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January 25, 2004 - Sunday morning on the Left Bank

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As American Idol returns this week to our television sets, a ray of hope from France.

"...the public is not as dim as the cynics who control the television think. There's a general feeling that enough is enough."

Well, yes it is, on Rue Mouffetard.



Ah, to warm your heart two more items from l'Agence France-Presse (AFP) by way of The Tocqueville Connection:

First this:



PARIS, Jan 18 (AFP) - After a long lean period, fans of French "chanson" have been heartened by the arrival of a new generation of song-smiths, whose subtle observations of modern life and passionate use of language are a clear reaction against the bland insincerity of mainstream pop. 

Over the last two years a group of young "chanteurs" has emerged from the smoky bars where they served their apprenticeship in the late 1990s and assumed a national status, earning cautious comparisons with the greats of yesteryear such as Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens. 

Names such as Benabar, Sanseverino, Keren Ann, Mathieu Boogaerts, Vincent Delerm and Carla Bruni may not resound abroad, but in France they are selling hundreds of thousands of CDs and music-lovers see in them a sign of hope that a great French tradition is still alive and kicking. 

"French chanson disappeared for a quarter of a century.  In the 1980s and 90s what people wanted was rock and variety.  But this is a definite comeback.  The new chanteurs have a background of rock, but they also want to revisit an older heritage," said critic Christophe Conte of Les Inrocks magazine. 

"They are the children of the May 68 generation.  Their parents listened both to rock and to chanson - Brel, Brassens, Leo Ferre, Claude Nougaro.  They are the product of all that," he said.


Ah yes, but where is all this coming from? 


France's tradition of "chanson" goes back at least a century, starting with the cabaret of Mistinguett, through the music-hall of Maurice Chevalier and Edith Piaf to the post-war jazz scene of Juliette Greco.  At its best it is both literary and popular, making a genuine connection between high culture and the masses. 

But everyone agrees that if there is a revival today, it is because the French masses have become hooked on the heavily-marketed pulp which now forms the staple of the music charts.  The hugely-successful "Star Academy" television programme is the epitome of what many see as the cretinisation - French for dumbing-down - of popular taste. 

"I really have nothing against Star Academy.  There is a place for these things.  But then it was followed by more and more of the same.  Every six months there are more of these superstars doing cover versions.  But the public is not as dim as the cynics who control the television think.  There's a general feeling that enough is enough," said Benabar.


Well, I don't agree with this Benabar person. 

A few Decembers ago while in Paris I caught "Star Academy" on TF1 in my hotel room.  Like "American Idol" this was an array of superbly untalented singers and dancers, and excruciating to watch, so I turned it off and went for a walk. 

Why do such shows have such high ratings?  Perhaps they make viewers feel glee at seeing someone pretentious make an utter fool of themselves.  Perhaps we like to see such folks humiliated.  But that has as limits as entertainment. 

How much of that can you watch - and what should you do instead? 

Here's an answer. 



PARIS, Jan 19 (AFP) All it takes is an accordion, a few song sheets and a charismatic performer to turn a Parisian square into a lively open- air concert, where scores of people gather every week to sing French chansons. 

Fifteen years ago, Christian Bassoul was another one of Paris's many street musicians in the Rue Mouffetard, playing tunes by Edith Piaf and Charles Trenet and making some extra pocket money. 

He noticed that passersby were humming along, trying to remember the words to "La Vie en Rose" or "La Mer." Pretty soon, he was passing out lyric sheets, and his "Mouffetard Musette" - musette means French accordion music - was born. 

Now every Sunday, after shoppers have filled their baskets with cheese, eggplants, oranges and walnuts at the busy market stalls, they wander over to the square to spend an entertaining musical hour.


Amusing, no? 

This Bassoul fellow is onto something. 

Here's his take on this. 


"It was an old tradition that I didn't know about and which existed 30 years ago," the 54-year-old Bassoul, a black cap on his head and red handkerchief slung around his neck, told AFP.  "Before radio became really popular, people used to meet in the street and buy song sheets. 
"They would learn the songs by hearing them.  This tradition was lost and it's coming back.  I made it come back without knowing it

The gathering has turned into a rain-or-shine event that attracts quite a crowd, locals and tourists alike.  A number write "Mouffetard" into their weekly calendars instead of Sunday morning brunch, it's Sunday morning singing.


And yes, there is more to it. 


The sing-along is also more than just a few light-hearted hours, it is an informal way to meet people in often cold and impersonal Paris where making friends can be very hard. 

"This is life," Nanda Atarian, who visits from Rio de Janeiro twice a year, exclaimed. 

"Every time (I am in Paris) I come here and we sing together and dance.  People here are very friendly, they're like family," the 29-year-old said. 

Viviane Hatry, another regular from the neighborhood, said a German man danced with a woman from Quebec here, and they fell in love.  Now they are living together in Canada. 

"Here the boss and the employee come together and sing together, it's really nice.  I like to sing, I like to dance, and I like people," she said, before bustling off to collect a bit of money from the crowd.


This sounds altogether too pleasant and civilized. 

I cannot imagine any sort of equivalent in Manhattan or out here in Hollywood. 

But next Sunday morning as I drive around playing press photographer, looking for shots for this magazine, who knows?  I may come across a bunch of pre-sixties folks at the weekly Hollywood farmers' market thing singing old Brenda Lee or Doris Day tunes.  Or their children singing Doobbie Brothers favorites. 

Probably not.  We have different musical traditions over here.  We're not French.