Friday, July 31, 2009

Cabaret Sauvage

The Parc de la Villette in the 19th Arrondisment, way out by the Peripherique road, is Paris's largest park. This part of town used to be the meatpacking district of Paris, with slaughterhouses and abattoirs built in 1867 at the direction of Napolean, and cleared over a century later, in 1974.
The park is a series of themed gardens, modernistic red "follies, and lawns along a canal. Also in the park is the complex of the Cite de Sciences et de l'Industrie, a cultural center and museum.

On a cool summer evening, we came here to see three Central African bands perform at the Cabaret Sauvage, one of the concert venues in the park.

Cabaret Sauvage, concieved by Algerian-born promoter Meziane Azaiche, opened in 1997, and it's an unexpectedly enchanting venue.

It looks like a circus tent, or perhaps the former home of a carousel. Wooden booths circle the mirror-paneled perimeter, and a large dance floor faces the small stage. The drapes, walls, and ceiling are deep cherry-pink velour.

When we arrived, we were directed to an outdoor courtyard where wine and beer were sold and a couple guys were cooking lamb kebabs and merguez sausages over a charcoal fire.

The sausages were doused with a fiery harissa sauce, and delicious, although we needed a Stella Artois to cool our mouths. The kebabs were tasty if a little tough, and the fresh baguettes soaked up the savory juices.

When we went into the venue, all the booths were full, and people started to sit on the steps rimming the dance floor. We grabbed a spot. It was funny - it didn't look much like a typical crowd in an American club - here folks were reading newspapers while they waited for the show to start.
When the first band came onstage, the crowd surged to the dance floor and up to the front of the stage. I was lucky; I got a spot at the downstage right corner, right behind the monitors and in a tiny alcove below the speaker, which was raised on a stand. It was a perfect place to watch without being jostled by dancers, and without being blasted full-on.

First up was a band called the Kasai All-Stars. As the name implies, the All-Stars are members of five different bands from the Kasai region in the Democratic Republic of Congo, participating collectively to bring their music to the rest of the world. The bands represent five different ethnic groups, so the performance featured a variety of different styles of music, dance and elaborate costumes.

The large axe-shaped object above is a lokole, a variation on the traditional slit-gong - a hollowed-out "drum" or idiophone made of wood. The sound it makes is a deep rich sound, but tonal variations can be played depending on what part of the instrument is struck.

The lokole player in the All-Stars is also one of the lead singers, and he was very charismatic on stage, working with the crowd.

Two female singers/dancers alternated onstage, and from my position in the wings I caught this photo of one singer pensively watching, waiting, while her sister took her turn in the lights.

For one number, a singer came from the wings wearing a brilliantly dyed tunic and this great hat, woven of cloth and decorated with shells, with horn-like peaks.

Here's a video clip I took showing a dance performance from the Kasai All-Stars.

When the set ended, we took an intermission out in the courtyard. Then back into the great pink tent for the next set. This time I took my position on the stage left side, behind the monitor mix board.

The second band is named Staff Benda Bilili, and they have an interesting backstory. The group's leaders, Ricky Likabu and Coco Ngambali, are both disabled from childhood polio - contracted during a sad time in their country's history when the vaccines were unavailable. At home in Kinshasa, they get around in elaborate motorized tricycles, home-made from scavenged parts. Homeless, they hang out around the Kinshasa Zoo grounds, playing music outside nightclubs and smuggling cigarettes and alcohol between Kinshasa and Brazzaville. Here, they came onstage in ordinary wheelchairs.

One of the most striking stars of Staff Benda Bilili is a tall, slim young musician, Roger Landu. A homeless kid, adopted by Ricky and Coco, he's now in his late teens or early 20's.
He plays a home-made instrument called the satonge - made with a tin, a wooden bow and a single wire, it has a high-pitched crazy sound that pierces through the thickness of the band's sound - one reviewer called it a like a "cross between a distorted electric guitar and a theremin."

Here's a clip I shot from the back of the hall, and the audio gives you an idea of what an extraordinary sound Roger creates from such a simple instrument, during an extended solo. Sorry about the shakiness at the end.

Staff Benda Bilili's name means something like "look beyond appearances" or "put forward what is hidden." Given the band's unique story, it's a great name.

At the end of the evening, the headliner act came onstage. Konono No. 1's full name is "L'orchestra folklorique T.P. Konono No. 1 de Mingiedi" - named for its founder, Mawangu Mingiedi. Now in his late 70's, he started the band in the 1970's, adapting traditional music from his homeland and ethnic group, the Zombo, located near the Congolese border of Angola.

The band's signature is their instrumentation - taking traditional instruments called likembe - a "thumb piano" similar to an mbira - and electrifying them with salvaged auto parts from Kinshasa junkyards. Without access to Western-style musical instruments or even electronics, Mingieda improvised. Percussion instruments are made from hubcaps, sawed-off broomsticks, and film cans. Guitar pick-ups and microphones are made from salvaged magnets, twisted copper wire, and other bits and pieces.

A striking visual element in their performances are the two large speaker cones that flank the stage - old Belgian colonial-era lance-voix, or emergency public-address system speakers.

With three likembe in varying pitches taking the lead along with two vocals, it all adds up to a thick, textured, buzzy cacaphony - a true "wall of sound" that would blow Phil Spector's socks off.

As I watched the band, it seemed to me this man was the driving force. When I check reviews posted at the band's record label, I think his name is Makuntima Nawamgu. What struck me about him was his incredible concentration on his playing. Stolid, even a bit dour, he barely cracked a smile - except a couple of times, wryly.

He and the two vocalists, Mbuka Msiala, whose sweet dancing rocked, and Menga Maku, bespectacled and a little nerdy like a math teacher, had great chemistry onstage.

Our night out ended with a bit of an unexpected adventure, though - near the end of Konono No. 1's set, we noticed the dance floor quickly clear out. What was going on? we wondered. Oh, never mind - we could finally score an empty booth and sit down with a beer. But when the show ended, we discovered that - Ooops! The last Metro train had gone, and we were stranded in Parc de la Villette!

Fortunately, a kindly coat-check girl and security guard helped us out by calling a Taxi and directing us to where it would pick us up. In the back seat, we frantically counted our coins, hoping to have enough cash to make it back to Montparnasse.

Whew! Enough! we made it home by 1:00 a.m. - pleased with our adventure.
NOTE: I'm working on editing the video of Konono No. 1, I'll repost it soon.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

In the steps of Pilgrims

I don't remember a whole lot about my undergraduate college courses - it was a long time ago. But I remember one semester where by happy coincidence, I experienced a three-dimensional immersion in the world of Western Europe during the Middle Ages.

Required to take history and humanities, I ended up with History of Medieval Europe and History of Art. In my major, Theatre, I had to take Costume History. So in one semester I learned about kings and crusades; powerful city states and duchies - and then went to another lecture hall to take notes on how the architecture of cathedrals evolved from Romanesque to Gothic to High Gothic to Renaissance. And then in the afternoon, I learned how clothing was constructed, layered, cinched; with multiple sleeves and slashed, puffed doublets; how ladies' headdresses of linen veiling and knotted netting were wrapped and rolled; how the pointy-toes of French slippers were attached to little chains hung from peoples' calves, while the slippers of Venetian men were as rounded as ducks' bills.

It all added up to a vivid picture that resonated far longer for me than other historical study I'd ever experienced before or since, and it took hold of my imagination. That's why when I realized our visit to Dijon, in Burgundy, brought us near the old Medieval town of Vezelay, I suggested we visit it.

When you drive toward the town of Vezelay, in northern Burgundy, you see its hill on the horizon above the surrounding fields and woods.

I found myself wondering if this was how those approaching the city during the 12th century, its era of greatest fame, might have seen it first.

Vezelay was the Medieval equivalent of a tourist attraction since the end of the first millenium, when relics of Mary Magdalene were brought by a monk to be housed in its Abbey. Fame increased in 1058, when the Pope certified that the relics were the real thing. People flocked to the town to pray, view, worship, or just try to hook on to the publicity of the saint.

The town became an important stop for pilgrims journeying on the Way of St. James - the route to Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain, where St. James was said to be buried.

In 1104, a new church was built to accommodate the demand. Over the next two centuries, the church - called the Basilique de Marie-Madeleine - was burned, rebuilt, added on to, and burned and rebuilt again. It was such a famous place that St. Bernard of Clairveaux preached the Second Crusade there, and Thomas a Becket used a sermon he spoke there to threaten King Henry II of England with excommunication.

In 1279, however, a rival Magdelenian shrine stole attention away from Vezelay, and it lost its popularity. By the mid 19th century, the basilica would have collapsed had not Napolean's inspector of historical monuments, Prospere Merimee, saved it by appointing architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc to restore it.

Today the town of Vezelay is still tiny, with a population of less than 800 residents. Tourists who come here park in lower lots, and walk up the narrow and steep streets of the town to the Basilica.

When we went to Vezelay, we skirted the main parking area and drove around the side until we found a space. Then we walked through a gate in the town ramparts, flanked by a round crenelated tower.

We chose the path that went uphill - figuring that was the best way to the basilica.

We took a steep stairway through a residential neighborhood.

Then we treked up even more. We came out at the top, in the square before the church, and were able to see the magnificent facade rising before us.

The Basilica of Mary Magdalene is still an attraction, both to believers (the Vatican kindly provided a replacement set of relics for the old ones, which were destroyed by the Huguenots in the 17th Century) and to those who appreciate architecture. It is one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in Europe, featuring

a carved tympanum - or semi-circular pictorial feature - that depicts the Pentacostal mission of the Apostles. The tympanum on the front of the building is a 19th century reconstruction by Viollet-le-duc - it's this one, in the narthex, or inner porch of the basilica, that's the real deal.

It's unique in Romanesque art. Similar carvings at other churches of the era depict standard theological doctrine, usually the Resurrection of Christ, preparing the congregation to contemplate the fate of their souls.

Vezelay, through the allegory of Apostles' mission to spread the Word of God to the world, serves as a promotional message for an all too human political effort - the Crusades. The tympanum reinforces Bernard of Clairveux's sermon just like a billboard at the gates of Disneyland sells cartoons and movies.

It includes images of the inhabitants of foreign lands, barely human creatures with odd or ugly physical characteristics, while the Christian nations are depicted as noble and benevolent. The message is clear - the Good Guys are being urged to go out and save the Holy Land from the Bad Guys.

The nave of the basilica is the oldest part of the building, dating from 1165. Arches of striped light and dark stone emphasize the length of the nave, and create a soaring, beautiful space that must have been amazing and awe inspiring to pilgrims who came from small towns.

The capitals of each column are carved with figures depicting a different story, parable, or allegory from Scripture - like ancient comic books for people who couldn't read, at a time when printed bibles were unheard of.

Two curving stairs beneath the transept take you to the Crypt, which is among the earliest parts of the structure. The stone floors are lumpy and uneven. Behind a screen lies the reliquary. The relics that the early pilgrims had come to pray to were destroyed by the Huguenots in the 17th Century, so in 1876, the Archbishop of Sen donated some new ones.

Wow. When you're down there, it's easy to feel the weight of all that stone above you. We came out and decided it was time to get out in the fresh air for some lunch.

East of the basilica is a wide grassy area, encircled by a broad parapet wall. Beyond is the view of the surrounding woods and vineyards. The sky was changeable, with clouds tossed by the wind. We found a nice location for our picnic.

While we ate, a group of kids led by monks dressed in long robes came into the park. Vezelay is still an active monastic community today. Pretty soon a makeshift game of soccer was underway. It's amazing how fast those guys can chase the ball in their robes.

When we left, we walked back into the square and then down through the narrow streets, down past the doorways and through the gated portal to our car.

We Americans aren't used to very old things. Almost 40 years ago, I sat in an Ohio lecture hall, watching slides and listening to someone talk about this place, and how important it was to so many pilgrims, hundreds, even a thousand years ago. It would never have occured to me that someday I would be here, walking the same narrow streets as so many weary feet before me.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What's the story here?

It was eleven o'clock in the morning. We were on the corner of Rue St. Honore and the Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 1st Arondissment, sitting at a cafe and sipping a cafe creme.

She crossed the street, coming from the Rue de Marengo, walking with a young guy in jeans and a tee shirt. She wore a short tiered skirt, a wheat-colored satin corset over an ivory lace camisole, and in her dark hair she wore a hat with a blue-frosted feather. Pale-colored stockings and taupe high-heels, mary-janes tied with bows.

Her friend disappeared out of sight, but she stood on the corner, uneasily shifting, toeing in her feet, adjusting the corset, sighing impatiently, hands on hips. The workday commuters passed her by, paying little attention.

Bored. Pensive. Impatient. What's her story? Let's write it.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A real wine cellar

It's a dark night. A key turns in the lock, and the wooden bulkhead doors creak open, revealing uneven stone steps descending into the darkness. It puts one in mind of a story written by a noted American author, from the 19th century, who wrote:
"I passed down a long and winding staircase, requesting him to be cautious as he followed. We came at length to the foot of the descent, and stood together on the damp ground of the catacombs ...."

You find yourself in a dank, dirt-floored space, stone vaults arching overhead. There are spiderwebs in the dim light that brush against your arm, your face. If you have a vivid imagination, you might
"observe the white web-work which gleams from these cavern walls."

You pass through an arch into another chamber. The walls are fitted with shelves and compartments for some ancient purpose, now unknown. Portals open off the main chamber, into darkness.

Where are we? Some dark, sinister cavern, setting of ghouls and fearsome wraiths? Catacombs piled with the bones of human remains? Did we pass
"through a range of low arches, descended, passed on, and descending again, arrived at a deep crypt, in which the foulness of the air caused our flambeaux rather to glow than flame..." ?

Well, not exactly. This is the wine cellar of our friend's house in the Rue de Petit-Potet, in the ancient city of Dijon, in Burgundy in France.

It's cool, even in the heat of summer, and has the right humidity to keep and mature wine. And, like anybody's basement, it's also a convenient place to keep surplus building supplies, scrap lumber, stocks of bulk foods, rubbermaid bins of winter clothes, and old foosball tables.

Our friend has a small but interesting collection of wines here. She chose a couple of bottles to take upstairs for our dinner.

Her landlady has a much larger collection, which we could see if we peeked into one of the chambers off to the side, behind a locked gate.

So, really, there's nothing much to fear, and much to envy. How many people do you know who have a Late Medieval French wine cellar?

But does she have a cask of Amontillado? Ah...I hearkened in vain for a reply.

Back Home

A bit jet-lagged still, but we're back home. Last night the evening was so fine we set a table on the upper deck, and ate a typical American-style salad - wedges of iceberg lettuce, crumbled crisp bacon, chopped red tomatoes, and blue cheese dressing.

This morning I'm up, drinking coffee, eating my cereal, and getting ready to go back to work. Was Paris all a dream?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Pink Saturday - a pretty custom

Pink Saturday - Beverly, at the blog "How Sweet the Sound" hosts Pink Saturday. Let the color pink inspire you!

A sidewalk flowershop in the Arrondisement St. Germain de Pres follows a pretty custom -

the sidewalk is strewn with rose petals to attract customers to its displayed bouquets of roses.

This shop, further up on the Rue de Bac, dispenses with the bouquets altogether, and lavishes petals on the tabletops and on the pavement.

This Pink Saturday we are traveling home again, back to Los Angeles after two weeks in France.