Salsa and samba by the Seine

When I heard drumming in the distance at the Parc de la Villette, I practically broke into a run. This patch of park in northern Paris, where Africans and Caribbean Frenchmen turn up on Sunday afternoons to play their homeland music, seemed to offer a taste of the immigrant city I'd been looking for.

Paris isn't quite the place you'd expect anymore. Though best known for its centuries-old cafes and rich museums, it's also pulsing with the cultural life of such places as Algeria, Colombia and Senegal. A sea change in French attitudes toward immigrants has brought music once confined to ethnic enclaves into the city center. Parisians are cramming into salsa classes and flocking to performances of styles from Senegalese kora music to Brazilian forró.

Why am I searching out immigrant music when I could be ascending the Eiffel Tower? I am a world-music nut. I spent most of the last decade covering Latin America as a journalist, and after filing stories on politics and economic crises I would hunt for an Afro-Peruvian nightclub in Lima or for the best samba in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

As soon as I arrived in Paris, similar music beckoned from signs in the Métro and notices glued to lampposts. For me it was a natural backdoor into a dynamic country that, from the front, can seem tough to penetrate.

There's no better place to enter than Parc de la Villette, a 20-minute Métro ride from central Paris. On a Sunday last summer I reached the source of the drumming: 10 men gathered in a leafy plaza playing hand drums and shaking rock-filled gourds called cha-chas. The leader's waist-length dreadlocks were held back by a camouflage bandana. He called out lyrics in Creole, which the others echoed back. The large crowd gathered around them was mesmerized by the crossing beats and mournful singing, a style of Guadeloupe music called gwo ka. Musicians dropped out of the circle and were replaced by others who were greeted in the Caribbean custom — gently knocking fists — instead of the two-cheek kiss of the French.

Scenes like this were uncommon in the past. The hundreds of thousands of immigrants who arrived from former French colonies, or from current French possessions such as Guadeloupe, were expected to blend in.

That view has changed dramatically in recent years. France's victory in the 1998 World Cup came to symbolize the country's shift toward multiculturalism. The French team had more black and brown faces than white ones. "It was the first time you saw official discourse with France as a great immigrant country," said anthropologist Vassili Rivron, of the Center for Brazilian Contemporary Research in Paris. Immigrants, foreign visitors and residents of overseas French territories comprise about 15% of France's population.

Musical melting potFusion styles have become an increasingly important part of the popular music scene and include bands that sing in French but blend reggae, Moroccan Gnawa (a religious trance music) and American rap. These days some of the best fusion music is at smaller venues such as Le Zanzibar, a cozy nightclub and restaurant on a side street in Paris' 11th district. The music scheduled the week I visited included Gypsy klezmer, Afro jazz and a band called Esquisse, which described its style as musique imaginaire ethnique. The entrance fee typically is $6 or $7. I arrived at Le Zanzibar on a Wednesday night to hear a performance intriguingly billed as "Cameroonian groove." The description turned out to be fitting: a soulful African vocalist cooed into the microphone, backed by a bass player, a drummer and a young woman enthusiastically sawing on an electric violin. The crowd bounced along with the beat.

During a break in the music I struck up a conversation with a gray-haired man who introduced himself as Monsieur Oesterle, a mathematics professor. He goes to hear live music every night, often in smaller venues like this one. He seemed delighted to discover someone else on a similar musical quest.

I realized I'd struck gold in this haltingly polite man. Though some performances are listed in newspapers or weekly guides, others seem to be publicized mostly by word of mouth. Oesterle suggested a few places, which I eagerly scribbled in my notebook. He also offered his e-mail address, and we quickly began exchanging messages.

Weeks later, I was still in search of the kora, a 21-stringed instrument that can give western African music a mystical, haunting quality. My chance came when I got into a taxicab and the driver, a Senegalese, was playing a kora recording. "Where," I asked him in my sputtering French, "can I hear this live?"

That Saturday night, over the protests of my boyfriend, Simon ("It's probably his cousin's place"), we trundled out to a Senegalese restaurant whose address the driver had scribbled on a scrap of paper. It was clear we had made a good choice. Candlelit tables, colorful paintings and carved wooden sculptures created a lively but soothing atmosphere, and kora melodies seemed to float down from overhead. The music's source, perched over diners, was a treehouse-type platform on which a singer was sitting next to a kora player and drummer.

Sounds of salsaLatin Americans are far outnumbered by North African and sub-Saharan immigrants in France, but their music is reaching a wider audience. That's probably because Latin music's roots in France run deep.

In 1917, French composer Darius Milhaud got a wartime posting at the French Embassy in Rio de Janeiro. Three years later he returned to France buzzing with Brazilian rhythms and soon wrote the samba-influenced "Saudades do Brazil." Tango followed a similar course. In the 1920s the Argentine dance was just emerging from the brothels of Buenos Aires. Wealthy Argentines visiting France brought the dance with them, and their Parisian friends were soon hosting tango parties.

France's latest Latino music craze has come with particular force. Saul Escalona recalls that when he wrote his dissertation on salsa in 1996 at the Sorbonne, it created such a buzz on campus that 100 people turned up to hear him speak on the subject. Escalona, a Venezuelan, thinks the French are drawn to the easygoing atmosphere that's conjured by salsa. "The Latino atmosphere is much more open, more casual," Escalona said.

That open atmosphere was immediately apparent at L'Ecole des Danses Latines et Tropicales. The school is the brainchild of a middle-aged Parisian sports medicine doctor, who supplied the capital, and a dancer from the Caribbean, who serves as creative director. The school, which opened four years ago, doubled to 2,000 students in the last two years.

When the music started it was clear this was serious salsa. My 7 p.m. intermediate class was packed with about 50 young Parisians, most of whom looked as though they had come straight from work. It was faster and more advanced than intermediate classes I've taken in New York. The school also offered classes in samba, tango, zouk (from the French Caribbean) and capoeira, a blend of Brazilian dance and martial arts. Drop-ins were welcome, for an $11 fee.

For salsa that takes itself a bit less seriously, perhaps because there's alcohol flowing, there's La Pachanga, on the tiny Rue Vandamme in Montparnasse. Some of the city's best dancers flock to La Pachanga's giant dance floor, open 6:30 p.m. to 5 a.m. daily. The supper club offers nightly classes in Cuban or Puerto Rican salsa for various levels, beginning around 7 p.m. (Drop-ins are welcome most nights; consult the Web site http://www.lapachanga.fr for information.) The entrance fee is $9.50, which includes one drink. There are two fixed-price menus for $23.50 and $29.50; both include an appetizer, main course and dessert.

In search of live music one Thursday night, I walked to La Plage, a smaller place on the Rue de Charonne that specializes in international music. A crowd of French and Brazilians in their 20s had arrived to hear forró, folksy accordion music from northeastern Brazil that sounds like a combination of samba and square dancing. The dance floor was pulsing with couples skillfully doing forró's fast dips and hip swivels.

Immigrant music has imitators, not all of them successful. From La Plage I headed a few blocks away to Barrio Latino. It's a Latino-theme club where hulking bouncers guard the door. The five-story edifice — from the creators of the popular Paris nightspot Buddha Bar — is top-heavy with tourists from Europe and North America, most in their 30s and 40s. The night I was there, the few who ventured onto the dance floor were shuffling nervously to DJ music, still holding their drinks.

When I arrived home exhausted, I found an e-mail from Monsieur Oesterle, the kindly math professor, suggesting some "possibilities for your next evenings." These included a Corsican singalong in northern Paris and live Algerian music at a place called Le Reservoir. Oesterle had just heard a Cuban singer perform on the Left Bank. "I went there and looked for you," he wrote. I was sure I would run into him sometime soon.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Musical Paris

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, nonstop flights are available to Paris on Air France and Air Tahiti Nui; connecting flights (change of planes) are on Delta, United, American, Lufthansa, Swiss, British Airways, Northwestern, Continental, US Airways and KLM. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $655.

TELEPHONES:

To call numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international code), 33 (country code for France), 1 (code for Paris) and the local number.

WHERE TO DANCE,

HEAR MUSIC:

Au Village, 86 Avenue Parmentier; 43-57-18-94. Métro: Parmentier. A cozy Senegalese restaurant with live kora music.

Barrio Latino, 46/48 Rue du Faubourg St.-Antoine; 55-78-84-75, http://www.george-v-records.com . Métro: Bastille. A lavishly appointed theme club with dancing and restaurants featuring French and Latin American cuisines.

L'Ecole des Danses Latines et Tropicales, 170 bis Rue de Faubourg St.-Antoine; 43-72-26-26, http://www.salsadanse.com . Métro: Faidherbe Chaligny. Walk-ins are accepted at this Latin, African and Caribbean dance school. A class schedule is online.

La Pachanga, 39 Rue Vandamme; 56-80-11-40, http://www.lapachanga.fr . Métro: Gaîté. Where the truly skilled come to salsa. Dance classes are held in the early evenings. Latin-themed food menu is available.

Parc de la Villette, Porte de la Villette, Avenue Jean-Jaurès. Métro: Porte de Pantin; exit Métro and head toward the northeastern section of the park. The site of informal African and Caribbean drumming sessions on Sunday afternoons.

La Plage, 59 Rue de Charonne; 47-00-48-01. Métro: Ledru Rollin. Live bands attract beautiful people to this neighborhood club and restaurant.

Le Zanzibar, 13 Passage de Menilmontant; 48-06-46-07. Métro: Menilmontant. A small club with lots of fusion acts and a sweet bohemian atmosphere.

T0 LEARN MORE:

Libération newspaper has daily listings in the "World" section of its music guide.

— Pamela Druckerman

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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