Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Bobby Womack R.I.P.

bobby womack

I listened to him as a kid and teen, in the late ’60s-early ’70s. His best song—and there is likely a consensus on this—was “Across 110th Street”—which got a second life in Quentin Tarantino’s great ‘Jackie Brown’, in one of the greatest ever opening movie scenes (watch here).

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Lou Reed R.I.P.

Lou Reed

He was one of my favorites in my mid-late teens—in the 1972-75 years. I loved ‘Transformer’, his chef d’œuvre. “Berlin’ wasn’t bad, so far as I remember, and I liked his earlier albums with the Velvet Underground. And I saw him twice in concert: at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater in fall 1973 and in Dayton Ohio in fall 1974 (my freshman year of college). Voilà his best songs: ‘Walk on the Wild Side‘ ‘Vicious‘, ‘Perfect Day‘, ‘Satellite of Love‘ ‘Sweet Jane‘, ‘Heroin‘…

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This is the film that won the Oscar for best documentary last month, beating out ‘The Gatekeepers‘. Having just seen it, I’m hardly surprised. ‘The Gatekeepers’ is a first-rate documentary, as I wrote last week, but there was no way this one was not going to get the Oscar. It is a wonderful, exhilarating film and that tells an absolutely amazing story, about Sixto Rodriguez, a great American singer who is practically unknown in America (including by me until now). Rodriguez, who is 70 years old, has lived his entire life in Detroit and been a manual laborer for most of it, became a musician on the side, and cut two albums in the early ’70s. His music is Bob Dylan-esqe and is every bit as good as Dylan’s. Even better. But his records did not sell, he got practically no publicity, and hardly played outside bars in Detroit. His career as a musician went nowhere and was soon abandoned. But his albums made it to Cape Town, South Africa, at the time, where his music became huge among progressive whites chafing under the chape de plomb of apartheid—and what was a repressive regime even for whites—, and inspired anti-apartheid Afrikaner singers. From the early ’70s to the mid ’90s Rodriguez’s albums sold maybe half a million copies in South Africa, where he was “bigger than Elvis,” except that no one in South Africa knew a thing about who he was. The country was subject to sanctions and boycotts, isolated from the rest of the world, and in the pre-Internet era there was no way for anyone there to get information on him. And Rodriguez knew nothing of his popularity in South Africa (and saw no royalties from his record sales). His fans in South Africa thought he was dead, having killed himself on stage in the US, so rumor had it. The documentary recounts how Rodriguez and his South African fans serendipitously found each other in 1997 and of his trip there the following year, where he was received as a big time rock star. It’s a great story and very moving. Here are the reviews by Roger Ebert and Manohla Dargis. French reviews are stellar, as is the word-of-mouth in Paris, where the film is still playing three months after it opened.

The film’s director is Malik Bendjelloul, who is Algerian-Swedish, and it’s a Swedish production (filmed in Detroit and Cape Town).

As for Rodriguez’s music, it’s great. My wife bought his CDs after seeing the movie and we’ve been listening to them.

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Serge Gainsbourg

La Poste timbre de 2001

This post has nothing to do with anything that’s happening these days, or even with anything that’s on my mind, but I was recently telling my American students about Serge Gainsbourg, none of whom had heard of him. Before their time and he was never well-known in the US anyway. But he was huge in France, one of its major musical artists from the late ’50s to his premature death in ’91, and who wrote and composed all his music. And he was an outrageous personality. I told the class that I’d do a blog post with my favorite Gainsbourg songs—just about everyone’s favorites, in fact—, so voilà, here they are via YouTube (in chronological order).

Le poinçonneur des Lilas (1958). On a day in the life of the ticket-puncher (poinçonneur) at the Porte des Lilas metro station.

La Javanaise (1963). In honor of chanteuse Juliette Gréco.

New York U.S.A. (1964). Gainsbourg, the little Frenchy, goes to New York City and marvels at how tall the buildings are. Amusing. And tongue-in-cheek.

Bonnie and Clyde (1968). With Brigitte Bardot. They had a brief romantic involvement. Gainsbourg had numerous (brief) romantic involvements.

Initials B.B. (1968). Gainsbourg’s ode to Brigitte Bardot. Great song.

Je t’aime…moi non plus (1969). With Jane Birkin (his longest romantic involvement, and from which came his one child, Charlotte Gainsbourg, a well-known actress since her teen years). Probably his most famous and beloved song. It caused a scandal at the time.

Élisa (1969). Gainsbourg singing his love for a woman (typically) younger than he.

Je suis venu te dire que je m’en vais (1973). Inspired by his near death experience following his first heart attack (he had five), after which he increased his (already heavy) consumption of alcohol and tobacco.

Sea, Sex and Sun (1977). With Jane Birkin. There’s also an English version.

Dieu fumeur de havanes (1980). With Catherine Deneuve. God smokes Havana cigars. Or Gitanes (Gainsbourg’s brand, brun and unfiltered). The disappearance from public places (cafés, restaurants, offices, everywhere) of the unique, pungent aroma of dark tobacco Gitanes and Gauloises smoke is one of the many changes in France of the past three decades (no smoking laws, changing tastes in tobacco).

Here is the (in)famous meeting of Gainsbourg—who had descended into near permanent drunkenness and goujaterie—and Whitney Houston on Michel Drucker‘s show (one of the most watched in France) in 1986.

A biopic, Gainsbourg (vie héroïque), came out three years ago. I was somewhat disappointed with it. It’s not as good as the recent biopic of Claude François, though may be seen.

On the occasion of the biopic’s release in the US last year, Salon.com asked several US musicians to share their favorite Gainsbourg songs. The choices are somewhat different from mine.

gainsbourg vie heroique

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I went to the Fête de l’Humanité on Saturday, my first time in 15 years. The Fête de l’Huma is the annual bash of the French Communist party (PCF)—formally to raise money for the party’s daily newspaper L’Humanité (which has been on life support for years now)—, organized over three days the second weekend of September at the Parc Départmental in La Courneuve, a nearby Paris banlieue that has been run by the PCF continuously since the 1920s (the war years excepted). The Fête de l’Huma, which was founded in 1930, was mainly an event for PCF members and sympathizers in the early decades but beginning in the 1960s it opened up to the rest of society, as part of the party’s effort to break out of its ghetto—into which it was consigned, and consigned itself, in the early years of the Cold War—and show that communists were regular people like everyone else and knew how to have a good time. Everyone was and is welcome, so attending in no way suggests that one is a party sympathizer (and I am decidedly not). Young people have been a particular target, through concerts of high-profile musicians and bands, which, over the years, have included The Who, Pink Floyd, Genesis, The Kinks, and Deep Purple, among others (for a mostly complete list, see here). The tête d’affiche this year was New Order and Patti Smith. The Fête de l’Huma has long been an important political event in France as well, well-covered in the news and where the PCF secretary-general’s speech at the park’s Grande scène lays out the party’s positions for the upcoming year. As the PCF received 19 to 29% of the vote in national elections from 1945 through the 1970s, had a sizable parliamentary delegation, ran over 200 municipalities with a population of over 9,000 (at its peak after the 1977 municipal elections; today it’s on the order of 90), and had several hundred thousand dues-paying members, its views and positions were necessarily newsworthy. During the 1970s and ’80s the Fête de l’Huma attracted around a million people over the three days. The numbers declined after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union—not to mention the decline of the PCF itself, which is now electorally in the low single digits nationally—, and the Fête shrunk in size, but it has rebounded over the past several years. I made it a point to go to the Fête de l’Huma whenever I was in Paris that weekend in September. From 1974 to 1997 I thus attended nine times, but then decided I had had enough of the cocos, couldn’t stand them politically, and no longer found them interesting enough to justify schlepping out to La Courneuve for the day, so I stopped going. But I decided I wanted to attend this weekend, so went out with couple of friends. It was a lot of fun. Here are the photos I took and with commentary (below the photo). As there are some 160 of them, they continue beneath the fold.

It’s almost 4 PM. We came in through a secondary entrance. Finding parking took forever, as the lots were full. Entrance price is €26 at the gate for the three days, €20 if one buys a ticket from a party member beforehand (they hawk them outside).

Young people come from all over France for the event, sleeping in tents at the edge of the grounds.

I know nothing about this Parti Communiste des Ouvriers de France. It’s got nothing to do with the PCF, that’s for sure.

The Front de Gauche is the coalition of several parties and groupings of the hard left, the PCF and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche—much smaller than than the PCF—being the main constituents. Mélenchon was, of course, the Front de Gauche’s presidential candidate last spring. I spelled out my dim views of him here during the presidential campaign. He was naturally present at the Fête, though we didn’t cross paths.

There’s lots of food and drink at the Fête de l’Huma.

Lots of Che too. How could it be otherwise?

Also lots of music at the Fête and at the stands, not just the main concerts at the Grande scène.

Ethnic cuisine and not just in the Village du monde (see below).

Stand of a tiny offshoot of Jean-Pierre Chevènement’s Mouvement Républicain et Citoyen.

Discussion-debates at the stands are a big Fête happening.

Didn’t take note of which group this was.

Stand of the neo-Trotskyist Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA, ex-LCR). The participation of Trots in the Fête de l’Huma was inconceivable in the old days. But the bad blood between the Trots and PCF “Stalinists” is now all in the past. The NPA declined to make a deal with the Front de Gauche in last spring’s elections, BTW. Trots are as sectarian as ever. Some things don’t change.

Wacky Trot sect Union Communiste (Trotskyiste) (a.k.a. Lutte Ouvrière). These people are really crazy, e.g. members need party authorization to get married and have children, which is usually not granted, as this may detract from one’s political activism. Normally this would characterize an organization not as a political party but as a cult, which is in fact what LO is.

The party’s departmental federations—there are 96 in metropolitan France—all have stands, most with local cuisine on offer. This from the Savoie (in the Alps).

Department above the Savoie: Annecy, Chamonix, Evian… There have never been too many Reds in those parts.

Jean-Marc & Gisèle, this one’s for you. Beautiful area the Ardèche.

No to the EU Fiscal Stability Treaty, yes to a referendum on it. I’m not for a referendum but the Front de Gauche does have a valid argument in opposing the treaty.


It’s a beautiful Saturday afternoon, sunny and in the low-mid 70s F/low-mid 20s C. What better way to spend it than coming to the Fête de l’Huma?

The Paris Commune: mega event in the historical iconography of the French left.

Be realistic, demand the impossible!

American hero.

PCF cell at Charles de Gaulle airport. Yes, there are Commies working at that airport you all fly into when you come to town.

Lefty heroes from the past (and these two are heroes for me too).

Notable front pages of the PCF’s rag daily newspaper.

Contemporary PCF hero (but definitely not mine).

A debate on something having to do with capitalists and working people. I find these debates devoid of interest. It’s all rhetoric. Haven’t people heard this stuff hundreds of thousands of times already? An interesting comment from one of my friends, who has a doctorate in political science but, having failed to even qualify for the right to apply for a position in a French public university—a scandalous feature of the French system that afflicts many otherwise qualified foreigners (my friend is from Algeria)—, went to work in the private sector. He is presently a (more…)

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El Gusto

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

On this 50th anniversary of Algeria’s independence I want to recommend this wonderful documentary, on a mixed Muslim-Jewish chaâbi music orchestra from the Algiers Casbah that director Safinez Bousbia discovered and reunited fifty years after it disbanded. Chaâbi, if one doesn’t know it, is a 20th century Algerian folk music style derived from Arab-Andalusian classical (here and this NPR report here). The film is a sort of Algerian ‘Buena Vista Social Club’. The musicians had played together in the Casbah in the 1940s and early ’50s but the advent of the Algerian war of independence made it impossible for them to continue. And in the spring and early summer of 1962—in the final chaotic months of Algérie française—, the Jewish members of the orchestra left for France, never returned to Algeria, and lost contact with their Muslim associates. It was a remarkable feat of Bousbia, who lives in Ireland (and is barely 30 years old), to uncover the past existence of the orchestra, track down the living members in Algiers and France, and reunite them for concerts (mainly in France). In addition to recounting a fascinating and moving slice of recent Algerian socio-cultural history, it gives an insight into Algeria’s now lost multi-confessional past, where Muslims and Jews co-existed in a general bonne entente. The Jewish population of Algeria was significant in number—some 135,000 by the 1950s—and entirely indigenous to the country, not the product of 19th century European settlement. Juridically assimilated into the French-European settler community from 1870, they were progressively gallicized—and despite the antisemitism of Algeria’s Europeans—and detached from the indigenous Muslim population. The mass departure of Algeria’s Jews for metropolitan France—only several thousand went to Israel—was one of the tragedies of the Algerian war and the manner in which the country acceded to independence (for more on the subject, see Benjamin’s Stora’s Les Trois exils, juifs d’Algérie, which will hopefully be translated into English one of these days).

US and UK critics who saw ‘El Gusto’ at film fests loved it, e.g. Jay Weissberg in Variety here, Hollywood Reporter here, and Indiewire here (with trailer). HuffPo had an interview with director Bousbia here. The film and orchestra website is here. The documentary opened in Paris last January to general indifference. Hardly anyone saw it (not even local Algerians), which is not surprising. The French public is just not interested in Algeria. The film, if properly distributed, will surely have greater success internationally.

UPDATE: Mediapart had an article with links on June 22nd entitled “Safinez Bousbia (El Gusto): «une version moins aigrie» de l’indépendance algérienne.”

2nd UPDATE: Elaine Sciolino has an article on El Gusto in the NY Times. (October 13)

3rd UPDATE: I dined recently at a Moroccan-Jewish restaurant in Rabat, Zerda, whose 70-ish owner, Michel Marciano—a Moroccan native and professional singer for several decades, of Moroccan Jewish, Andalusian, and other musical styles—puts on an impromptu El Gusto-type spectacle for the clients on most nights (e.g. here and here), and to which we were treated. Very nice. (August 28, 2013)

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Claude François

nicknamed Cloclo, unknown in America but one of France’s most famous pop music singers of the 1960s and ’70s, who died accidentally at age 39 (on the day before the first round of the 1978 legislative elections) while at the peak of his career. He’s the subject of a 2½ hour biopic that opened in France last month (trailer here). Reviews are good and it’s been a box office hit (spectator reviews on Allocine—which I’ve begun to pay attention to—rate it even higher than the critics). I enjoyed it myself. It’s well done and better than the recent biopics on Serge Gainsbourg—which I found somewhat disappointing—and Edith Piaf (though as singers I’ll take both over Claude François any day). And Jérémie Renier—a Dardenne brothers’ regular—is perfectly cast. Not only is his performance stellar but he bears an uncanny resemblance to Cloclo. It’s a conventional biopic in its structure, faithfully recounting Cloclo’s life in chronological order, of his childhood in Egypt—Ismailia on the Suez Canal, where he spent his first 17 years, until his family was expelled in 1956—, the launch of his career in Monaco and Paris, take off in 1962, frenetically striving to stay ahead of the curve in adopting new musical styles—Motown and disco among them, but also integrating Egyptian/Oriental beats from his youth—and to remain a teen idol into his 30s, his complicated relationship with his family, turbulent relationships with women… It’s all there in the pic.

Americans may not know a thing about Claude François but all will recognize his 1967 hit “Comme d’habitude,” which Frank Sinatra adapted two years later as “My Way” (thus the English title of the film). The scene where Cloclo receives the special delivery of the advance recording from Sinatra, whom he venerated, and listens to it is one of the high points in the movie. He also adapted songs from American artists and which became big hits in France, such as “J’attendrai” (from the Four Tops’s “Reach Out I’ll Be There”) and “Cette année-là” (from Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons’s “Oh, What a Night”). And then there were his many original hit songs, among them “Le Lundi au soleil” (1972), “Magnolias for Ever” (1977), and, above all, “Alexandrie Alexandra” (1977). Borderline kitsch, with his signature stage act and go-go dancers (“les Claudettes,” including black women, which was edgy at the time). Some of his songs aren’t too bad—the tunes are catchy—, though I would have certainly turned my nose up at him at the time in view of my teenage musical snobbery. But then, I paid no attention to Sinatra back then either (though Cloclo was admittedly not on the same level with Ol’ Blue Eyes…).

Hollywood Reporter’s critic, who didn’t like the pic too much, said that it would appeal only to hardcore Cloclo fans. I disagree. One does not need to have been a Cloclo fan, or to even like his music, to enjoy the movie. Like I said, it’s entertaining, well done and acted, tells a good story about an interesting personality, and depicts well the France of les trente glorieuses (and also the pre-1956 foreign enclave in the Suez Canal zone). There is no a priori reason why American and other non-French audiences shouldn’t enjoy it, and maybe come away having learned a little something new about a slice of contemporary French society and popular culture.

(UPDATE: Here’s Claude François in 1962—calling himself “Kôkô”—, singing “Le Nabout twist” in Egyptian Arabic.)

While I’m at it, I will mention other recent French films I’ve seen over the past three months, each of a completely different genre. One was ‘Les Infidèles’ (literally, the unfaithful; English title: ‘The Players’), an “adult comedy” about the DSK segment of French malehood that I went to see strictly on account of the buzz and Jean Dujardin (and also profiting from the annual Printemps du Cinéma, where all movie tickets in France were €3.50 for three days). I’ll let Hollywood Reporter’s critic describe it

Hot off the Oscars and into the bedroom comes The Players (Les Infideles), a raunchy collection of adultery-themed shorts written by, starring and hatched from the mind of best actor laureate Jean Dujardin. Teaming up with The Artist’s Michel Hazanavicius and a handful of rising Gallic filmmakers, Dujardin and fellow two-timer Gilles Lellouche (Point Blank) offer up a slick, occasionally hilarious but ultimately uneven appraisal of France’s favorite extramarital pastime.

Gallic humor for the masses. Only Jean Dujardin could cook this one up. It was indeed very raunchy in parts, occasionally funny—though the audience laughed more than I—, with a well-taken moral or message here and there, and with some of the shorts better than others. And I will admit to having a soft spot for Dujardin’s S.O., Alexandra Lamy, who has a brief role. I doubt Hollywood would dare make such a movie (as it would be hit with an NC-17 rating and get all sorts of groups worked up; and I can’t imagine two major Hollywood actors agreeing to do the pic’s final scene). It’s not for everyone and I won’t recommend it to certain friends and family. Variety’s review is here and former NYT Paris correspondent Elaine Sciolino wrote about it here.

Also seen recently was ‘Une nuit’ (English title: ‘Paris by Night’), a neo-film noir about a plainclothes vice squad cop (played by Roschdy Zem) and his rookie cop driver (Sara Forestier) on the night beat, cruising through Paris and hitting one sleazy night club and bar after the other, most of whose lowlife management the Zem character is shaking down. It’s not the Paris by night of Woody Allen’s last film, that’s for sure. Local reviews were good (which is why I went to see it). Hollywood Reporter’s review is here.

And then there’s Benoît Jacquot’s ‘Les Adieux à la Reine’ (in English: ‘Farewell, My Queen’), on the ambiance at the court of Marie Antoinette in Versailles during the three days following the storming of the Bastille. French critics absolutely loved it (again, why I went to see it). Hollywood critics gave it the thumbs up too (here, here, here, and here). Yet one more reason not to blindly trust film critics, and particularly French ones. The acting wasn’t bad, notably Léa Seydoux and Diane Kruger, but that’s as much as I’ll say in its favor, as I was bored to tears during the film and couldn’t wait for it to end. My friend too, whose first words leaving the cinema were “Qu’est-ce que c’était ennuyeux !” I used stronger language to express the same sentiment. Spectator reviews on Allocine were also rather less positive than those of the professional critics. On this, I echo the vox populi.

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