'It's really crude. I just love it'

Offbeat. Dirty. Down-at-heel. Musette, the music of Thirties working-class Paris, is all that. No wonder cult cartoonist Robert Crumb is so passionate about it
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If you happen to see a slightly diminutive figure with swottish glasses and a moustache poring over old recordings in one of those wonderful regional flea markets in France, take a second look. It could be cult American cartoonist Robert Crumb on his continuing lonely search for obscure 78s of French "musette" music. "I must have hundreds of them," says Crumb, "recorded in the early 1930s when there was a flowering of small companies and labels."

If you happen to see a slightly diminutive figure with swottish glasses and a moustache poring over old recordings in one of those wonderful regional flea markets in France, take a second look. It could be cult American cartoonist Robert Crumb on his continuing lonely search for obscure 78s of French "musette" music. "I must have hundreds of them," says Crumb, "recorded in the early 1930s when there was a flowering of small companies and labels."

He has a passion for vintage dance tracks, ranging from American old-time to Polish polkas - although you can be excused from missing this detail if you're only familiar with his best-known cartoon strip and film featuring the sexually adventurous moggy, Fritz the Cat. But devotees of his work will know that Crumb detests popular, mass-produced music and that his taste in many things is for the offbeat, the down-at-heel and the dirty. He's indulged his love of French musette music not only as a collector, but as an artist and a musician. He plays mandolin and banjo on World Musette, a new CD from the group Les Primitifs du Futur, picked by Songlines magazine as one of the Top of the World releases of the year.

Crumb left the US to settle in the south of France in 1990. "I'm sure I'm the only person in France interested in this music," he says. "They just look at me funny like they can't understand it. But sometimes it takes an outsider to know the music. Musette, like those old Polish polka bands, is a straightforward music of proletariat peoples - local dance music for the neighbourhood." The music has got into Crumb's art as well as his soul and he spent three years doing 36 drawings of little-known French accordionists for a set of cards called Les As du Musette (Musette Aces): "I'd done these cards in the States of early blues, jazz and country musicians," says Crumb, "and when I got into musette I wanted to do something similar featuring the early players from the Twenties and Thirties. They've sold more in the US to Crumb fans than to anybody else!"

The music of the Paris bal-musette originated in the poor, mountainous region of the Auvergne from where migrant labourers went to Paris in search of work at the end of the 19th century. Coming from a pastoral economy, they brought with them the cabrette, the Auvergnat pipes, which eventually gave way to the accordion and both of these were played in the bars and dancehalls in the suburbs of the city. It's the music that lies behind the cliché of the Paris accordion.

The accordionist credited with creating the bal-musette sound is Emile Vacher (1883-1969), and the other celebrated name of the genre is Belgian Gus Viseur (1915-1974), the star of jazz-musette. But it's the earlier, less sophisticated and much more obscure players who have caught Crumb's vivid imagination: "I love Emile Vacher, but I'm not interested in jazz-musette of the 1930s. I like the older style which is less bastardised. I'm fascinated by a guy called Hubert Bression. His records reach deep into me, buddy. He was very badly recorded on a small label, but his accordion style is unique. It's a sensitive, lyrical, melodic style that you don't get from anyone else.

"It's interesting that a lot of the musette accordion players were Italian, but you don't get that style in Italy. It was a Parisian thing. There was another band called Persioni - there's no great musicianship, but the sound has something deeply French working-class about it. A lot of musicians, like the singer and guitarist Dominique Cravic [with whom Crumb works in Les Primitifs du Futur], admire virtuosity, but there is none here. It's really crude. I think I'm the only person who likes their music."

Although he may not be a Persioni fan, Cravic was one of Crumb's main initiators into the world of musette. He took him to see Jo Privat, one of the legendary accordionists, in 1988. "Privat was a magician with words," Cravic explains. "He spoke in a romantic French argot and I used to explain what he was saying. Robert and I started to speak about doing a cartoon based on him, but then he died." Crumb remembers him well: "He lived in a 1920s two-storey house on the Marne. It was decorated like a whorehouse. Halfway up the stairs there was a full-size model of a prostitute leaning on a lamppost."

Suddenly the world of Crumb the cartoonist and Crumb the musette collector started to meet. "I saw Privat play at Bal à Jo in rue du Lappe [one of the old-time Paris musette dance halls that survived]. He had dyed black hair with sideburns and flashy clothes. Tacky. A lot of these accordionists were part-time pimps. It was all part of that working-class musette world. In the java, one of the most popular dances, couples grind against each other by him putting his hands on her arse."

In recent years the accordion has undergone a revival in France, if not as a sex aid, at least as a dance instrument. "It went through a bad period in the Sixties," says Cravic, "when accordion players got frightened by rock'n'roll and didn't know what to do, so they put on incredible clothes. Kitsch with a big K. But in the 1980s, a revival started with jazz and accordion players and the musette scene is now taking off."

Les Primitifs du Futur is an occasional group put together by Dominique Cravic, featuring some of the best contemporary players recreating the distinctive musette sound of the Twenties and Thirties. The music on the new disc, mostly by Cravic himself, is sometimes melancholy and plangent, sometimes sentimental without being saccharin, and sometimes wildly eccentric. Accordion jostles with clarinet, saxophone, trumpet and some nimble guitar strumming and solos.

For a man who eschews virtuosity, Robert Crumb plays a couple of nifty solos, notably on the mandolin on a track called "Scattin' the Blues", and on "Portait d'un 78 tard", he delivers the dead-pan spoken franglais of an American seeking les discs de soixant-dix-huit tours from before the war, which is interwoven with a catchy waltz. This disc is one of the leftfield (and Left-Bank) delights of the year.

A version of this article first appeared in the world music magazine 'Songlines' (www.songlines.co.uk)

Les Primitifs du Futur's 'World Musette' is released on Sketch (distributed by harmonia mundi) and Robert Crumbs's set of cards, Les As du Musette (Musette Aces), is available from Oog & Blik, Nieuwe Hemweg 7e-7f, 1013 BG Amsterdam, Netherlands

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