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 pot
Fusion 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 salsa
Latin 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.
Salsa and samba by the Seine
A pulsating new wave of music imported from far-flung points of the globe is turning up the heat in Paris. And seeking out the scattered venues only adds to the adventure.
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