I begin to feel that I am perhaps not the best person to review compilations of this kind. I have tackled quite a number of them for Green Man Review and with very few exceptions my comments on them must have come across as pretty curmudgeonly. Confronted this time with a CD that purports to be a guide, however "rough," to the music of France in 76 minutes, I inevitably wonder how I would set about compiling a similar introduction to the music of the United Kingdom, a country with a similar population, not to mention a country as populous as the USA. How far back would one be obliged to dig in order to be fair and representative? What styles and genres would have to be ignored for lack of space? What would be too important to omit?
As well as some strikingly contemporary pieces, the compiler Guillaume Veillet includes "Les Amants de Paris" by Edith Piaf, the famous "sparrow" of Paris, who died aged 48 in 1963, and "A Toi" by the anarchist revolutionary Léo Ferré, who left this world in 1993 at the age of 77. In his notes, Veillet states that he would have liked to include two other dead veterans of French chanson, Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel (the latter actually born in my home city of Brussels in Belgium) but could not do so for contractual reasons. This assertion actually raises a series of further questions in the mind of a curmudgeon like me. If he had been able to include these absent musicians, which of the present pieces would he have omitted to squeeze them in? And if Brel and Brassens, why not a host of other classic chansonniers? Where are Boris Vian and Juliette Greco, darlings of the post-WW2 existentialists? Where is the enfant terrible of late 20th century French popular music, Serge Gainsbourg? Where are contemporary troubadours such as the outstanding singer-songwriter-guitarist Francis Cabrel and the mordant Maxime Leforestier? Where are the Americanized French rockers who call themselves Johnny Hallyday and Eddie Mitchell? I could go on. . . .
To ask these questions is not to belittle the musicians whose work is included: there is some fine music on this CD, and as a long-term resident of neighbouring Belgium, where French music is part of a shared cultural scene for the nearly 50% of Belgians whose first language is French, I was pleased to discover some new sounds and to be reacquainted with others. This is an interesting and wide-ranging selection of recordings by artists from all over "the hexagon," as the French like to call their country. Veillet includes a lot of interesting pieces rooted in the musical traditions of different French regions (this sort of music appears to be his first love), and he could probably have filled the whole CD with traditional music and songs and instrumentals deriving from traditional music. This would have conferred a certain logic and consistency on a CD which, in the event, is composed mostly of traditional or at least "popular," in the strict sense (i.e. coming from the common people) items, but is leavened with the mainstream commercial sound of the Piaf and Ferré numbers and also includes the fashionable contemporary fusions of the Massilia Sound System, with echoes of rap and reggae, as well as a Breton/Senegalese collaboration and another that mixes Breton music with sounds from the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and the "carnival punk" music (my own description) of Marcel et son Orchestre from the Dunkirk region. It's almost as if Veillet is trying too hard to please every taste, although as I have suggested, you simply can't include every facet of contemporary French music, let alone French music of the last half-century and more, in a CD lasting an hour and a quarter.
Having got the grouching out of the way, I have to admit that Veillet has put together an interesting set of recordings. Among the 22 tracks there are several bands that have developed out of the bal musette style (the accordion-based music that you so often hear on the soundtrack of movies that wish to suggest a Parisian atmosphere even if a musette was originally a version of the smallpipes) that succeed in combining tradition with new influences; there are both contemporary and traditional folk performers from all over France; there is gypsy music that tips its hat to the great (also Belgian-born) Django Reinhardt and there are some interesting crossovers. Gabriel Yacoub, who despite having a Lebanese father is to French music, especially through his work with the folk-rock group Malicorne, what both Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span are to English music, appears twice, first as performer and the second time as producer (and both times the music is outstanding). Another outstanding folk-rock band appearing here is Carré Manchot from Brittany. A delicious moment of recognition occurred for me when I heard the oldest piece on the CD, a bourrée from the Auvergne region of central France, sung in Occitan dialect and recorded in Paris, where many poor Auvergnat migrants settled, as long ago as 1935. I realized that this song is one of the chants d'Auvergne (songs of the Auvergne) lushly orchestrated by the French classical composer Joseph Canteloube (1879-1957) which I have twice in my collection, once by Victoria De Los Angeles and a second time by Frederica von Stade.
A number of songs are performed in dialects and regional languages that remind us that the much-vaunted French centralization has not succeeded in eradicating these precious differences and deviations from the norm. Many of the performers found on this CD are based in the remote provinces and I had never heard of most of them. This compilation is valuable for having brought a number of interesting artists to the attention of a wider public, although I can't help wondering who this CD is targeted at and whether anyone will have enough interest (and enough stamina) to seek out recordings by the various and varied artists who appear here, let alone the artists themselves. It would certainly be worth trying. More than ten million British tourists visit France every year; the number of American visitors must be far smaller, especially since the events of September 2001, but amongst all these "Anglo-Saxons" as the French call us (this includes people of Jewish, Irish, Afro-American and other origins) there must be some who will want to dig deeper. This compilation is a reminder to travellers to France, especially if they read Green Man Review, that there is interesting music to be sought out throughout the length and breadth of this fascinating country.