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Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Mory Kante, R.I.P.

I know that AWAV is coming to look like an obituary page these days but when someone noteworthy passes away—worthy of note for me at least—I have to make mention of it. The latest is this great Guinean singer, who died today in Conakry at age 70 (not of Covid-19, though the pandemic’s travel restrictions did prevent him from traveling to France to seek treatment for a chronic condition). I was turned on to Mory Kante in the early ’90s by a friend, who made a play list cassette of his songs for me—for which I am eternally grateful to her—which I’ve listened to countless times—particularly in the car on trips (my wife is also a fan) plus at my wedding party. His best known hit was, of course, ‘Yé ké yé ké’. What a great, fantastic, totally excellent song!

I spent a week in Conakry in 2000. Great music scene there, with more music on the streets—from stores and cars—than other African cities I’ve visited.

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Idir, R.I.P.

Idir in Algiers, 2018 (credit here)

He died yesterday, at age 70 (not of Covid-19). Lots of people in my social media network are posting on him today, invariably linking to his beloved 1973 ballad A vava inouva. He was one of Algeria’s greatest singers—a Kabyle Brassens or Aznavour, as the slam poet-chanteur GCM put it in Le Monde. Al Jazeera English has a report on Idir’s life here. France 24 has videos of his career and music here, and a YouTube ‘best of’ playlist is here. Beautiful songs.

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Johnny Clegg, R.I.P.

He died today. He was the “White Zulu.” His 1987 ‘Asimbonanga’—a tribute to Nelson Mandela, then imprisoned on Robben Island—is being posted by all and sundry on social media. It’s a beautiful song (here). Also ‘Scaterlings of Africa’ (here).

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This is an utterly frivolous post that would not have occurred to me even two hours ago. Turning on the idiot box this evening and zapping with the remote, I came across the Eurovision contest on France 2, which I have no recollection of having ever watched in the past but decided to linger on, in view of the controversy over it taking place in Israel (which, not being a BDSer, I could not care less about myself). The pop songs of the different national contestants not being bad at all, one watches, and along the way there was the popular Israeli singer Idan Raichel, who performed an interval act. I hadn’t heard of him. His song is terrific (here). He is apparently of Eastern European heritage but his music has a lot of Ethiopian, Middle Eastern, and Roma influence. Such has been the case with Israeli music for decades now.

One may deplore Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and the right-wing lurch of the electorate there but Israel remains a strikingly multiracial, multicultural society, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Then there was the Swedish singer John Lundvik, who narrowly missed winning. Really nice song (here). As for his ethnic origins, they’re uncertain (he’s adopted), but he’s the face of Sweden today.

Likewise with Italy’s contestant, Alessandro Mahmood (half Egyptian)—simply known as Mahmood—whose song (here) almost won.

The Washington Post’s fine Paris correspondant, James McAuley, had a dispatch dated March 12th on France’s Eurovision nominee, Bilal Hassani, a gay 19-year-old of Moroccan origin.

As for who won: Duncan Laurence of the Netherlands (here). Pourquoi pas?

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‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, as everyone knows, has been a huge hit since its release 3½ months ago—in the US (making over $200M), France (where it’s had 4.3 million box office entrées—which is a lot—and is still playing in several Paris theaters), and elsewhere—and despite the decidedly mixed reviews (French ones were a little more positive than American). And now the pic—and notably lead actor Rami Malek—is winning a slew of awards (Golden Globes and BAFTA, among others) and has been nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor.

As a film, I thought it was okay. I had never been a big fan of Queen and probably wouldn’t have bothered with the pic had it not been for my wife, who has long been a Queen fan and was thus eager to see it. I almost entirely associated Queen with its stadium chant songs—’Another One Bites the Dust’, ‘We Will Rock You’—not to mention the inevitable ‘We Are the Champions’—played endlessly after Les Bleus’ 1998 World Cup victory—and which everyone’s heard a hundred thousand times. Learning about the history of the group and particularly lead singer Freddie Mercury (né Farrokh Bulsara)—e.g. I didn’t know he was a Parsi from Zanzibar and who arrived in England only in his late teens—was interesting enough (though the film, one reads, is riddled with historical inaccuracies and untruths). To be honest, I didn’t even remember that Mercury was gay and had died of AIDS in 1991. There are indeed gaps in my musical culture générale. If the film had merit in filling this cultural gap, both my wife and I felt that Rami Malek’s performance was its weakest part—that he’s not a very good actor—and are somewhat incredulous that he’s winning all these best acting awards—and may well win the big one at next Sunday’s Academy Awards. Va savoir.

Continuing with the film’s merit in filling my cultural gap, seeing it prompted me to review Queen’s musical œuvre and reassess my prior view. And I have to say, my assessment has moved up several notches. Queen was indeed a great concert band—with Mercury one hell of a stage performer—and had some very good songs. The film appropriately ends with a reenactment of the June 1985 Live Aid concert, with Queen’s performance ranked in one music industry poll as the greatest live act ever. No less (watch it here; it is indeed something). I also rediscovered ‘Under Pressure’, which Mercury created with David Bowie in 1981. What a great, fantastic, totally excellent song! Check it out in this YouTube mix of Mercury and Bowie (they actually never did perform on stage together).

So yeah, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, a merely okay movie, is indeed worth seeing. I’m certainly glad I did.

Another recent music-themed movie I’m glad I saw—though had planned to from the outset—is ‘A Star Is Born’, the reviews of which were decidedly superior to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in the US and good in France. And it was naturally a box office hit (2 million entrées in France). As it’s the fourth remake of the film, or something like that, everyone knows the story. What to say, it’s entertaining, well-acted—Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga are tops—and with very good music. The soundtrack deserves every award it will receive. We (my daughter, her bf, and I) enjoyed it. Lady Gaga is a great chanteuse—that we know—but we were impressed to learn that Cooper did indeed sing his songs too. Pas mal. Voilà, c’est tout ce que j’ai à dire sur le film.

On the subject of Lady Gaga, her halftime show at the 2017 Super Bowl may well be the greatest such musical performance—the act and with all the props—I have ever seen. It is quite simply incredible. If you haven’t seen it, watch it here and decide for yourself.

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Coldplay in São Paulo

It’s New Year’s Eve but as both my wife and I are getting over the flu, it’s been a soirée tranquille at home. No parties (not that we were invited to any). I noted on the télé that NRJ12—a station it never even occurs to me to watch—was broadcasting a two-hour concert by Coldplay in São Paulo, from November 8th 2017. I was riveted to it from beginning to end. If one had any doubts that Coldplay is the greatest rock band of the past twenty years—and with Chris Martin one of the greatest rock singers and stage performers of all time—they will have been dispelled after watching this incredible concert. What a spectacle! And what a great band! As the concert has been made into a movie, only clips of it are available on YouTube. Just watch the four-minute one here, of ‘Viva la Vida’. The entire concert is like this: non-stop high energy and exuberance. I think I’ll buy the CD and/or DVD at FNAC come Wednesday.

With that, I wish all a Happy New Year and Bonne Année.

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Charles Aznavour, R.I.P.

His death is, not surprisingly, dominating the news here today. As I didn’t grow up in France, I was not overly familiar with his music until I started living here permanently in the early 1990s. I’ve been a big fan since, needless to say. If there is a Frenchman or woman who is not a fan of Charles Aznavour, I would like to know his or her name. I’ve had Aznavour’s greatest hits double CD, 40 chansons d’or, since it came out and which I’ve listened to countless times. I will state categorically that Charles Aznavour is France’s greatest singer (chanteur) of our era, i.e. of my lifetime—and my wife, who knows French music better than I, entirely agrees (the greatest chanteuse is, of course, Edith Piaf). If I have to choose my three favorite Aznavour songs, they would be Emmenez-moi—depending on my mood, this one can almost bring tears to my eyes; je suis un sentimental, qu’est-ce que vous voulez—Désormais, and La Bohème.

Aznavour did not retire. His last concert was in January, at age 93. Watch him here at Paris-Bercy last November. His last television interview—25 minutes—was three days ago. And he had a concert tour coming up. At age 94. Amazing.

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Aretha Franklin, R.I.P.

I grew up listening to her. Musically speaking, she was a part of my 1960s childhood and early adolescence. There are a number of Top 10 and Top 20 lists of her greatest songs out there but this is my personal no.1.

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2018 César awards

[update below]

France’s Oscars, if one doesn’t know. The ceremony is tomorrow (Friday)—two days before the US Academy Awards, as always—at the Salle Pleyel (in the 8th arrondissement). The full list of nominees is here. Leading with thirteen nominations each are Au revoir là-haut (See You Up There) and ‘120 battements par minute’ (BPM: Beats Per Minute), followed by Le Sens de la fête (C’est la vie) with ten, ‘Barbara’ with nine, ‘Petit Paysan’ (Bloody Milk) with eight, ‘Grave’ (Raw) six, and ‘Le Redoutable’ with five. I’ve seen almost all the films in the top categories, have posts on several, and will of more, hopefully soon. For those that won’t get a post, here’s a brief mention.

Barbara, by Mathieu Amalric. A biopic of sorts of the French chanteuse—an icon in France, unknown in the US—whose heyday was in the 1960s and ’70s. I say “of sorts” as it’s a mise en abyme—a film of the making of a film about Barbara, with Jeanne Balibar (Best Actress nominee) playing the actress who plays Barbara; and Amalric (Best Director nominee) the director of the film of the film. Let me just come out and say that I disliked it. I found it insufferable and couldn’t wait for it to be over. It’s the kind of film that critics praise—as they did, including in the Hollywood press—but that regular movie-goers do not. I’m fairly conventional when it comes to biopics: I like them to proceed chronologically and cover the high points in the personality’s life—unless if it’s very specifically just of a slice of the life—and if it’s of a singer, to hear his/her best known songs. ‘Barbara’ (nominated for Best Film, BTW) does not do this. As one critic put it, the pic is “dreamlike” and “opaque,” which tells you as much as you need to know. À propos, there was also a biopic last year of the Egyptian-Italian-French chanteuse Dalida—a contemporary of Barbara’s and an icon in France herself—and that was indeed a more conventional film in the genre. It has been nominated for no Césars but audiences liked it far more than ‘Barbara’ (or the critics). I found it sufficiently entertaining myself, so on this I’m with the vox populi.

Django, by Étienne Comar. Another biopic on a famous French singer: the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910-53), played by the invariably excellent Reda Kateb (Best Actor nominee).This one focuses on a slice of his life, during the Nazi occupation of France, beginning in 1943, with Rienhardt, who was a Sinti Roma, playing publicly in Paris (mainly at the Folies Bergères) at the sufferance of jazz-loving officers in the German high command, who could have packed him off to a concentration or death camp at any moment. Advised by his mistress, Louise (Cécile de France), who’s in the Resistance, that he was in danger, Reinhardt flees with his family to Thonon-les-Bains on Lake Geneva—and where there’s a Roma encampment—to await clandestine passage to Switzerland. While in Thonon, he is forced to deal with German officers, some of whom like jazz, others who—being better Nazis—do not. It’s unclear in the film if he actually makes it into Switzerland but he did survive the war, with the final scene of him in Paris in May ’45, performing a non-jazz score he composed, “Requiem pour mes frères tsiganes,” in remembrance of the Roma who perished at the hands of the Nazis. ‘Django’ is an entertaining, well-done biopic, worth seeing for Reinhardt’s great music—of which there’s a lot in the film, played by the The Rosenberg Trio—Kateb’s performance, and as it’s an interesting story about a major musician of the 20th century.

La Promesse de l’aube (Promise at Dawn), by Éric Barbier. Yet another biopic, this of Romain Gary (played by Pierre Niney), based on his best-selling (in France) 1960 autobiographical novel, which is as much about his strong-willed mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Best Actress nominee), who sacrifices all for her son, as about himself. Gary (1914-80) had quite a life: a Lithuanian Jew, brought to France at age 14 and converted to Catholicism; World War II aviator who flew missions for the Free French; French diplomat in the immediate postwar era; a major literary figure and who won two Goncourt prizes (under pseudonyms); and who had a tumultuous love life—he was Jean Seberg’s second husband—was a tortured soul, and ended his life with a gunshot to the head. The stuff of novels and biopics. This one is classic in its structure. It was a box office hit in France and audiences loved it. It may be seen.

Un beau soleil intérieur (Let the Sunshine In), by Claire Denis. Isabelle (Juliette Binoche, Best Actress nominee) is a 50-something Parisian artist from les beaux quartiers (naturally), divorced (of course), and in search of true love (what else?). And though she has no problem landing lovers—she has a string of them, of various ages and professions—she cannot settle with one, as she just doesn’t know what she wants. The pic is, to quote one review, a “delightful foray into romantic kinda-comedy.” Quoting another, it is a “grownup film, inspired by…Roland Barthes [and] a sophisticated delight.” It is indeed the kind of film that critics effuse over—as they do of anything directed by Claire Denis—but that audiences do not at all. The discrepancy between the two camps is particularly striking in France, with (most) critics giving it the thumbs way up and spectateurs the total opposite. As one may suspect, I’m with the latter. I found the movie trivial and a waste of time. I did not like Isabelle—perhaps partly because I’m not a big fan of Juliette Binoche to begin with—and couldn’t have cared less about her états d’âme. And the final scene with Gérard Depardieu, playing a radiesthesist, is ridiculous. The mere fact that the co-screenwriter was Christine Angot, who’s a complete nutcase, should have been a forewarning. A cinephile friend of mine did like the film, however—though two others shared my view—so this is one over which reasonable persons of highbrow taste may disagree.

Numéro Une (Number One), by Tonie Marshall. Emmanuelle Blachey (Emmanuelle Devos, Best Actress nominee), also 50-something, is an ambitious engineer climbing the ladder at a major French corporation in the renewable energy sector, who succeeds in breaking through the glass ceiling to become CEO. But she then runs into all sorts of problems, not a small part of which are related to her being female in what is—and certainly in France—a very male world. It’s a feminist film, thus timely in this age of #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc, but is not without problems. Devos is very good, as always, but I found the plot overly complicated. It’s hard to follow and one gets lost. The review by THR critic Jordan Mintzer gets it exactly right. The film may certainly be seen but make sure you have a scorecard and pay very close attention to who is who and who says what.

Monsieur & Madame Adelman (Mr. & Mrs. Adelman), by Nicolas Bedos. I will let THR’s Jordan Mintzer do the talking here: “Chronicling four decades in the life of a quintessentially French couple, Mr. & Mrs. Adelman reveals the highs and lows, passions and betrayals, pontifications and intellectual masturbation of a writer [Victor (Nicolas Bedos)] and his wife [Sarah (Doria Tillier, Best Actress nominee)], from the 1970s to the present day. (…) Like a bottle of supermarket red wine masquerading as a vintage Chateau Margaux, the film purports to be a classy French dramedy but winds up leaving a bad taste in your mouth. It’s filled with energy and a certain amount of wit, but its premise is so overstretched, its characters so cliched and its late third-act reversal so ridiculous, that it’s hard to take any of it seriously. (…)” Tout à fait. I wasn’t bowled over by this movie, as one may surmise, though Allociné spectateurs gave it the thumbs up (as did my wife). Chacun son goût.

Grave (Raw), by Julia Ducournau. This one’s a horror movie, which completely passed under my radar screen when it opened a year ago, and despite its very good reviews (including in the US). A mini-synopsis: Justine (Garance Marillier, Most Promising Actress nominee) is a 16-year-old overachiever from a family of militant vegetarians, who is about to enter veterinary school, where her older sister is a student. She’s never tasted meat in her life but that changes during the intense hazing of orientation week… The movie, in the words of one (tongue-in-cheek) reviewer, “tells the all-too-common tale [emphasis added] of a vegetarian woman becoming a cannibal after being forced to eat raw rabbit liver. This relatively innocent tasting quickly develops into a lust for man-flesh as…Justine turns from a naive freshman into blood-thirsty cannibal.” No less. When the pic was screened at the Toronto film festival, paramedics apparently had to be called in when members of the audience fainted. Oy vey. Reminds me of reading about George Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’ back when it came out, of theaters posting warnings and shell shocked persons who saw it necessitating psychiatric intervention (I first saw it with friends in college—at a midnight screening and no doubt after having smoked an illicit substance; we thought it was a hoot). If one is an aficionado of the horror genre, then ‘Grave’ may certainly be seen. If not, then it need not be seen.

Marvin ou la Belle Éducation (Reinventing Marvin), by Anne Fontaine. A touching film about a boy growing up in a trashy, lower class family in a village in the Vosges, who becomes aware of his queer identity as he hits puberty, is bullied at school, and has to confront the incomprehension of his IQ-challenged parents and siblings (his father is played by the very good Grégory Gadebois). Named Marvin Bijou, he is saved, as it were, by the school principal, who enrolls him in her theater class and which changes his life. He ends up in Paris in his late teens, changes his name to Martin Clément (Finnegan Oldfield, Most Promising Actor nominee), and joins an avant-garde theater troupe, helped along by nice people (including Isabelle Huppert in a cameo role, playing herself). The film is inspired by Édouard Louis’ best-selling 2014 autobiography En finir avec Eddie Bellegueule (in English: The End of Eddy).

I’ll have posts soon on Petit Paysan (excellent), Le Redoutable (better than expected), 120 battements par minute (very good), Ava (not bad), and Jeune Femme (mixed).

My ballot:

BEST FILM: ‘Au revoir là-haut’.
‘Patients’ and ‘Petit Paysan’ are worthy contenders but they’ve also been nominated for Best First Film. ‘120 BPM’ will probably win (for PC reasons).

BEST DIRECTOR: Albert Dupontel for ‘Au revoir là-haut’.
Logically.

BEST ACTOR: Jean-Pierre Bacri in ‘Le Sens de la Fête’.
Other nominees are worthy but Bacri is great and has never won this one.

BEST ACTRESS: Karin Viard in Jalouse.
There is no obvious choice here but Viard stands out in her role.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Laurent Lafitte in ‘Au revoir là-haut’.
He’s an excellent actor and totally convincing here.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Sara Giraudeau in ‘Petit Paysan’.
Pourquoi pas? Laure Calamy (‘Ava’) is the runner-up. Adèle Haenel (‘120 BPM’) has already won this one. Anaïs Demoustier is no doubt good in ‘La Villa’ but I did not see it.

MOST PROMISING ACTOR: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart in ‘120 BPM’.
Good acting in this film, by him along with all the others

MOST PROMISING ACTRESS: Camélia Jordana in Le Brio.
A strong category this year. Iris Bry (Les Gardiennes), Laetitia Dosch (‘Jeune Femme’), and Eye Haidara (‘Le Sens de la Fête’) are all very good but Jordana is tops.

BEST FIRST FILM: Patients and ‘Petit Paysan’ ex aequo.
A coin flip here. Both are far superior to the other three nominees.

BEST DOCUMENTARY: ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, by Raoul Peck.
Hands down. I liked ‘Visages, Villages’ by Agnès Varda and JR—didn’t everyone?—and ‘Carré 35’ is compelling. I haven’t seen ‘À voix haute: La force de la parole’ or Raymond Depardon’s ’12 Jours’.

BEST FOREIGN FILM: ‘Le Caire confidentiel’ (The Nile Hilton Incident).
One of the best movies of 2017, period. The Russian ‘Faute d’amour’ (Loveless) is a close second. ‘Dunkerque’ (Dunkirk) and ‘La La Land’ are overrated, and ‘The Square’ does not merit all the awards it’s received or been nominated for. The Belgian ‘Noces’ (A Wedding) is flawed. I haven’t seen ‘L’Échange des princesses’ (The Royal Exchange); as it’s manifestly a French film, I have no idea what it’s doing in this category.

UPDATE: ‘120 BPM’ won six awards—including Best Film, as expected—and ‘Au revoir là-haut’ five. The Hollywood Reporter’s dispatch is here. Libération’s film critics, who are not too impressed with the whole spectacle, weigh in here.

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They both died, on January 15th and 23rd, respectively, as one is likely aware, as their deaths were international news stories. To be very honest, neither name rung a bell with me when I first heard the news, so did not feel personally affected. But then listening to their music on the radio reports and retrospectives, I realized that I was quite familiar with both of them indeed. I just had no idea. Like a lot of people, I suppose, I hear songs and artists—on the radio, at people’s homes, or just being out and about—that I like but can’t identify (thankfully there’s now Shazam, which I only learned about four or so years ago, when I finally succumbed and got a smart phone). As for Dolores O’Riordan and The Cranberries, they were great. I love her/their music: Zombie, of course, but also a lot of their other songs (playlist here).

Likewise with Hugh Masekela. I’m not a huge jazz fan (piano apart) but do like him and, I can say, always have (YouTube mix here). He does it for me: the South African beat and, bien entendu, the politics.

I’ve been travelling in the US for the past three weeks—from New York to Raleigh NC, and points in between—and have been neglecting the blog. Not that there haven’t been things to post about (it’s all Trump all the time here, if one is not aware). AWAV will be back up and running when I return to Paris this week.

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Johnny Hallyday, R.I.P.

When I learned early this morning that he had died—which I wasn’t expecting, as I had forgotten that he had terminal cancer—I knew that there would be practically no other story on the news here today. This is one of those deaths that millions of people—99.9% of them French—genuinely feel saddened by—including my wife, who said this morning that “Johnny” was almost like “un membre de la famille.” C’est-à-dire, la famille des Français. A friend of mine I saw today—a lawyer in his 60s with highbrow cultural tastes—concurred with my wife’s sentiments, saying that he had seen “Johnny” at least six times in concert over the decades. Almost everyone publicly commenting today is calling him a French “icon,” which is true. (If one is not French and thus doesn’t know much about this icon, see the obits in The New York Times and The Guardian).

Quant à moi, I have mentioned “Johnny” exactly once in the history of AWAV, in a post in May 2011 that was mainly on Bernard-Henri Lévy, in which, entre autres, I linked to a piece by the US libertarian journalist Matt Welch that skewered the French pseudo-philosopher. I thought Welch was witty and on-the-mark in his takedown of BHL, except for his very last sentence: “And another reminder that BHL is 10 times the national embarrassment to France than Jerry Lewis or even Johnny Hallyday ever was.” On the French-and-Jerry Lewis cliché, I have definitively settled that one here. As for Johnny Hallyday, this was my response to Welch

[The Johnny Hallyday] cliché—that he’s a cheap French imitation of Elvis Presley, not very good, and generally a joke—seems to be more English than American (as Americans mostly have no idea who he is). I actually used to think the same thing, and would roll my eyes and snicker every time my wife and French friends—almost all of them—would tell me how great a singer “Johnny” is. But then I realized that I didn’t really know his music. I’d never bothered to listen to it. He just seemed too weird of a personality. And too bizarre looking. But eight years ago, when Johnny turned 60 and had a concert at the Parc des Princes to mark the event—before 60,000 fans and a live TV audience of millions—I decided to open my mind and give him a look. It went for three hours and I watched it to the end. It was great! Johnny is a great rock ‘n’ roller! And a great stage performer too. Voilà. Now I understand why he is so beloved in this country (even if he is still a weird guy). Matt Welch and other Anglo-Saxon Johnny snickerers have no doubt never listened to his music. If they like rock and roll, they should.

The more I’ve listened to Hallyday’s music over the years—on my favorite music radio station and CDs we own—the more I will assert that he was indeed very good, and that it’s too bad the musically protectionist Anglo-Americans were not exposed to him. Check out this YouTube playlist. And for the social scientifically minded, see the analysis in Le Monde by sociologist Jean-Louis Fabiani, “‘Pourquoi Johnny Hallyday, c’était la France’.” Also this homage by my favorite conservative politician, Jean-Pierre Raffarin. If there’s anyone who could unite Frenchmen and women across the political spectrum, it was “Johnny.”

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Prince, R.I.P.

$_35

My social media news feed has been deluged with eulogies to him over the past eighteen hours. Just about everyone I know—and many more I don’t—is heaping praise on him, as one of the greatest musical artists in modern times. I won’t say he was my absolute favorite but I did like him. Of course. How could anyone of my generation not? He was an exceptionally talented and versatile musician, and amazing on stage (rewatching some of his concert videos, which I have on DVD—they’re impossible to find free online—confirms this). And ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ and ‘When Doves Cry’ are among the great pop hits of my early adult life (playlist here). One video that is online—thanks to the NFL—is Prince’s halftime performance at the 2007 Super Bowl in Miami, in the midst of a rainstorm. He was incredible. Watch it here. It’s a must. C’est tout c’que j’ai à dire.

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David Bowie, R.I.P.

bowie

I learned about it in the past hour. I had no idea he had terminal cancer, and apparently few outside his family did either. Everyone was taken by surprise, as France Inter has been saying since the news broke. He was one of my favorite singers—in the top five—from the moment I was turned on to ‘Ziggy Stardust’—one of the greatest rock albums of all time—at age 16, in precisely the fall of 1972. I never got to see him in concert, though did watch an entire one of his on ARTE in the past decade—I think it was Dublin and may or may not have been live—during which I kept telling myself ‘he is so cool’ and so excellent. Last May I went to the touring exhibition David Bowie Is at the Philharmonie de Paris. A great expo. Voilà, c’est tout c’que j’ai à dire. R.I.P.

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deathofklinghoffer

[update below]

The New York Met’s performance of the opera has gotten numerous Jews and others in the pro-Israel camp all worked up and bent out of shape, even though almost all of those who are protesting the opera’s staging—on account of its putative justifying of terrorism and backhanded antisemtism—haven’t actually seen it. Adam Shatz did see a dress rehearsal of the opera at the Met last weekend, however, and, in a review posted on the LRB blog, has pronounced it to be very good, hardly antisemitic, and that in no way apologizes for terrorism. As far as I’m concerned, if Adam says it is so, that means it is so.

UPDATE: Paul Berman has an essay in Tablet magazine, “Klinghoffer at the Met,” that is worth reading.

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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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sugar-man-poster

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.

L’amour.

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’s, 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 patrons on most nights (e.g. here and here), and to which we were treated. Very nice. (August 28, 2013)

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