Gypsy Jazz

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.

Ninine Garcia

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.

The Kid Sits In
Marcel Campion, the Proprietor of La Chope

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.

Annie Dancing

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?”

“Oui”

“Et l’origine juif?”

“Oui.”  That brought a big smile and a hearty hug.

The Scene at La Chope des Puces

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.

The Hat Has Been Passed

©2018 Ron Scherl

Mimi, Rodolfo, the Spacemen and the Mime

Formerly known as La Bohème.

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.

La Bohème, San Francisco Opera, 1978

Voix de Femmes 2017

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.

A bit of Marilyn.
A touch of Almodóvar.

The heat drove most of the crowd away from the stage into the shade, but didn’t slow down the unbearded singers at all.

An intense sun drove the crowd to shade.

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.

NUT

©2017 Ron Scherl

The Brice is Back

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.

©2012 Ron Scherl

©2012 Ron Scherl

©2012 Ron Scherl

©2012 Ron Scherl

©2012 Ron Scherl

©2012 Ron Scherl