French music que j’aime

I’ve told you about my music problem, right? I grew up in small-town Idaho where the only radio stations were hard rock, Top 40, pop country, and painfully easy listening. But we had a Rainbow Records store. In the age of Spotify and YouTube it feels so foreign now that I would wait for the weekly shipment and buy albums that looked interesting without so much as a listen. I also pilfered my friends’ collections and wore out my dual cassette recorder making copies.

Anyway, thus began a lifelong pursuit of music that pleases me. In the early 90s I went to Paris, France, as a Mormon missionary, which piqued my interest in French music. I’ve collected a bunch over the years and that’s what this post is about. I’ve noticed that I have different standards for foreign-language music – some styles that I wouldn’t listen to in English become interesting to me just because it’s in a different tongue. Even so, the search has been fairly difficult because most sites just highlight the popular stuff I tend to not love.

Here are a few of the gems I’ve found –

Let’s kick this off with one of my all-time favorites. If you don’t at least tap your foot to this you can skip the rest of the list.

Champs-Elysées  by Joe Dassin:

Classics

Since “Classic Rock” stations now play the music I grew up with, I’ll define French Classics as music that predates my arrival in France, 1992.

Elders Hill and Dandonneau in Compiegne, France – 1992

Francis Cabrel was the first French musician I discovered in my first city, Compiègne. A French missionary asked me to learn “Je l’aime à mourir” (“I Love Her to Death”) on the guitar. He’s a folk and blues artist, along the lines of James Taylor and David Wilcox. He has 20+ albums. If you’re interested, start with the collection 77/87 (Amazon link). Not all of his music has aged well, but some songs are timeless. One of his earliest hits was “Petite Marie” about the woman who became his wife:

He also has an album of Bob Dylan covers in French, which is a delightful collision of two worlds for me.

Yves Duteil might have been my next discovery. He was popular in the 1970s and has catchy melodies with fancy finger work on the guitar. “Best of” album on Amazon. A few favorites include “J’ai la guitare qui me démange” (I have an itch for the guitar), the imaginative “L’opéra”, and the speedy “Tarantelle”:

Georges Brassens goes way back to the 1950s (he died in 1981). I first fell in love with his melodies when I heard an album of instrumental covers. His accent is great, with a very different “r” than today’s French. He also enjoys dark humor and anarchy. Try “Les copains d’abord” (“Friends first”):

“La Mer” (“The Sea”) by Charles Trénet is just beautiful:

The cover by Jeff Lynne (of ELO) is also fun:

Ok, there are many more to explore here (including Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour), but let’s move on to another category.

Musicals

My little brother also went to Paris on his mission and sent home a CD from the musical Notre Dame de Paris with lyrics by Luc Plamondon and music by italian Riccardo Cocciante. I listened to this thing non-stop for weeks. Maybe months. He also sent the piano music, which is still a favorite. I don’t know why this musical didn’t take over the world like Les Misérables – I watched the DVD and the modern dance might be part of the reason.

Try “Belle”, which features several of the characters signing about Esmerelda from varied points of view:

You can also get Les Misérables in French.

Another you might like is Romeo et Juliette.

Movie music

I’ll just feature a couple here. Yann Tiersen’s soundtrack to Amélie is fun instrumental music, especially for accordion lovers:

Les Choristes is a great movie with an amazing choral soundtrack.

My son is still haunted by Un monstre à Paris, a fever dream of a movie we watched on Netflix years ago. If I recall correctly, it’s about a cockroach that dreams of being a musician and gets his wish when a lab accident makes him human-sized. Chaos and good music ensue.

Nineties

These get extra attention simply because this is when I was in France. We didn’t have much opportunity to listen to music, but some songs caught my attention at a store or in someone’s home and I looked them up later.

Les Innocents – This band appealed to my taste in 80s music.

Powwow – I don’t usually like a cappella music but this album caught my eye because of the bilingual wordplay (Comme Un Guetteur means “like a watchman” but is pronounced similar to “come and get her”).

Try “Allongé sur mon sampan” – the verses are not great, but that makes the chorus all the better.

Étienne Daho – “Bleu Comme Toi” (actually 1988) –

2000s

I don’t keep up on all the latest music in any language, but here are a few French songs from the past decade or so:

Renan Luce – “Les Voisines” (a catchy tune about stalking the neighbors) –

Christine and the Queens – “Saint Claude” (with some English mixed in)

She also has an album in English (with some French mixed in).

Artists who usually sing in English

I just like this one by Sting –

I’ve also been known to get guilty pleasure by listening to Céline Dion, but only in French.

Kids

You can’t beat Henri Dès for children’s music. Here’s a great song about tooth decay and stomachache caused by chocolate:

What did I miss?

A mini-guide to Paris

Three of the four Hill brothers served missions in France (two in the Paris Mission [1992-94 and 1999-2001] and one in the Geneva Mission [2004-06] which includes parts of France). We try to get back when we can, even if it’s just during a layover from somewhere else. Since we occasionally get requests for info on the best sites to see in Paris, I thought I’d publish the following, which started as an email to some friends. Print a 2-page PDF without photos.

Before you go:

  • Install the free TripAdvisor app on your smartphone, search for Paris, and download it for offline use. This will allow you to view the map, get directions, find nearby restaurants and sights, etc., all without using an international data plan.
  • Purchase or check out Rick Steves Paris from the library
Place de la Concorde – Luxor Obelisk in the center

Place de la Concorde — This is where Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were beheaded. Now it’s a large square filled with fountains and an Egyptian obelisk. From here you can see the Eiffel Tower, Hôtel des Invalides, the Champs-Élysées, The Arc de Triomphe, and La Madeleine.

Hamster tube – Centre Georges Pompidou

Le Marais & Châtelet-Les Halles — This is one of my favorite parts of Paris. Eat falafels in the Jewish Quarter, watch street performers by Centre Georges Pompidou. Lots of pastries in this area (along with most other areas): pains au chocolat, réligieuses, baguettes, and crêpes.

Hôtel des Invalides — home of Napoleon’s tomb and a military museum.

Rodin Museum — Balzac, The Thinker and a bunch of other naked statues.

Musée d’Orsay — Everything from Impressionism on: van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, Renoir, Rodin, Whistler, etc. My favorite is Cain by a lesser-known artist.

The Louvre — Everything from before Impressionism: da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s Slave, Venus de Milo, Egyptian artifacts, etc. I recommend the Stuff You Should Know podcast on the history of the Louvre.

Arc de Triomphe — climb 400 stairs to the top for a great view of the city.

Eiffel Tower — take a Bâteau Mouche (boat on the Seine River) tour from here, spend some time in the park, buy overpriced bottled water, take lots of pictures.

Champs-Élysées — the big road that connects Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe. Good for people-watching and visiting fancy shops.

Victor Hugo’s home — pretty boring tour, but cool to have been there.

Quiet morning on the steps of Sacre Coeur

Basilique du Sacre Coeur — large white church on the top of a hill. Fun for street performers, beautiful inside.

Montmartre — near Sacre Coeur are a bunch of Bohemian sites: Picasso’s studio, van Gogh’s apartment, hangouts of famous poets and authors, Place du Tertre where all the aspiring artists (con and otherwise) congregate. Down the hill is the Pigalle area, home to the Moulin Rouge and tons of good music shops.

Versailles — Palace of the Sun King, Louis XIV, crowned and married at the age of four. Tour the gardens on a Sunday afternoon, the only time they run the immense (and expensive to operate) system of fountains, accompanied by Baroque music. The Versailles Treaty was signed in the Hall of Mirrors, ending the First World War.

Sainte-Chapelle — My wife’s second favorite. Incredible stained glass windows that tell the history of the world from Genesis to the Second Coming with the life of Christ in the center. Moses is depicted with horns because of a mistranslation of the Bible in medieval times.

Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Paris — took 200 years to build. Start early to beat the crowds wanting to climb to the top. After the gargoyles, my favorite feature is the depiction over the center door of the Final Judgment with Christ in the center, devils taking people off to His left, and angels taking others off to His right.

Catacombs — bunches of bones (from an estimated 6 million people) unearthed from Parisian cemeteries and arranged in various designs — hearts, doors, walls, etc. — in underground tunnels. There are apparently 200 miles of mine tunnels under Paris — you get to explore a little over a mile in about 45 minutes. If you decide you want more, check out the Cataphiles. Ours was the quickest tour on record, with my wife pulling me through the tunnel maze as quickly as she could run.

Pere Lachaise cemetery – Chopin’s grave

Pere Lachaise Cemetery — Its claim to fame is (perhaps to the dismay of the French) the grave of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), which can easily be found by following the graffiti. Among the others buried here are Frederic Chopin and Oscar Wilde. If you like cemeteries, this is one of the best in the world. Recommended listening while you wander around: People Are Strange.

Paris Sewer Tour — I was surprised by how interesting this was. You’re walking above real sewage from the Eiffel Tower area, learning how a city rids itself of waste from a changing and growing population. And you get to imagine yourself in that Thénardier scene from Les Misérables.

 

Recommended reading:

Rick Steves’ Paris — Rick Steves
The best travel guide out there. You can skip the lines and fees for guided tours and follow the self-guided tours in this book. The authors provide just the right mix of history, humor, and culture for seasoned travelers and culturephobes alike. This book covers everything from phone cards to museum passes to metro navigation. The appendix includes a brief history of France and some key French phrases. Skim the book before you get there and you’ll find yourself going from cover to cover once you’re in Paris.

Rick Steves Paris 2015

 

Gargoyles and Notre Dame de Paris

The first time I saw the Notre Dame Cathedral (or really anything outside the western United States) was as a Mormon missionary in 1992. There was a tourist shop nearby that gave screamin’ deals to missionaries and I bought pretty much my favorite souvenir ever, a replica of the Rongeur gargoyle.

Le Rongeur – the coolest of the gargoyles

 

I imagined him chomping on a stretched-out rabbit that’s using its front paws to brace itself on the gargoyle’s mouth, but maybe it’s a chicken. I displayed it proudly in my cubicle at Delta Air Lines until my last day when it met an untimely death in the stairwell. I still regret not taking the elevator.

Here are a few photos of Notre Dame and/or Parisian gargoyles.

Here Comes the Sun at the Pompidou Center

In 1993, I was a Mormon missionary, wandering the streets of Paris, France, to spread the Good News. A favorite place to go for a break when knocking doors wasn’t working (which was most of the time) was Place Georges Pompidou, an open concrete square in front of a modern art museum where street performers, hawkers, caricature artists, pickpockets, and tourists gather.

The sights and sounds of this place are sticky in my otherwise-faded memory. A fat Portuguese caveman breathed fire and let you throw darts at his stomach for 20 francs. A drummer rocked out on a spare-parts set that featured a dangling banana – every so often he would scream “BANANA!” and hit it with his drumstick, flinging fruit flesh into the audience. We didn’t listen to much popular music as missionaries and it was a guilty pleasure to hear bands covering pagan tunes by The Smiths and The Beatles on guitars, violins, clarinets, and the occasional didgeridoo.

One rainy day, probably in May, only the die-hards were out performing. We stood under umbrellas and listened to this guy sing Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Have You Ever Seen the Rain? His accent was strong – “I waaaNOOO ha-ye-evah seen da rain?” Sticking with the weather theme, he moved next to The Beatles’ Here Comes The Sun. The small audience laughed and gasped as the sun really did come out on the chorus! I don’t think I was particularly down at the time, but the coincidence brightened my day and has stuck in my aging brain all these 22 years.

“Here Comes the Sun”

In 2008, 15 years after my mission days, I had a business trip in Paris and scheduled some tourist time to visit a few of my old haunts. I went to the Pompidou Center and guess who was performing.

I learned from another YouTube video that his name is Yama Nico. I hope he’s there next time I visit. We need to talk.

Pompidou street musician – Yama Nico