On the night of Tuesday 21 June, it’s France’s 30th annual Fête de la Musique. In Paris and all over the country, choirs, orchestras, Andean flute players and scruffy indy kids will be striking a chord or several and providing free entertainment for anyone who wants it.
What to expect
The summer solstice is a pagan festival and the mood can be anarchic – there’s plenty of spontaneous jamming on street corners. But many established music venues throw open their doors, too. There’s lots of rock and traditional music, as well as rap, techno and a particular emphasis this year on world music, but you will also find plenty of classical music and excellent jazz. All of France’s music organisations and orchestras take part.
The first time I experienced this festival I hadn’t realised it was happening. Many years ago now, I was having a kir outside a café near the church of Saint-Sulpice with my mother when our conversation was ambushed by a jazz band blaring from the back of a truck. The traffic lights changed and they shot off round the corner. Then, eerily, plangent medieval sounds wafted across from the church. From behind it came a line of brightly caparisoned horses and riders, who performed an elegant dance in front of the church. Afterwards, it felt as if I had dreamt it all.
Last year, I spent the night making a circuit of the area between the Canal Saint-Martin and the place Sainte-Marthe in the 10th arrondissement and enjoyed every minute. Rock bands throbbed at intervals along the canal. Outside the Hôtel du Nord was a raucous banda called Texas Cous-Cous. Les bandas are a feelgood phenomenon of south-west France. These groups of brass, woodwind and percussion – often in fancy dress and dancing as well as singing – play rock as well as popular traditional music in an oompah-punk stylee.
By the end of the evening, after I’d heard some traditional African singing and rather good French rap, there was no escaping several samba schools duelling in the narrow streets around rue Sainte-Marthe, the percussion bouncing off the high buildings, the crowd mixed up with the band, everyone singing and dancing and laughing. Too bad the police had to come and tell everyone to quieten down at about 1am.
Where to find it
Check out the website – it’s in French but it’s easy to search by music genre, time and arrondissement, and there are maps to guide you.
This is the night to explore cool districts like the 20th arrondissement (try Funk me Tender or Les Beltuner at Le Loup Pascalou). Pretty much every area has something happening. The arty but residential 10th arrondissement, for instance, has a couple of pages of listings with everything from “manifestation insolite” (which literally translates as “unusual demonstration” and will probably be a couple of young rock bands) to Hungarian music on the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin, Bolivian bands a couple of streets away, and Renaissance choral music in a usually decidedly funky bar. If you want to go trad, the very wonderful Evelyn Chancel is “doing” Edith Piaf in the 15th.
What if I get lost?
Some (but not all) métros and buses and trains will run all night so don’t worry about getting back to your hotel, but if you’re not sure of your stamina for late-night revelling and riding the nightbus circular, why not explore your local quartier?
The 4th arrondissement of the Marais, for example, has four pages of listings. You can choose from masterpieces played on the great organ of the cathedral of Notre-Dame or accordion music in the place des Vosges. Over on the Left Bank in the 6th arrondissement, you’ll find gamelan music, a hommage to Franz Liszt and a whole gamut of musical styles along the rue du Cherche-Midi.
How do I say it in French?
Fête de la Musique (music festival) sounds the same as faites de la musique (make music) – no it’s not a very good joke, but hey – you’re making a pun in French! Funny jokes come later.