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Music, to the rhythm of the street ?

On 21 June, music will take over streets across France for the 38th Fête de la Musique [Music Day], an event now cele­bra­ted around the world. But what rela­tion­ships do musi­cians have with towns and cities ? Are they real­ly musi­cal spaces ? Which places in par­ti­cu­lar have ins­pi­red them ? Musi­cians with a fond­ness for tra­vel tell us about their favou­rite cities.

Fixi’s Paris

From the streets of King­ston to those of Vara­na­si, from Rio to Lagos… Accor­dio­nist Fixi has tra­vel­led the world with her music. But when we asked her to tell us about the place that has influen­ced her the most, she found it impos­sible to choose. Her memo­ry went back to her child­hood, spent in Paris’s 5th arron­dis­se­ment, then still rela­ti­ve­ly wor­king class. “I was always out in the street,” she remem­bers. “The street was where I would meet up with my friends. There was the mar­ket, the tramps, the guy who ran the Bra­zi­lian res­tau­rant, who played bos­sa, tra­ders we knew. There was a whole life… I had my drums and my pia­no and my win­dows over­loo­ked the street. I remem­ber times in the sum­mer when I had the win­dow open. The pia­no would “go out” onto the street and people would turn around and look in my direc­tion. I loved this stra­te­gy”. The Contre-Escarpe neigh­bou­rhood was the first stage for the future musi­cian, for whom the fled­gling Fête de la Musique became “the most impor­tant time of the year”. “I like it when the street is trans­for­med by a clown, a band or an ambiance, and flaunts itself a bit. Music is a good way to get the street out of its old rou­tine,” says the musi­cian who played from bar to bar before foun­ding the rap-accor­dion group Java and is the linch­pin of the Wins­ton McA­nuff and Fixi duo.

Daa­ra J family’s Dakar

In contrast to Paris’s cob­bles­tones, off-limits to musi­cians except for on 21 June, music in Senegal’s urban spaces is unre­gu­la­ted. The law ins­tead tar­gets tali­bés, street chil­dren for­ced to beg in the country’s big cities. The contrasts bet­ween this extreme pover­ty and a hyper-connec­ted capi­tal, mons­ter traf­fic jams and a mel­ting pot of people from all over the coun­try… this is how it is des­cri­bed by Faa­da Fred­dy and Ndon­go D, the two aco­lytes of Daa­ra J Fami­ly. “Our music breathes Dakar,” believes Ndon­go D. “In our song ‘Séné­gal’, when we talk about fast cars or yel­low and black taxis, taxis-brousses, we know they go a lot slo­wer than the metro. But it’s a way of saying that Dakar wants moder­ni­ty, that Dakar is rein­ven­ting itself. Which doesn’t mean being like New York or Paris. It’s an appeal to authen­ti­ci­ty. Having worn-out old cars, that’s its charm”. Pio­neers of Sene­ga­lese rap in the 1990s, Daa­ra J have enri­ched their music sung in Wolof with tra­di­tio­nal ins­tru­ments like the kora or the sabar – the emble­ma­tic drum used for Sene­ga­lese cere­mo­nies and dances – and direct refe­rences to their city. The title track of their next album, Yaa­ma­tele, due for release in the second half of this year, will blend assi­kos – rhythms used during the inter-neigh­bou­rhood foot­ball matches that bring Dakar to life – with trap music.

The Bon­go Hop’s Cali

Colom­bia also cele­brates Music Day, although music does not take over all the country’s streets. But in a coun­try with a great fond­ness for France, it is still an event. Before tea­ching Poli­ti­cal Sciences at the Jave­ria­na, a Jesuit Uni­ver­si­ty in Cali, Etienne Savet taught French for a while at the Alliance Fran­çaise, like many expats who set off in search of adven­ture in Latin Ame­ri­ca. During the eight years he spent in this city in the south of Colom­bia, the Afri­can conti­nent became a dream des­ti­na­tion for him. The jour­na­list, who has wor­ked for maga­zines such as World Sound and So Foot, set about rai­sing the pro­file of afro-beat and Congo­lese rum­ba as a DJ among revel­lers slum­ming it at the Repu­bli­ca Cali­cu­ta nights he orga­ni­sed in tiny bars around the city. The blend of afro-beat and tra­di­tio­nal music from the “Colom­bian Paci­fic” even became the heart of The Bon­go Hop, the group he foun­ded on his return to France, which has just relea­sed Satin­ga­ro­na Pt 2, its second album. Etienne says of his for­ma­tive expe­rience in Cali : “The sounds of the street didn’t influence my music direct­ly, but ancho­red me in the rea­li­ty of Colom­bia. I paid a lot of atten­tion to the sounds of street ven­dors, knife shar­pe­ners, gas bot­tle ven­dors and those sel­ling cham­pus, a typi­cal Cali drink, and tamales, a dish wrap­ped in corn leaves. They’ve inven­ted a lan­guage that lets them signal to each ano­ther, a lan­guage that even local people don’t unders­tand. There’s even a whole alpha­bet of whist­ling in the streets of Cali, with a very ela­bo­rate tech­nique, like the she­pherds in the Pyrenees”.

Lo’Jo’s busy cities

Denis Péan must have expe­rien­ced that fee­ling of nee­ding to unders­tand what’s going on in the places we visit many times on his tra­vels. Since a 1988 tour took them to Soviet Poland, the Uni­ted States and the island of Réunion, Lo’Jo have visi­ted some fif­ty coun­tries, and cities he has seen change over thir­ty years. Both “enti­re­ly seden­ta­ry”, since set­tling back in the Anjou coun­try­side where he was born, and a “com­plete tra­vel­ler”, Denis Péan muses : “Cities are vola­tile. They change from one moment to the next and are constant­ly moving. Natu­ral areas are quie­ter and evolve at a much slo­wer pace. This leads to cus­toms, ways of life and urban music that we reco­gnise”. Lo’Jo have sung about their mean­de­rings, the mar­ket in Vien­tiane, home to Laos’ “colours”, Algiers, and, more recent­ly, a Paris that bears the memo­ry of France’s “colo­nial his­to­ry”. But for its sin­ger – on whom the Au Désert fes­ti­val, foun­ded along­side the band Tina­ri­wen, has left its mark, as has Geor­gia – it is first and fore­most the qua­li­ty of the people he meets and the sto­ries ins­cri­bed in the places that count. Has the Lo’Jo trai­ler ever had any par­ti­cu­lar­ly ama­zing encoun­ters ? Dozens, inclu­ding during the Fête de la Musique about ten years ago, when the group sha­red the stage at the Her­mi­tage Museum in Saint Peters­burg with the Rus­sian clowns of the Lice­dei Theatre. A night when the city, a museum and an event cal­led upon arts and music to come together.

Bastien Brun



Bastien Brun is a music journalist. He writes for the Radio France Internationale Musique website and works for the RFI radio website. He has also worked with the free magazine Longueur d’Ondes, on the radio programme “La Bande Passante” and began his career as a journalist in regional daily press, while writing radio documentaries.

He has written an article on “musicians’ cities” for the #AuxSons website.

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