An affair to remember in Paris

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / April 25, 2004

PARIS -- The restaurant Chez Omar, set on a busy, wide street on the Right Bank, is not the sort of place from which you hurry away.

Inside, a square room decorated in dark wood and glass panels opens beneath a high ceiling. Waiters shout in French and Arabic as they weave between tightly set tables and jot orders on the white paper tablecloths. Guests drink Algerian wine and tuck into bowls of steaming couscous, thick cuts of vegetables, spicy sausage, and chicken so tender it is best eaten straight from the bone. Calm couples in T-shirts and jeans and those pushing fashion trends arrive, nod to Omar, and form a line to the sidewalk, where more tables jut into the flow of foot traffic along rue de Bretagne.

But if there is a time to eat and run, it is one day, June 21, every year. On that day, like no other even in this city of light, Paris is alive, pulsing to the rhythm of hundreds of concerts, in upscale clubs and neighborhood restaurants, on grand plazas and intimate patios, in a celebration called Fête de la Musique.

Late into last June's solstice evening, I lingered with two friends at one of Chez Omar's sidewalk tables, couscous fueling idle conversation. When a cellphone rang and a friend advised that the best late-night plan was not the Brazilian samba in front of the nearby City Hall, or the African drummers at the Place des Vosges, or the 30 musicians playing to a half-million people on the Parc du Champ de Mars, but to get over to the Palais Royal, where an Argentine band called Gotan Project was all funk and fog and blue lights, it was time to move.

It did not begin like this, hustling into streets seething with partyers from the 18th arrondissement in the north to the 13th in the south, the soundtrack changing block by block as corridors of stone echoed with techno and hip-hop beats, strains of samba and jazz. No, 14 hours earlier, Paris dozed, stirring only a bit on what could have been just another Saturday morning.

Along the Canal Saint-Martin, where iron bridges cross low over flat water, shop doors were shuttered as the sun lifted over rooftops and a light breeze struck the backs of leaves. A man hosed a sidewalk in front of a cafe. A woman buzzed past on a motor scooter, her legs covered by a clinging evening dress. A woman walked beside the canal, rolling a bass in its case before her.

That was the first note and others followed quickly. At the Place de la Republique, a towering stage waited, speakers covered. At a newsstand down rue du Temple, Le Parisien, the city's tabloid newspaper, offered a listing with times and locations of each of the day's concerts. It also advertised that Paris would not disappoint with cool drizzle, which can force much of the Fête indoors. This day, the temperature would pass 90 degrees.

East a few blocks along rue de Rivoli, a crowd had already gathered, milling behind steel barricades in front of the main City Hall. At 10 a.m., a man strode to a microphone and welcomed the crowd, officially kicking off the Fête. Hundreds of schoolchildren stood behind a full orchestra and sang "La Marseillaise." Proud parents clamored with video cameras and cellphones held high. .

It was better, this early, to follow the rhythm of the city, to wander. A vendor at the street market in the Place Baudoyer sold plump, ripe cherries and pointed the way to a public fountain flowing with cold water. East, through the tight alleyways of Village St. Paul, artists offered clothes, furniture, and miscellany at a sprawling "Salon du Kitsch." Then, across the Pont de Sully and into the quiet end of Ile St-Louis toward the Left Bank, the Seine flowed west toward the day's first view of the Eiffel Tower.

All of this was the theater, a city that is workaday home to 2 million, romantic icon to millions more. The concerts, as detailed in eight full pages of Le Parisien, would unfold at 327 locations in the capital's 20 districts. They included a Ukrainian chorus, an Italian accordionist, North African groove, Corsican chant, and the rock of Simply Red.

It all is an annual crescendo for an idea struck 22 years ago, when Maurice Fleuret, then director of music and dance for France's ministry of culture, seized on the fact that one in two French children played an instrument. Why not, he is said to have reasoned, celebrate that in the street? That struck a chord, with imitations spreading throughout France and, Fête organizers claim, to more than 100 countries. In Paris, where it all began, the music is just another key to an oft-idealized city, the performances musical dots to connect throughout a day that, depending on the choices made, can end raucously or not.

Our next musical target was a performance by the Egyptian troop al-Tannoura, scheduled at the far end of Luxembourg Garden. To get there from the Seine required a walk across the Boulevard Saint-Germain and up narrower streets toward the hilltop dome of the Pantheon.

A stop for lunch made for a late arrival at the Boulevard Saint-Michel, where a group of men in white robes sat on a bench at a bus stop. The number 38 bus lurched to a stop. A woman sat in the window of a boutique while another woman colored her hair. It appeared time to pick another concert, another scene, until the men rose and gathered in a circle.

One of them raised a wooden horn, a kind of bugle, and blew loudly enough to drown the growl of traffic. A second man set a fierce tempo on hand-held drums. The musicians took turns leading and a third man strode back and forth with a kind of violin, shifting from a two-beat to a three-beat rhythm.

A crowd of 10, then 50 drew close. The violinist, a tall man, lowered his instrument and teased the crowd with piercing eyes and a knowing smile. The leanest of the men, a dervish, began to whirl with devotion. Chants of "Allah" rose as the man spun and spun, a layer of his pleated white robe lifting in thick swaths of lime, black, and orange. The crowd stood still. The man spun. Ten minutes passed and the man stopped, his deep, heaving breaths greeting thunderous applause. Another musician, himself worn out, relaxed inside a nearby door, home of the Egyptian Cultural Service.

"When there are buses and cars and all these distractions," said Mahmoud Mohamed Ahmed, "we forget how tired we are."

Across the street, green leaves arced above the black iron fence of the Luxembourg Garden. On the outside of the fence, brilliant color posters, 5-by-8 feet, displayed works by Reza, the Iranian photographer. The photographs, trailing northward toward Place St. Sulpice, captured lives and land in Afghanistan, China, Guinea, and Cambodia.

On a side street a block from the St. Sulpice church, a man in an Elvis costume strode along briskly as a guitarist on a nearby stage railed through Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze." The melody washed toward a network of temporary stalls in Place St. Sulpice, where poets and publishers sold books, including those by Paul Celan, Bernard Noel, and Didier Arnaudet, the collection a part of the 21st Poetry Market.

Music called again, this time in the narrow chapel of l'glise Rforme de Port-Royal, where Elodie Malher, a 24-year-old pianist, sat in jeans and tank top and played a Bach toccata, a Chopin ballad, and a Prokofiev sonata, all with intensity.

Soon after, there was a jazzy take on "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on a grand stage in the Place d'Italie, then a session of beer and song -- Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel, and more -- on a narrow neighborhood street, where young parents pushed carriages and locals leaned out of windows. But day turned to evening, time for the cab ride through the Left Bank to the Right, past a new view of the stunning Jardin des Plantes, and on to the sidewalk table at Chez Omar.

The light in the sky softened at 10:40 (this is the 48th parallel, afterer all), and night began a fast fall. The goal was this new-found Gotan Project in the Palais Royal, where revolutionaries passed pamphlets two centuries before. The pace quickened along rue Réaumur, through the crowd of hip-hop near the Arts et Mtiers metro at rue de Turbigo, past those dancing to techno on sidewalk and tables at the bar near rue Montmartre, beyond the Andean pipes drifting from a side street.

After the crush of a crowd in narrow stone doorways, the long, narrow garden of the Palais opened in a sea of short stumps of stone art, of thousands of shadowed people pulsing from the south end of the garden to the north. Gotan Project, which had been moving Paris clubs for months, was electric, a new, mystical beat with an Astor Piazzolla background.

On the outskirts of the Palais garden, beneath the high vault of apartment windows, friends and couples walked the cinder paths, tracing the manicured outline of trees. Away from the stage, amid the columns and near the circular stone pool, others pulled up metal chairs and hoisted feet onto railings, a scene reminiscent of so many Paris evenings before.

A woman, a Parisian, stopped and sat and said, "And what's more, everyone is smiling."

Tom Haines can be reached by e-mail at

If you go guides
 PARIS, FRANCE: Paris: Fête de la Musique

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