporaries are facing a somewhat uphill climb in the United States. All cinephiles are expected to know the works of French directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. Students and art lovers constantly stream into the Art Institute of Chicago to look at Claude Monet’s paintings. Compared with the French impact in those areas, its music does not receive such recognition in the U.S.
“French classical music did have a huge influence here through composers Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy,” McLane said. “But that ended maybe 100 years ago.”
In his blood
McLane, an American who lives in Vermont, has been connected to French music since he was growing up. His father worked with the French resistance during World War II and McLane spent his childhood in rural central France. Later on, he focused on jazz piano and classical music as a graduate student at Boston’s New England Conservatory.
“I dropped out of the jazz scene and was looking for something that connected to me,” McLane said. “So I started playing accordion and immediately got introduced to accordion music from France.”
A few years later, McLane received a grant from the Vermont Arts Council to present his interpretation of the connections that link France to New England. For instance, this American area’s Celtic population also thrived in the French region of Brittany — along with their bagpipes.
Falzone, who McLane knew at the conservatory, transposed lines from the traditional French bombarde (a kind of oboe) to his instrument for Le Bon Vent. Vocalist Cristi Catt became versed in old dialects from the Limousin and Auvergne regions. Violinist Ruthie Dornfeld specializes in the fiddle traditions from across Europe while guitarist Adam Larrabee and percussionist Taki Masuko plays rhythms that echo France’s thriving Moroccan and Algerian communities.
Yet while McLane researched written texts and field recordings, he insists, “Le Bon Vent is not a traditional version of French music. Some of what we’re doing was to take a composed piece and improvise to make it sound less classical. I’m not in the business of preservation.”
What’s also notable is that for more than seven centuries, most traditional French music has been built around short melodies, each with a limited number of notes. For Falzone, who does not face such rigid guidelines when he performs regularly in Chicago open-ended jazz groups, classic French restrictions are a welcome challenge.
“I enjoy it when the intrigue is what kind of variations you can spin on a main melody,” Falzone said. “Where the whole idea is to be as inventive as you can with those eight bars.”
Redefining During the time that McLane? was studying in 1970s France, the country was going through a revival of interest in it’s folkloric music — taking cues from their folkie American counterparts. McLane? credits a mix of French academic and governmental missions for this preservation. Yet just as much as France itself has always been made up of different regions and waves of immigrants, newer arrivals are permanently changing how French music is defined.
“If you were to hear a bagpipe band with a drummer from Senegal, that would be vaguely cool or interesting in the U.S.,” McLane? said. “In France, that’s a matter of course.”
Norah Delaney, director of cultural programming for Chicago’s Alliance Francaise, also marvels at the constantly evolving diversity within French music. She also describes French government initiatives to promote these changes, such as sponsoring international Fete De La Musique music festivals. But Delaney says that resources are key for organizations such as hers to make Chicagoans more aware of contemporary French musicians.
“There’s more music coming to my door than from any other media,” Delaney said. “It’s not that there’s a lack of artists out there, it’s just that we don’t have the funding to do it all.”
McLane? contends it’s only a matter of time until Americans will hear these artists.
“People can present this music a lot of different ways,” McLane? said. “We’re just beginning to see where it can go.”
The sounds of France
French music is evolving as rapidly as its changing population. Sure, a few CDs can’t cover the folk and popular songs of 61 million people, but these offer solid and accessible introductions to the current scene and some historical landmarks.
Various Artists, “The Rough Guide to the Music of France” (World Music Network): This wide-ranging single-disc overview touches on A Filetta’s polyphonic Corsican singing, guitarists Romane and Angelo Debarre’s Gypsy swing, and Massilia Sound System’s rap from the Mediterranean Coast.
Jean-Francois Dutertre, “Chansons Traditionnelles De Normandy” (Buda): Singer/hurdy-gurdy player Dutertre collected and arranged this compilation of fascinating folk ballads from Normandy. Young maids and wandering sailors are recurring characters.
Michel Esbelin, “La Valse Des Hombres” (Buda): Esbelin specializes in traditional Auvergne cabrette (bagpipe) melodies, which have been rediscovered in France since the 1970s.
Serge Gainsbourg, “Histoire De Melody Nelson” (Philips): This sparse and deeply funky 1971 album epitomized Gainsbourg’s subversive take on sexuality. Beck, his biggest American fan, couldn’t have made “Sea Change” without it.
Souad Massi, “Honeysuckle (Mesk Elil)” (Wrasse): Contemporary Algerian-born, Paris based songwriter Massi’s alluring lyricism never hides the painful lyrics about her homeland, lost love and life in exile.
Les Primitifs Du Futur, “World Musette” (Sunnyside): Guitarist Dominique Cravic’s group mixes his own tunes with original takes on musette waltzes from the 1930s. Expatriate American cartoonist Robert Crumb is on mandolin.
Edith Piaf, “The Voice of the Sparrow” (Capitol): The iconic French chanson singer sounds heartbreakingly beautiful on this definitive collection. Unfortunately, the disc lacks thorough liner notes.
For travelers planning a music-seeking trip to France, a first-stop resource is the bilingual Web site of the Association Francaise d’Action Artistique (culturesfrance.com).