A moveable feast: music life of Paris for all cultures

Brass Band performing at the Louvre's vicinity
Brass Band performing at the Louvre’s vicinity

Paris beats to the rhythm of music, offering a lot of musical treasures, many of which strike a note with Arab and Mediterranean cultures.

Published in Al Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online

Not without reason, Paris is the acclaimed as capital of the arts. Captivating, with its architecture, museums, concert halls and a number of important historical landmarks, the city is a living museum.

The city has a lot to offer to all art lovers. Though some attractions can be costly, such as tickets to the concerts in the renowned concert halls or performances of the music stars, there is a whole assortment of attractions that are affordable, if not free-of-charge. They provide great satisfaction for music and art lovers. The sheer weight of French – and specifically Parisian – art adds to the aesthetic experience and invites further interest.

Paris beats to the rhythm of music, responding to all tastes and cultures. Music is everywhere, whether institutionalised or in its free, sometimes barely, graspable form. Musicians and music institutions compete for attention through thousands of billboards, posters, and flyers distributed around the city and in the Metro stations. A short walk through any given street or a look into a few Metro stations will overwhelm the viewer with a multitude of cultural events and offers, aiming to overcome all budget limitations of the interested audiences.

Being a melting pot of nationalities and cultures, understandably the Paris music scene responds to all tastes, and in parallel it showcases many international musical riches to all who are there. Western classical music, jazz, contemporary performances are all paralleled by music from the Arab World and seem to be very popular with French audiences already interested in the region as a whole.

November offered a few concerts echoing with the Arab region. Between 13 and 16 November, Parisian audiences were treated to a concert by Marcel Khalife, the internationally acclaimed Lebanese composer, singer andoudplayer.

Khalife performed with his two sons, pianist Rami and percussionist Bachar, at the Bouffes du Nord theatre, a beautiful 19th-century building, which was reopened by Peter Brook in 1974 (following its closure in 1952). Today, the theatre requires serious renovation, yet intriguingly, its current state adds charm and a peculiar cosy atmosphere to performances held there.

For audiences acquainted with Khalife’s performances with Al Mayadeen Ensemble or other orchestras, the newly formed trio gives a completely new dimension to the music. It is apparent that while Marcel Khalife remains faithful to his musical history, he is also not afraid to explore new creative territory by joining his young sons, both extremely talented and highly educated musicians.

Looking at music in Paris in correlation with the Arab world, it would be unfair not to mention the role played by the Institute of the Arab world. From literary events to art exhibitions to music events, the Institute makes every possible effort to bring Arab culture closer to Parisians.

On Sunday 24 November, Rachid Taha fused Rai music with Arab rock and elements of world techno. In mid-December, the Institute will invite audiences to a performance by the Jazz Gnawa and Alwan troupe from Morocco.

Recently, on 21 November this year, hoping to expand its activities in promoting Arab cultures, the Institute of the Arab World opened a new branch in Tourcoing, over 200 km north of Paris, not far from to Lille.

Yet, Paris is not only about concerts and performances. It is a city where music constitutes one of the basic elements of life, serving as enjoyment and a means to earn a few centimes. It is very common for impoverished social strata or students hoping to make extra income to form small ensembles or perform solo on Paris streets and in the Metro station. The Metro music community seems to respect each other’s territories. A duo singing Latin American tunes can be met on Metro line 4, a trumpeter is a returning number at line 6, and meanwhile a violinist entertains the passengers on line 2.

Though it is clear that Metro performers, the least privileged financially, are mostly amateurs using music as a tool, the line 2 violinist in particular proved to have some academic education; it was a pleasure to listen to him perform some popular pieces. It is a pity that the harshness of life, as it seems, led him to abandoning further musical development.

Despite their desperate trials, whether proud amateurs or semi-professionals, Metro musicians find it difficult to collect an income, even though this is almost always peripheral to musical values per se. A brass band consisting of young and enthusiastic musicians performing in the vicinity of the Louvre attracted a large audience in minutes. The listeners’ abundant generosity must have been incited by the musicians’ original outfits – pink tutus worn over the regular clothing – and not their musical skill.

One could write pages on street music in Paris, its performers, their backgrounds and cultures, the means and reasons of their performances. However, let us go to yet another, possibly more sophisticated attraction: the Cite de la Musique, a musical site dedicated fully to music through concerts, workshops, exhibitions, and conferences tailored to all ages and reaching all music interests.

Its concert hall offers symphonic concerts by French and visiting orchestras, small ensembles and recitals. All music genres find a home under one roof: from classical music, jazz, to traditional evenings of musicians from around the globe. The compound is no less attractive than the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur or Notre Dame; on the contrary, it is a living testimony to the importance that France gives to music, historically and culturally.

A breathtaking part of the Cite de la Musique is the Museum of Music, whose collection will keep you busy a whole day for a small entry fee. The museum holds hundreds of instruments, testifying to the rich history of music starting from the 17th-century instruments. Accompanying the first operatic productions is: lutes, harpsichords, Baroque guitars, old and new fipple and transverse flutes, through the developments of many instruments, all the way to the 20th-century innovations where electronic concepts led to a significant acceleration of the music history.

The museum does not omit electronic keyboards, guitars and violins, as well as a variety of mixing consoles. Many of the instruments housed by the Museum of Music were manufactured by or belonged to world renowned names; we find Stradivari’s violins, Frederic Chopin’s piano, Django Reinhard’s guitar and Frank Zappa’s synthesiser.

The museum would not be complete without a section dedicated to traditional instruments from all around the globe. Apart from Asian, central African and Latin American instruments, a few remarkable pieces from the Arab World stand out. Spanning the full Arab extent from the Maghreb to the Middle East, it is an impressive array. Though united by linguistic, cultural and religious elements, the Arab world’s musical traditions prove to have a wide variety of forms and functions. Among a few of the museum’s highlights are instruments from 19th-century Algeria: goblet-shapeddarbuka(Arabic hand drum), tambourine, andqasaba(a pipe made of bamboo wood or metal, popularly used in the rural areas).

Two lutes deserve special attention. One comes from mid 19th-century Morocco and reflects lutes developed in ancient Egypt. The other lute, known asoud, is a Syrian instrument, dated 1931, manufactured by Georges Nahat.

Among many fascinating recordings, compiled on a CD that accompanies a booklet about the museum performed on some of the historical instruments, there is Sayed Darwish’s popular songEl Hilwa Diperformed by Tunisian Fadhel Messaoudi, on Nahat’s oud.

Culture, history and music seem to be inseparable in Paris. Another important testimony to a centuries-old tradition of great musicians, literary figures, scientists and others is the Père Lachaise cemetery. The cemetery is a wonderful promenade location during which one recalls all the great people who left the world a better place. Big historical names always incite general interest. The centuries’ perspective gives them a special power, pointing to the currents of the times they lived in.

When meeting great people, through reading or by contemplating their lives in the cemetery, we manage to grasp the meanings of changes that take place in the world, changes to which they contributed. It feels clearer than ever that the artist’s role is not limited to the contemplation and transcription of reality, the artist plays an important role in the formation of life and thought. A walk in between the greats at PèreLachaise is definitely a unique experience.

Situated in northeast Paris, the cemetery was the final destination for Miguel Angel Asturias, the Guatemalan author and Nobel laureate in literature (1967), Iranian writers Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi and Sadeq Hedayat, Irish author Oscar Wilde, along with French literary geniuses such as Jean de La Fontaine, Alfred de Musset, Honore de Balzac, Guillaume Apollinaire, etc.

The cemetery holds hundreds of French and many international musicians, visual artists, poets, novelists, playwrights, photographers, actors, filmmakers, journalists, physicians, economists and statesmen.

While searching for musicians, one feels overwhelmed with a number of graves that carry the names of great composers, singers and songwriters. It is in PèreLachaise that Georges Bizet, Frederic Chopin, Gustave Charpentier, Luigi Cherubini, Paul Dukas, George Enescu, Edouard Lalo, Francis Poulenc, Vincenzo Bellini all lie, along with Jim Morrison and Edith Piaf. Originally buried in this cemetery, Gioachino Rossini’s remains were moved to Florence later on, yet the crypt still stands in Pere Lachaise. Though Maria Callas’ ashes were buried at Pere Lachaise too, they were stolen, but the urn remains.

On the other hand, a few graves send us to thoughts about Egypt’s culture and history. The cemetery includes Jean-Francois Champollion, the French archaeologist who deciphered the hieroglyphs, and Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French architect who designed the Suez Canal.

Finally, the cemetery makes room for the Egyptian left-wing politician Henri Curiel — assassinated in Paris in 1978 — and the French-Egyptian writer and poet Edmond Jabes, born in Egypt to a Jewish family forced into exile in 1956.

Whether on the streets, in the Metro, museums and concert halls, or in this cemetery, Paris shows that art and culture – music being one of its components – is an important axis of the nation’s life.

Every detail of musical history is cherished and preserved for the generations to learn and enjoy; for cultures – European, Arab, and Latin American etc – to contemplate and be proud of. Paris is proof that culture is transferred through what a country has to offer and how much it preserves its own treasures and relishes its history. Knowledge is built upon those gains.

A visitor of Paris is not involved in its academic curricula – which of course are strong in studies of many artistic forms – yet they can acquire much information by simply picking from the city what he finds valuable to his being.

Though Paris is much smaller than Cairo, and France’s history cannot compete with Egypt’s, its respect for and adequate presentation of historical, cultural and artistic gains that challenge the Egyptian concept of culture, an important factor to think about at this stage.

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