Paris: On the African beat

When the singer and Unicef goodwill ambassador Angélique Kidjo left her native Benin she headed for the French capital. And she found a vibrant World-Music scene. No wonder the city has become her second home.
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The Independent Travel

I live in New York, but my second home is Paris. I return several times a year to nourish my hunger for the fundamental influences that I drew from the city when I lived there for 14 years in the 1980s and 1990s. The places in Paris that are closest to my heart are not glamorous and are definitely not on the tourist beat; they belong to the era when I was an impoverished student.

I was 23 years old when I arrived in Paris in 1983, undecided about whether to become a professional musician or a lawyer. The first thing that struck me was the weather. Back in my native Benin, everyone had told me to prepare for the cold - not a concept I was familiar with. But there was sunshine throughout the flight and the weather was clear over Paris when the plane landed. I was relieved - until I left the aircraft and discovered that, in Paris, it can be cold even when the sun is shining! I still haven't got over it; I hate the cold of the northern hemisphere and however much I wrap up, it somehow always seems to get in.

Yves, one of my eight siblings, was already living in Paris and met me at the airport. We took public transport into the city and when we emerged from the Métro I was overwhelmed by the amount of cars. Growing up in Cotonou, I was accustomed only to bicycles and motorbikes, which are a different kind of monster. Yves, who was a drummer at the time, lived in a small flat in Nogent-sur-Marne, on the outskirts. My memories are of scraping together small change to pay for my bus fares. Paris's charming cafés and restaurants were completely off my radar; I was too hard up.

Like many Africans, I saw France as the country of freedom and justice. I wanted to become a human-rights lawyer and spent a term at Paris XIII University in Villetaneuse, northern Paris. It was a grim suburb but I had an enriching time there discussing issues with the dedicated lecturers. They made me understand that crimes against humanity were committed by states and that I, as a human-rights lawyer, would not be able to change the world.

Yves was involved in the music scene and I had been singing since childhood; my mother ran a dance troupe in Benin in which I first performed at the age of six. Yves played in a band called Alafia. At one of their venues the now-lamented Phil'One at La Défense - a Dutch pianist they knew, Jasper van't Hof, took me on as the vocalist for his group, Pili Pili. I enrolled at CIM, the jazz and contemporary music school by Métro Doudeauville and I also took lessons at the Atelier de Chanson de Paris et d'Ile de France. I became immersed in the music scene and discovered that France had schools for musicians - a strange concept when you come from Africa. It was enough to convince me that I could build a career in the arts.

Eventually, we got gigs in the Rue des Lombards clubs, near Châtelet where World Music, as its now known, was born. Paris in the early 1980s was a fantastic melting pot for musicians. Radio stations, independent record shops and labels were all starting up and we were always bumping into artists like Manu Dibango, Mory Kanté, Ray Lema, Papa Wemba and Touré Kunda.

Some of the Rue des Lombards clubs from the 1980s still exist, such as Le Baiser Salé and Le Duc des Lombards. New ones have sprung up, which offer that same intimate atmosphere and feature a wide range of artists - Le Sunside/Sunset and Les 7 Lézards, a little further out in the Rue des Rosiers. They are all worth a visit - get there at about 9pm so you can get a good seat and a drink before the action starts. The good thing about those clubs is that they're all close together and if you don't like the music in one bar, you just nip over the road to another. If they all disappoint, it's a short hop to the New Morning, in Rue des Petites-Ecuries. The New Morning started up in the early 1980s and it's still one of the world's great jazz venues.

I moved to New York in 1997 with my husband, the bass player Jean Hébrail, and our daughter, Naima. We wanted Naima to have access to learning English, just as I had by growing up near the border with Nigeria. We also needed to be close to the music industry in the States. But I still have a brother and sister living in Paris and we have a flat in Créteil, in the eastern suburbs.

Créteil has a bad reputation for its high-rise housing and crime. But you get much more space for your money there. (We lived in central Paris for six years but the flat was very pokey.) Créteil is on the Métro but Parisians still consider it la banlieue (the suburbs) and are sniffy about it. I say, go there. In Créteil you will see French-style integration at its best: African women in traditional dress doing their shopping alongside little old French ladies with their trolleys. You will see a strange mix of grey high-rises and old two-storey brick villas with coach houses and courtyards with potted red geraniums. It's la France profonde meets the 'hood. In the midst of the concrete, there's old-fashioned Créteil village with its market, quaint town hall, butchers and cheesemonger.

I travel about to do my shopping. The food in the supermarkets in France is so good that you don't have to go to specialist shops. But there are a few places I make special trips to. I do a lot of cooking with natural and organic products which - depending on my errands of the day - I buy at Naturalia's shops at Nation, Bastille, Place d'Italie or Rue Beaubourg. For music, there aren't many independent shops these days, unless you are after vinyl. So I buy CDs at the huge FNAC at Les Halles, which has everything, or at the Virgin Megastore on the Champs-Elysées, which has the advantage of staying open late.

I mostly use my car to get around Paris, and that allows me to pop down to Tang Frères in Avenue de Choisy (13th arrondissement) which has the best Chinese and Asian ingredients in Paris. For us it's a great treat to have mangosteen for dessert - it's a fruit from Thailand. This is where I also go to buy coconut milk, curry paste and Thai rice.

I love food and I really enjoy cooking. The touring life - being crammed on a bus, changing cities every week, sleeping in hotel rooms and eating out every night - makes you appreciate the uncomplicated comforts of home. In my leisure time, I'm a lot happier cooking dinner and eating in with Jean and Naima than going out to a restaurant.

The ingredients for African food are of a high quality in Paris and the best place to go to is Place du Château Rouge in the 18th arrondissement. It's Little Africa, packed with market stalls, and frequented by people in traditional clothes. Some of the shops around Château Rouge are so small and so packed with goods that there is room for only the shopkeeper and his stock. All the buying and selling takes place on the pavement. I speak Yoruba and Fon so I can usually latch on to a few conversations. It's fun and I can find quality ingredients for preparing n'dolé (bitter leaf) or gombo (okra) just the way I like them. But I also have a soft spot for French food, such as oysters and foie gras.

I always visit my friends Bintu and Rémi at Radio Nova on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine. It's a fantastic radio station. It started in the 1980s and has remained true to its mission of promoting new musicians from across the world.

With Bintu and Rémi we always dine at l'Equateur (151 Rue Saint-Maur, 11th arrondissement). It is a Cameroonian restaurant - one of our old haunts from the 1980s. It's the meeting place for African musicians when they are passing through Paris.

My top shopping trip

When I travel back to New York from Paris, my bags are laden with cooking ingredients from the African market stalls at Château Rouge and from the Asian food specialist Tang Frères. But I also always have a tub or two of Sel Fou tucked away in my suitcase. It's a cheap seasoning mix (salt, onion, sugar, horseradish, thyme, marjoram and garlic) that's sold at Franprix super- markets for 60 cents. I put it on all my dishes.

My favourite restaurants

The 11th arrondissement has several African restaurants which are kept going by their regulars - the Malians who drive many of the taxis in the French capital. Musicians go to L'Equateur (151 Rue Saint-Maur, open every day).

However, my favourite dish in Paris is not African. It is crab in ginger (tourteau au gingembre) and when I want to eat that I go to a Chinese restaurant called Le Pacifique (35 Rue de Belleville, 19th arrondissement, open every day).

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