Skip to main content

A to Z of world music

With Algerian "rai" going full-tilt in Paris, and musicians from all the other countries of Francophone Africa making the city their second home, France's world music scene is in ceaseless evolution. But its indigenous music is also being revived. Brittany's Celtic roots are discernible in its proliferating pipe-bands, and its nocturnal feasts, with their non-stop drinking and dancing, are virtually indistinguishable from Irish "ceilidhs". But, as befits a land whose history is marked by extremes of purity and worldliness, France's two most distinctive musical traditions sit at opposite ends of that spectrum.

Purity first: nothing can compare with the melting beauty of the three-part male-voice polyphony still to be heard in Corsican churches. It is governed by strict rules: the middle voice - the "siconda" - carries the tone, while the "bassu" holds the bass and the high "terza" weaves delicate ornamentation above. There are a number of such groups to be heard on CD, but the most outstanding one is A Filetta's Passione (OVI 45208-2). The worldly end of the spectrum is occupied by the musical style known as "bal-musette". Cap worn at a rakish angle, Gitane hanging from the lip - the images evoked by the cafe-music of Paris may be hackneyed, but its origins are fascinating. It was brought to the capital around 1900 by migrant workers from the mountainous and impoverished Auvergne region; its melting-pot was the cafe-charbon - a small bar where people bought food and coal. Workmen would get out their "cabrette" - a droneless bagpipe made of goatskin - and everyone would dance. Other musical ingredients arrived with the Gypsies and with the Italian migrant workers who brought their "organetto" accordions: thus was the "bal-musette" born.

You can get a wonderfully panoptic view of this art-form from The Rough Guide to Paris Cafe Music (RGNET 1084), which starts with its founding fathers Emile Vacher and Charles Peguri. You also get Jean Corti, who played in a military brothel in the 1940s, plus the drug-addicted Frehel, whose smoky tones are an authentic sound of the 1920s. Django Reinhardt's son Babik beats up a lovely storm with the New Quintette du Hot Club de France, and Edith Piaf - this music's patron saint - growls her way through a song called "Accordeoniste".

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you