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.


KBeau said...

Sounds like you had all kinds of wonderful cultural experiences. It will be fun reliving this trip.

Gilly said...

That is just so fascinating! You certainly had a very adventurous holiday! The Parc de Vilette wasn't open when we went, and my husband, being an excessively cautious bloke, probably wouldn't have countenanced such a visit anyway!

But your photos are so evocative of the occasion, and the videos make me want lots, lots more!

Terri Morse said...

Glennis, thank you so much for taking us along to Paris and that wonderful concert! I can tell you really appreciate music. The young man's solo was quite wonderful. It felt like I was really there! Have a happy Pink Saturday. Stop by for a visit if you get a chance.

jeanne said...

Wonderful adventure and pics. I'm glad you had enough money to make it back. BIG smile.