Pop music: Trip-hopping a la Francaise
Friday 16 January 1998
Pere Lachaise, the huge Parisian cemetery, is on a hill in the eastern side of the city. In winter, the angular rooftops of Paris can be seen through the skeletal shapes of the trees. Honore Babac and other writers who have contributed to France's formidable literary past are buried here. Further down the arch of the hill are rough, hand-written signs that point the way to Jim Morrison's burial site. At the grave, itself, maudlin tributes to this American rock star who died on French soil cover the ground and tearful French teenagers offer silent invocations to him. These very same teenagers may also be secretly praying for an indigenous, authentic musical idol of their own.
Talented at literature, the French have never successfully wrestled with popular music. The Eurovision Song Contest is an anachronism in Britain but seems suited to the French. Acts like the absurd Johnny Halliday and a sulky Vanessa Paradis exemplify the habit many French singers have of taking mediocre music seriously.
Yet the French have good taste in music from other countries. In 1991, Miles Davis was awarded the Legion of Honour and Paris has served as a haven for black American jazz musicians who wanted to escape from the inherent racism of America. Sidney Bechet, Kenny Clarke and Bud Powell lived in Paris and, when Chet Baker died, all the jazz venues in the city closed for one night. In 1989, during the bicentennial procession, the Senegalese percussionists were placed in the most coveted position. Like their American counterparts, such African musicians as Manu Dibango and Mory Kante have also thrived in Paris. Yet, with the exception of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin's titillating song "Je T'Aime", and the accordion music that accompanies cinematic images of rustic France, most French musicians have been satisfied with composing pastiches of English and American music that are never released outside France.
Yet, in the past two years, the stature of French dance music has risen. Acts like Daft Punk, D.J. Cam, Dimitri, Laurent Garnier and M.C. Solaar, among others, have established an international following.
The catalyst for this musical explosion was American rap music and its accompanying technology in the late 1980s. Not only does French lend itself to the art of rapping but the immigrant community of Jews, Africans and Arabs have embraced it as a means of expression. M.C. Solaar led the way and groups like Alliance Ethnik, Menelik, Silent Majority, N.T.M. and La Cliqua have followed, avoiding the sexism of American rappers and giving the music a French identity. Today, France is the second-biggest market for rap music.
Tough new immigration laws in France have recently made it harder for Africans and Arabs to reside in the country and those already living there are becoming disenfranchised. The fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen, who took 15 per cent of the votes at the last French election, has spoken of his revulsion at "the Harlemisation of France" and there appears to be racial tension in the suburbs of Paris and France that didn't exist before. Recently, the government listed 685 suburbs as being sensitive. Mathieu Kassovitz's film La Haine, whose soundtrack featured several French rap groups, captured this inner-city decay and racial turmoil.
Unlike British rap music, French rap is a genuinely powerful force, and the black and Arabic rappers, whose mothers and fathers were welcomed by the French, are using music to attack government policies.
But it is French techno, house and "trip-hop", all predominantly instrumental genres, that have really impressed the British press and public. Dimitri, whose music combines elements of easy-listening music with "trip-hop", has admitted that French music's reputation gave musicians a complex about their ability. It was only when they heard that New York DJs like David Morales and Louis Vega were playing their records that their confidence rose. Dimitri, himself now DJs at Paris fashion shows and his album Sacre Bleu wittily played upon the stereotyped image many British people have of the French.
He also cites the picaresque Serge Gainsbourg as a prime influence, as other new French acts do. Gainsbourg, who has been sampled by De La Soul and Portishead, is one of the few French musicians of the past who has affected modern French music. Daft Punk, who also display a comic touch, have proved the most successful French group in Britain and Homework, their debut album of disco-inspired house music, entered the British Top 10.
The French fascination for jazz has also not diminished. St Germain's album infused jazz with house music and D.J. Cam, who has released two albums of atmospheric, instrumental "trip-hop", has declared that Miles Davis and Andrew Hill have influenced his music. He has also sampled John Coltrane's music and loves the soundtracks to Hitchcock films. The influence of soundtracks on many French musicians is strong and Serialement Votre is a compilation of interpretations of television or film soundtracks by several emerging French musicians. Air, who released several 12-inch singles on the fashionable English label Mo' Wax Records, imbue their debut album with the characteristics of a film score and avoid sampling anything. They have created an reflective, wistful and dream-like album that conjures up long-lost memories.
With the support of the Parisian radio station Radio Nova, these musicians and others like La Funk Mob, Daphreephunkateerz, Raggasonic, Alex Gopher and Snooze have brought a French character to the music. French rock still hasn't improved but, with techno, house, jungle "trip-hop" and rap music, many French artists are making innovative dance music which is no longer the property of the Americans or the English.
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