France’s earliest documented music is the organum, a Gregorian chant in which the base melody is accompanied by a second voice that sings the same melody parallel to the first at a constant interval. The organum comes from the Middle Ages (the 5th century to the 15th century), as do early troubadour songs written in the southern French language of Occitan, trouvère songs–similar to troubadour songs but from northern France and written in French, and a kind of song called the motet, a harmonious chant-based form that which broke new cultural ground by blending the sacred and the secular. In the 14th
century (the Late Middle Ages) France became the home of a controversial polyphonic style called Ars Nova, which was more expressive than church music of the previous centuries and wove secular music even more seamlessly into the Church. [“Douce Dame Jolie,” which we’re going to sing in class, is an Ars Nova song by composer Guillaume de Machaut.]

By the end of the 17th century–the end of the Renaissance–France had become one of the main centers of the Western classical movement. Frenchman Hector Berlioz was one of the most influential composers of the 18th century Romantic movement [listen to Berlioz’s “Grande Messes des Morts (Requiem)“] and in the 19th century French composer Georges Bizet wrote the opera Carmen. Composers Claude Debussy and Marice Revel pioneered the style of “impressionism,” which favored musical atmosphere over a didactic story, much as French impressionist painters of the time emphasized the artist’s perception of a scene rather than the physical characteristics of the scene itself. [Listen to Ravel’s impressionistic masterpiece, “Jeux d’eau.”]


Long before there were multicultural, multilingual suburbs of Paris, bringing with them both a multiplicity of cultural experience and multiple difficult issues for French society to address,
French folk music was primarily provincial. Each French province had its own character, in some cases its own distinct culture, and developed music in its own dialects in its own way. There are 22 French administrative regions located in mainland France (there are five more overseas) and we won’t visit them all, but let’s strap on our helmet-beret, hop on our moped (or some other
stereotypically French means of transportation
) and let’s take a quick jaunt around France. Look at this map of France’s provinces to get a sense of where we’re going.

Brittany is the Westernmost point of France, closest to the islands of the United Kingdom, and its traditional music shows it. Many old songs from Brittany are about ships and seafaring and feature Celtic melodies and even the Celtic language. Watch an awesome performance of Breton folk/rock by the apparently beloved band Tri Yann.

The folk music of Western France (the Pays de Nantes, the provinces of Vendée, Anjou and Maine, and the Poitou-Charentes region primarily consists of ballad-singing and fiddle-playing, often accompanying a baroque dance known as the maraichaine. Watch a maraichaine in
action in Garnache

In the 19th century, Paris-based musicians from the province of AUVERGNE (in southern central France), pining away for their home, held dances where they shared their provincial music. The instrument of choice in Auvergne is the bagpipes (musettes). Italian immigrants enjoyed the music, but didn’t know how to play bagpipes, so they learned music from Auvergne on
their own local instrument of choice–the accordion. This mix of Auvergnat music with Italian instrumental flair resulted in the formation of a joint genre called “bal-musette.” Italians continued to develop the form, adding rhythms like the waltz and the polka. Auvergnat musicians maintained their local traditions, and soon there were three types of establishments where Parisians could hear bal-musette: bal des familles, where one could hear Auvergnat bal-musette, bal musette populaire, where one would go to enjoy Italian bal-musette, and guinche, or bal de barri (e accent) re, which were disreputable establishments that neither
group would claim. Members of the French upper-class often found themselves visiting establishments where bal-musette was the music of choice, finding excitement in fraternizing with the rif-raff. [Enjoy some bouncy bal-musette accordion. Enjoy accordionist Gus Viseur performing bal-musette in his style, “swing musette.”]

Whether in reputable clubs or not, Parisians loved to dance to bal-musette. Internationally inspired bal-musette dances like the tango-musette, pasodoble-musette (referencing the dance of the Spanish matadors) and waltz-musette all became popular, as did a completely original musette dance called the java (and this couple does it well, or at least looks great while trying).

In Central France, folk music most often featured bagpipes, the hurdy gurdy and the bourrée, a dance that differed significantly in character and even time signature depending on where in the region it originated. In the ’70s the band Malicorne celebrated and reinterpreted Central French folk music, much as English bands Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span (which we met in our exploration of British music) re-energized British folk. Watch Malicorne perform in 1976 (the music begins at about 1:30) and in 1978. Want to see Malicorne’s Marie Yacoub play hurdy gurdy? Look here. Watch a revived and electrified Malicorne perform in 2010

In Rousillon (French Catalonia), in southern-central France along the Mediterranean, the sardana is the folk dance of choice. Folk music most often features oboe-like woodwinds like three varieties of Catalan shawm: the tible, the tenora (it starts at about 0:55) and the tarota. Watch a community-wide sardana dance in 2009–keep those arms up!

Provence is located in far southeastern France near Italy on the Mediterranean Sea. Long ago troubadours from Provence sang in Occitan, a language not so dissimilar from Catalan. Today the Provençal dialect of Occitan is nearly extinct as a spoken language, but still appears in traditional song.

Musically, the French-Mediterranean island of Corsica is best-known for its complicated form of polyphonic singing. Small group of men sing the songs together, breaking into dissonant parts that clash and then resolve triumphantly when the come back together. These guys will show
you how it’s done

If you want to learn about the music of provincial France beyond our very slight and superficial tour, you may actually want to start with the 1976 Smithsonian Folkways release, “Voix du Sol Français, Vol. 1: France: Songs of the Provinces” performed by Emilie George. George’s liner notes will take you province to province, introducing you to the musical traditions of each with much more depth than we’ll be able to do here–though with fewer links to YouTube

“Chanson” literally means “song,” but when used to refer to the genre of French vocal song and singers, the term carries substantial cultural and historical weight.

The absolutely wonderful
French-language site “On Ne Connait Pas La Chanson“–so what if the text is in French? You’ll figure out how to listen to the music–will introduce you to chanson throughout the ages, from epic Old French “chanson de geste” (such as “Le Chanson de Roland,”), to 12th and 13th century lyric poems known as “grand chant,” to Burgundian chansons of the 14th and 15th centuries, to 15th and 16th century Parisian chansons, all the way through French chansons of today. Since the early 20th century the term “chanson” has broadened to encompass almost all French vocal music, from playful music hall vaudeville of the kind Maurice Chevalier sang and which thrived in Paris between World Wars I and II through modern French “chanteuses” (female chanson singers) of the ’60s and ’70s like the Egyptian-Italian born, French-raised Dalida all the way up to modern French-language singers like Carla Bruni. (Are we allowed not to mention that Bruni’s married to French President Nicholas Sarkozy? Let’s not.) Also, though she has become internationally known too recently to make the “On Ne Connait Pas La Chanson” site, definitely take note of upcoming French chanteuse Isabelle Geffroy, who is known by her nickname, ZAZ. With singers like ZAZ out there, the tradition of French chansons is alive and well.

[Watch Maurice Chevalier perform “Louise” in 1932 | Watch Mistinguett perform “Chantez” in 1936 | Watch Dalida perform “La Lecon De Twist” and sing the much more refined “Je Suis Malade” in 1977 | Watch Carla Bruni sing “L’amour” | Watch ZAZ perform her great “Je Veux” on a French street just for us]

In class we’re going to sing chansons identified with three of France’s most revered chanteurs/chanteuses of the 20th century:

Édith Piaf:
Édith Piaf was born in 1915 to a street performer father and a cafe-singing mother, who went on to run a brothel. Piaf grew up partly in the brothel, partly on the streets singing as part of her father’s acrobatic act. In 1935 a nightclub owner heard her sing and insisted she perform in front of an audience. Because of the lilting quality of her voice, her nerves when she initially performed and also her height (she was just 4′ 8″) he nicknamed her “La
Môme Piaf”, which translates loosely as “The Little Sparrow.” The nickname stuck with her for the rest of her career. Piaf led a mysterious and controversial life even as her singing career flourished. In 1936 she was accused of being an accessory in connection with the murder of the nightclub owner who discovered her; she was acquitted, but the murderers were proven to be mobsters with whom she had previous ties. During World War II she performed often for the occupying German forces; French patriots accused her of being a traitor until she claimed (with no evidence) she had been working as a double agent for the French resistance. Piaf was engaged in a relationship with married boxer Marcel Cerdan in 1949 when he died in a plane crash while en route to see her. In 1951 Piaf was in a near-fatal car accident which also injured chateur Charles Aznovaur, whose career she helped start. (More about about him below.) Piaf became addicted to morphine and alcohol, was married and divorced, went in an out of rehabilitation, was involved in two more near-fatal car crashes…. When she died of cancer in 1963 over a hundred thousand of her fans attended a ceremony at the Paris cemetery where she was buried.

Piaf left a legacy of incomparable performances, some of which we can enjoy on YouTube. For example, watch Piaf perform her signature song, “La Vie En Rose.” In class, as mentioned above, we’re going to march about while triumphantly singing the Revolutionary-era anthem “Ah Ça Ira.” Watch Piaf sing “Ah Ça Ira” in a rousing scene from the 1954 film Si Versailles M’était Conté.

Jacques Brel:
Jacques Brel was a Belgian songwriter and performer whose uniquely insightful, highly literate, simultaneously refined and passionate compositions made him an international star in the ’50s and ’60s. Brel sang mainly in French throughout his career, and he was most popular in French-speaking parts of the world, but musicians from many countries translated and reinterpreted his songs. Brel grew weary of performing music and retired from the concert circuit in 1967 to focus on making films. He did appear in the film version of the 1969 Off-Broadway review Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which features English-language versions of nearly 30 of his songs. (By far the most gripping scene in the film is of Brel sitting alone singing, in French, the love song, “Ne Me Quitte Pas.”) Brel pulled back from his film work in the early ’70s when he fell ill with lung cancer. Brel spent the last few years of his life sailing around the world on a yacht and living with his wife in the Marquesas Islands.

You can enjoy any number of Brel live performances on YouTube, and while his lyrics often include double-entendres, most of his wonderful performances are appropriate for all ages. In class we’re going to enjoy our version of Brel’s “Vesoul,” a playful song about the
complexities of love. As you watch Brel perform “Vesoul,” you will especially enjoy how he implores his accordion player, Marcel, to “heat it up”: “Chauffe, Marcel! Chauffe!”

Charles Aznavour:
Armenian-French singer Charles Aznavour–often referred to as “France’s Frank Sinatra”–has had an unrivaled career. According to the Wikipedia entry on Aznavour, in addition to topping the French charts with an impossible array of hits–Aznavour has sold over a hundred million records–the legendary chanteur has composed over a thousand songs in several languages and has acted in over sixty films. In 1998 and users
of Time Online named Aznavour chose him as the outstanding performer of the century, voting for him more often than Elvis and Bob Dylan. In class we’re going to thoroughly
enjoy our interpretation of Aznavour’s “For Me Formidable.” Watch Aznavour perform
“For Me Formidable” in 1966
| Watch a much more recent, finger-snapping version.

In the mid-1920s Paris was a global hub of jazz. African-American jazz performers like vocalist Josephine Baker and trombonist and bandleader Sidney Bichet took residence there and inspired generations of French musicians to look across the Atlantic for their music, all the way to the jazz clubs of New York or New Orleans. Among those inspired were Belgian “Gypsy” guitarist Django Reinhardt and French violinist Stephane Grapelli. In 1934 they joined with other accomplished musicians in the “Quintette du Hot Club de France,” a combo that pioneered an exuberant and distinctly French form of jazz known as manouche (“gypsy swing.”) [Watch Reinhardt and Grapelli tear it up in 1939.]

If you’re a French-speaking musician in France you should be grateful to the French government! Well, at least you should be 40% grateful to the French government. France’s “Exception Culturelle Française” is a policy that ensure that at least 40% of French radio airplay be devoted to musicians who sing in the French language.

Why does France feel the need to circle the proverbial wagons around its native language musicians? France as a nation has a centuries-long rivalry with England, each striving to be at the heart of global–at least, Western–art, music and philosophical thought. Until the end of 19th century both England and France could have legitimately claimed to be at the creative heart of the Western world, but after World War I devastated continental Europe, and especially after World War II devastated it again, American popular culture–especially its music and movies–became dominant.

Since the the ’50s, with only some exception (like Jacques Brel mentioned above, though technically even he was Belgian) for the most part French popular musicians have found themselves taking the creative lead from the English-language counterparts. In “The Poverty of French Rock ‘n’ Roll,” progressive historian Larry Portis notes that French rock of the 1950s, and especially the early ’60s pop star-dominated genre known as “yé yé” (“yeah yeah”) was not the result deeply felt political-social youth-led transformation that fused African-American blues with European-American country music, as the rock revolution was in the U.S. and Great Britain, but a superficial effort by French record companies to cash in on those movements. With the commercial drive so dominant, French bands were not afforded the same amount of creative space as their counterparts in the U.S. and England. Adding to the mix a complex reluctance to wholeheartedly accept American music–does accepting American music equal accepting American imperialism?–and a self-proclaimed inability to connect with the linguistic cadences and specific rhythms of English-language rock ‘n’ roll–French music traditionally emphasized the first and third beats of a four beat measure, English-language rock the second and fourth–French musicians only marginally participated in the intensely inventive musical explorations that
galvanized America and the U.K. in the late ’60s and ’70s. F for the most part the French found themselves following, rather than leading, subsequent advances like New Wave, punk, electronica and hip hop.

Does this interplay with American artists make French popular music since World War II any
less awesome? NO NO NO! (Say that in French: “No! No! No!”) So what if Charles Aznovaur’s stage persona is reminiscent of Frank Sinatra’s, or if “the French Elvis” Johnny Holliday is, well, known as “the French Elvis?” All Around This World would argue that every genre of music
owes so much to so many others that keeping score based upon who got where first is hardly worth the effort. Who could claim that Charles Aznovaur, even when singing the English-language song “She,” does not rank among the most appealing vocalists of the 20th century (especially when abandoned in a forest composed of artificial Christmas trees and wearing the world’s best jacket)? Who could watch Johnny Halliday throw his entire soul into performing “Que Je T’aime” and not accept him as one of the greats?

And, while one can hardly fault the French for wanting to support the creation of music in their own language, coming from their own culture, the truth of the matter is that French creativity may ultimately win out, though not as the French government may have planned. In a modern twist to France’s 40% rule, France has become such a multicultural, multilingual nation as of late that the idea of what is “French music” is shifting. Immigrants or children of immigrants have brought their global melodies and rhythms to France and adopted Paris as their commercial home. Bands and performers like like Zouk ensemble Kassav’, hailing from the French-speaking Caribbean islands of Guadaloupe and Martinique, Algerian rai singer Khaled, Congolese Soukous stars like Kanda Bongo Man and Catalan Rumba virtuosos Gipsy Kings may tour around the world and may create music that is based in their local nations and cultures, but commercial hub of their careers is Paris.

Some of France’s most original “homegrown” bands of the last two decades have also embraced the whole wide world of music. As early as the late ’80s, French ensemble Les
Négresses Vertes
wove multiple global genres into a seamlessly funky world fusion sound. In the 1990s Mano Negra, a punk/rai/flamenco/ska/reggae band fronted by Manu Chao, became an international powerhouse. The band’s “mestizo” or “patchanka” music is a blend of African, Latin and other global rhythms. France’s mid-’90s hip hop crew Alliance Ethnik was composed of a five members who were all French-born children of immigrant parents hailing from nations origin like the Congo, Algeria and Italy. Senegalese-born, French-raised rapper MC Solaar learned about the Zulu Nation and American rap while living in Egypt and studied world languages and philosophy before becoming a French-language hip hop star. Could these Francophile multi-ethnic, truly global bands artists a step ahead of English-speaking musicians? In other words…are you ready to start singing
in French?

[Watch Les Négresses Vertes perform live in 1991. Watch Mano Negra perform “Mala Vida” live in 1990. (Watch Manu Chao perform “Panik Panik” and “El Hoyo,” live in 2008.) Watch Alliance Ethnik perform “Respect” live in 1995. Watch French MC Solaar perform with British hip-hop outfit Urban Species in 1994 or ’95. Urban Species sings in English and MC Solaar raps in French.]

In class we’re going to listen to:
— France Gall: “Toi Que Je Veux”
“Yé yé” singer France Gall was just sixteen in 1964 when her first single, “Ne sois pas si bête” (“Don’t Be So Stupid”), became a hit. Though Gall came from a well-connected musical family and had a relatively easy entry into the music business, she ultimately proved herself to be a worthy performer. In 1965 she rose to international fame when she performed Luxembourg’s entry into the Eurovision competition, a song by French French
singer/songwriter/director/performer Serge Gainsbourg
, “Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son,” and took home the coveted Grand Prix. (Watch Gall perform “”Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son” at the 1965 Eurovision competition. Take special note of the adult babies who appear in the video from 1:07 to 1:17. Whaaaaa…..? Watch Arcade Fire perform the song in 2007. Read an in-depth analysis of the song, especially of Gainesbourg’s use of double-entendres, on Wikipedia.) Gall continued to collaborate with Gainsbourg throughout the ’60s, singing his sometimes-suggestive, sometimes-psychedelic lyrics,
only sometimes achieving commercial success. By the ’70s she had left Gainsbourg and though she never attained the same level of pop fame as she did in her teen phase, over
the next several decades she collaborated with many of France’s lyricists and composers. Watch her perform “Toi Que Je Veux” in a video very clearly created in 1968.

— Paris Combo: “Living Room”
Paris Combo is a multi-talented world fusion quintet that thrives on the multicultural musical environment of contemporary France. In addition to performing in the style of Parisian cabaret from the ’30s and ’40s, Paris Combo members play “Gypsy” jazz guitar, Malagasy double bass and are well-versed in rhythms from Latin America, Eastern Europe and North African. Vocalist/composer Belle du Berry writes Paris Combo’s lyrics, which, as’s profile of the band suggests, are “the result of explorations in post-punk, theater, Dadaism, and traditional French songwriting [and] offer up equal parts
comedy, surrealism, love-ballad, and biting commentary.”

More about Paris Combo:
Biography of the “zany” and “wacky” Paris Combo | Watch Paris Combo’s video for “Living Room”

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