La Chope des Puces translates as a “Jar of Fleas”, the jar usually referring to a mug for serving beer, but on this Saturday afternoon the drinks of choice were Champagne and Scotch and Coke. La Chope is a bar, restaurant, lutherie (factory of string instruments), and a school of jazz manouche, but most of all it is a temple to Django Reinhardt, the great French Gypsy guitarist who lived nearby.
Located on the rue des Rosiers in Saint Ouen, adjacent to the Porte de Clignancourt Marché aux Puces, la Chope comes alive every weekend with the music of jazz manouche led by Ninine Garcia, head of Paris’ first family of gypsy jazz. Seated beneath a portrait of his late father, Mondine, and a glass case of honored guitars, Ninine and his son, Roky host a family party every week, playing guitar all afternoon along with friends and family.
Everyone seems to know everyone and many are, in fact, related but I can say with the confidence of experience that strangers are more than welcome. When one of the guests, a man named Samuel, raised his glass to me and said: “L’Chaim”, I thought I was at a Bar Mitzvah, and when the Garcias played Hava Nagila I was sure of it. Although there wasn’t enough room for a hora, and no one was carried aloft in her chair, the vibe was exactly the same. I had landed in a French Gypsy affair.
A little while later, fresh glass in hand, I returned the compliment, toasting Samuel with L’Chaim. He sipped and said: “Vous êtes Americain, non?”
“Et l’origine juif?”
“Oui.” That brought a big smile and a hearty hug.
So it doesn’t matter where you go, you’re always the sum of where you’ve been. The past is never lost, it just takes a different shape today.
Unusual, provocative, a new approach, absolutely, but how it relates to the music and libretto I cannot tell you. It seemed like the management had double-booked the theatre. There were two unrelated productions on the stage simultaneously. On stage-right you have Mimi and Rodolfo declaring their love, falling out, and reuniting before the inevitable tragic end, while on stage-left mute spacemen wander around a white moonscape of an unnamed planet. Except when they’re inside the doomed spaceship and the spacemen are floating outside the window. They never seem to merge until the end when instead of a quiet death, Mimi walks through an annoying, shimmering silver curtain and wanders off the planet.
I get it. I think. In a world without hope, only love and art make sense. Or something like that. But all this spaceship nonsense was totally unnecessary and impossible to reconcile with the action. So the production team led by Claus Guth stopped trying and just let the spacemen hang around while the lovers played out their fate.
I can imagine the early meetings when Mr. Guth presented his concept:
“To make this romantic trifle relevant to today, we must move ahead in time to make the demise of our civilization real. Exaggerate, exaggerate, it’s the only way. Their love can only be meaningful to us if it takes place in a world where love is impossible. Their art can only touch us if it exists beyond the end of the world.”
“Brilliant, Claus. Make it happen. Make this music speak to us again.”
Then they get into production and the questions begin: “Excuse me Claus, but if we open on a spaceship, how do we bring in Mimi?”
“No problem. Stop thinking literally. We do not need to hold the hand of the audience. We’ll just bring her in as if she was in another room. It’s a big ship.”
“They were on the same ship but had never met?
“As I said, it’s a big ship.”
“Excuse me, sir, but is it big enough to hold the Café Momus?”
“Hmm. Yes. I see what you mean. Think, people! Outside the box.”
“I’ve got it, sir. It’s a dream. Rodolfo takes a little nap and dreams the left bank of Paris, which, of course, doesn’t exist anymore. That world is dead.”
“Brilliant. That’s what I mean, people, outside the box. Now, let me tell you something else I hate about opera. The house is huge, the singers are small, the world is dying. The audience has to see the emotions to feel them but they’re so far away and they’re checking their phones or reading those damn titles. How do we grab them?”
“I’ve got it sir: video. We bring a camera on stage- it will look like all the other tech spacey garbage already on stage – and we project a huge close-up of the singer on the wall behind him.”
“Good, I like it. But remember, exaggerate! We’re talking really close. I want to see his tonsils.”
“I’m not sure the Rodolfo still has tonsils, sir.”
“Nobody likes a smart-ass, junior. OK, video, I like it but it’s not enough and we can’t do it for everyone. How about a mime?”
“Everybody hates mimes, sir. Those guys on the Pont des Arts can’t even make a living anymore.”
“Good. They’ll work cheap.”
“But no one likes them, sir.”
“Exactly why I want them. This audience needs a good slap in the face.”
“The critics will hate it. The audience will boo when you take your bow, maybe even during the performance.”
“Perfect. Better to give them something to hate than something they’ll forget. What time is my train to Berlin?”
A final word: not even this kind of nonsense can kill this music:
Conducted by Gustavo Dudamel with Sonya Yoncheva as Mimi and Atalla Ayan as Rodolfo, it really was possible to close your eyes and listen to Puccini.
This is a photograph from Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production of La Boheme in San Francisco in 1978. At the time, it was considered to be provocative, the work of a willful director imposing an inappropriate vision on a classic. But it was beautiful, affecting, illuminating and it has stayed with me all these years.
I decided to skip the major concerts of this annual music festival. Four years ago, I shot for two days and got a cool t-shirt in return but the t-shirt still fits and now everyone’s a photographer. I don’t think they needed me and I didn’t need another black t-shirt.
But I did want to take in the free festival events and brought a camera along. Les Femmes à Barbe do not wear beards at all, but they did manage a few costume changes during their performance in the sweltering Place de la Mairie. A high energy trio featuring lively harmonies and a variety of musical styles that began with some French Pop, segued quickly through a brief Marilyn Monroe interlude into an Almodóvar film. Bedsheet saris accompanied Polynesian rhythms and on to Africa by way of James Brown.
The heat drove most of the crowd away from the stage into the shade, but didn’t slow down the unbearded singers at all.
The lovely old Chapel of St. Roch was the venue for a duo known as NUT, a singer and guitarist performing vaguely folky tunes in French and English; a mélange of pop, reggae, soft blues and ballads. Pleasant enough to listen to, not compelling enough to keep me in the airless church with sweat in my eyes, while thinking of a cool shower and a glass of rosé.
Early November and the Festival of St. Brice returns to Maury. You remember Brice, a man of less than saintly youth transformed into holier than most. Pretty much the same program this year as last, small carnival, rock band, mass, tea dance, kind of something for everyone.
The carnival was much the same outfit: bumper cars, merry-go-round, cotton candy, all a bit worn and a year older, just like the rest of us.
Different band this time: last year we had a group who played in their underwear, this year we had a fashion show courtesy of a band named California, who also played and sang some stuff for a very small crowd. Last year there was a cross section of the town’s population: babies who fell asleep, kids who chased around the hall, teenagers studiously ignoring the opposite sex, the kids’ parents and some older people who left early. This year seemed to be all teenagers: girls dancing with girls, boys standing around looking uncomfortable. It’s universal.
Last weekend was the annual Voix de Femmes music festival, which for me was a bit of time-travel, for a little while. Like a number of other photographers who started working professionally in San Francisco in the late 60’s, I began shooting rock concerts. There wasn’t much money in it but there was plenty of music, lots of dope and the feeling that this was the best time in the best place in the world. A lot of great photographers came out of that scene, many stayed in it – none better than Jim Marshall who defied all expectations by dying in his sleep two years ago – but my life took a different turn and most of the next 20 years were spent in San Francisco’s Opera House, a very different scene, but one with numerous similarities: a diva is a diva after all, whether she’s singing Verdi or the blues.
After many more turns, here I was last weekend shooting a rock concert for the first time in about 40 years.
Voix de Femmes is a big deal in Maury, two days of diverse musical events plus theatrical events for the children, now in its twelfth year. Things got under way Friday night with Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside, a band from Portland Oregon that cultivates an idiosyncratic retro image – actually Sallie has the image, the guys just have jeans and t-shirts – but rides on the strength of Sallie’s voice. Comparisons some have made to Billie Holiday or Bessie Smith are a bit out of line, but she can sing.
They were followed by Amadou and Mariam, two musicians from Mali with a kickass band that had the audience up and dancing. I’m up in front of the speakers, ears ringing, losing the rest of my hearing.
Saturday had four free afternoon events, two performances for the kids, an early music concert and a public chorale featuring a manic comedienne and the good citizens of Maury cajoled into singing in the Place de la Mairie.
Les Troubadours are part of a roving festival funded by the Regional Council that celebrates early music and Occitane and Catalan culture in Romanesque architectural sites. The Maury concert was held in the Chappelle de St. Roch, a Romanesque design built in the mid 19th century to honor St. Roch, to whom the commune had appealed to halt a cholera epidemic. This was a wonderful concert, great voices, early instruments, love songs dedicated to the female troubadours of the past.
The evening shows featured two young women: L, a poetic storyteller who reminded me a bit of Madeleine Peyroux, but still needs to grow into performance, and Anaïs, a versatile chanteuse with an amusing rap, accompanied by a DJ along with the band. It struck me that both might be much more interesting in a small venue.
My back was aching, my recaptured youth all but gone. I managed to get home, raised a glass to Jimmy Marshall, took four ibuprophen and three days to recover.
“I ache in the places where I used to play”, L. Cohen, Tower of Song.
This weekend marked the festival of Saint Brice, the patron saint of Maury. Brice was born in 370 and raised by St. Martin in Marmoutiers, near Strasbourg in Alsace.
According to the Catholic.org web site, he was a “vain, overly ambitious cleric”, who “neglected his duties, was several times accused of lackness and immorality.” He was exiled from his See and after seven years in Rome, “he returned and ruled with such humility, holiness and ability, he was venerated as a saint by the time of his death.”
He died in 444. It is unclear how he became the patron saint of Maury, but I like a town that will give a guy a second chance.
The form of the festival changes each year with the makeup of the organizing committee. A couple of years ago there was a Mexican theme, complete with a parade and mariachis marching up to the town square. This year we had a schedule of events that would not be out of place in any small town in America.
There was a mini carnival with bumper cars, a merry-go-round, a booth where you try to snag a prize from a bin, and cotton candy.
There was a dance last night with a band named Système sans Interdit, which roughly translates to a system without prohibitions, or total freedom, which is why, I suppose they chose to play in their underwear. Looking at their web site, it seems they do this quite often and it works with their self description: “French and Kitsch Music.” The crowd was mixed: older women who left early, young families with little girls dancing and little boys running in circles, and teenaged girls ignoring teenaged boys. It never quite reached the critical mass necessary for ignition but that didn’t seem to bother the band who played without a break for longer than I could take.
There was music at the mass too, a special event for St. Brice’s feast day. Cobla Nova Germanoris a Catalan band from Perpignan whose motto is “Long live the Sardana”. I was thinking of the guitar playing folk singers now an integral part of contemporary Jewish services, but this was different, here they provided some quiet background music to the procession, communion and collection. The mass began with an almost orderly procession of children to the altar and included readings by four of the more prominent women in town. It concluded with a short and warmly received speech by the mayor.
After the mass everyone went over to the Mairie for an aperitif and potato chips. The mayor poured wine, the band had a little more freedom and several women found just enough room to dance a Sardana while the men talked business.
The weekend concluded with a tea dance but worn out from all the unusual activity, I slept right through it. (No Photo)