Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ten Days of Jazz at La Villette

La Grande Halle at Parc de la Villette
© Discover Paris!

“Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny!”

This quotation appears on the welcome page for the Cité de la Musique welcome page that advertises this year’s Jazz à la Villette festival. For the 15th time, La Villette is holding an extravaganza that showcases new talent next to tried-and-true music legends.

Don’t let the name of the festival fool you though – jazz is not the only type of music that you will be able to hear during the ten-day festival. Hip-hop, soul, and improv are also on the agenda this year. In fact, the festival opens on 31 August with a night of improvisation by bassist Meshell Ndegeocello and guitarist Mark Ribot.

Berlin-born Ndegeocello is utterly inimitable, with hip-hop, R&B, punk, and rock music influencing all of her recordings. She has played with the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Chaka Khan, Billy Preston, and The Blind Boys of Alabama.  Her Web site bio indicates that she was "the first woman to be featured on the cover of Bass Player magazine and remains one of few women who lead the band and write the music."

Meshell Ndegeocello performing in Leuven, Belgium – 2007
Photo by Yancho Sabev

Mark Ribot was mentored by Haitian classical guitarist and composer Frantz Casseus during his teen years. He has embraced numerous musical genres during his career, including free jazz and Cuban rhythms, and preserved many of the works of his mentor on a CD recorded in 1993. He has played alongside artists such as Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Wilson Pickett, and John Zorn. 

Mark Ribot
Photo by Webb Traverse

The duo appeared together for the first time at the Rose Restaurant in Brooklyn, NY on August 19th.

Several big names will grace the stage at La Villette’s Grande Salle during the festival, including Fred Wesley, Archie Shepp, Gil Scott Heron, and Chick Corea. Shepp will team up with Chucho Valdés for the Afro-Cuban Project, and Corea will perform with Roy Haynes and Miroslav Vitous as the “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs” trio.

For a look at photos of all the performers scheduled to appear, click here
For the complete program, click here.
Jazz à la Villette also offers a weekend program to introduce kids to jazz through film at the MK2 cinema and the Cité de la Musique at La Villette, as well as at Le Dynamo, a dedicated concert hall for jazz operated by the Banlieues Blues association in the suburb of Pantin. Films to be shown include The Aristocats, Bugsy Malone, and Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland.
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Entrée to Black Paris!™ is a Discover Paris! blog.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

San Francisco Jazz Man in Paris

 Farris Smith, Jr. Stencil Art
© Discover Paris!

If you are an aficionado of Paris stencil art, you have likely seen this image on at least one wall around town.  It is a stencil art portrayal of Farris Smith, Jr., contrabassiste extraordinaire, and the likeness is just as extraordinary as Farris' music!

I first encountered Farris years ago in the Châtelet metro station.  He would set up in the corridor at the end of the people-mover between Line 7 and Line 4, near the fruit vendor who was a permanent fixture in that part of the station. I noted that he had the official RATP card hanging from his bass, which meant that he was legally permitted to play there.  I never stopped to speak to him, but definitely appreciated his music.

Farris in the Metro
© Discover Paris!
Several months later, I went to a restaurant to hear a part-time American expat saxophonist play.  Lo and behold, there was Farris, tuning his bass!  He was to be one of the accompanying musicians that evening.  I introduced myself to him this time, and we had a brief, but delightful, conversation.  We've been in communication ever since.

Shortly after the encounter at the restaurant, I was privileged to mentor a young woman from Stanford University - Julia Blau Spiegel.  The president of Stanford's Jazz Orchestra at the time, she was in Paris for the summer, and was looking for a subject for an article that I encouraged her to write for the Bonjour Paris newsletter.  I told her about Farris, and suggested that she seek him out at Châtelet station to ask him for an interview.  This she did, and her article "Musicians in the Metro" was the result.

Farris grew up with music in the San Francisco Bay Area.  He was a teen during the 1960s and had the advantage of being exposed to an incredible variety of artists and musical styles during that era.  It was because of this wealth of experience that he embraced music and culture on an international level.  As a result, he has traveled the world, playing in Europe, the U.S., and Australia.  He has taught ethnomusicology at the University of Hawaii, and jazz bass at the Sidney Conservatory Annex at Coffs, Australia.  Farris considers himself a Eulipion musician, a term inspired by the song of the same name by Rahsaan Roland Kirk. As such, he considers his music "a duty-free gift for the traveler." 

Blue Bayou Restaurant Jam Session
© Discover Paris!

This spring and summer, the San Francisco jazz man could be found crooning and playing his bass on the bridge near the Hôtel de Ville.  Visit his Web site and his MySpace page to learn the latest regarding his gigs, travels, and everything else that is Farris.


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 Entrée to Black Paris! is a Discover Paris! blog.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Caribbean Rhythms and Senegalese Cuisine

On Friday, August 13th, my husband Tom and I had nothing but good luck! We decided to celebrate by visiting Paris Plages at the Bassin de la Villette, and following up with a great meal.

We learned of a Caribbean Ball that was to last from 5 PM until 8 PM, and a subsequent “Grand Ball” for all types of music and dancing until 10 PM. We arrived at the Promenade Signoret-Montand along the northwest side of the Bassin at around 5:30 PM, and found only a few people dancing. We particularly enjoyed watching the couple pictured below:

Dancing under the Trees
© Discover Paris!

The music – Latino rhythms from Cuba, Puerto Rico… – was infectious, so that by the time we took a stroll down the quay and returned to our original spot, many more people were dancing and watching the fun.

Spectators at the Caribbean Ball
© Discover Paris!

As is usual in France, many people danced alone, with partners of the same sex, or with their children. Who has time to wait for the right person of the opposite sex to come along? There is too much fun to be had in the interim!

 Two Ladies Dancing
© Discover Paris!

 Woman and Child Dancing
© Discover Paris!

Too hungry to wait for the Grand Ball, we left the Bassin at around 7 PM to head for dinner at a small Senegalese restaurant in the Marais called Le Petit Dakar. Those who know Paris may be surprised that an African restaurant would be nestled among the ancient buildings and the prestigious museums of the 3rd arrondissement, but Le Petit Dakar has regaled its customers at 6, rue Elzévir since September 2000. The restaurant is part of CSAO, the Companie du Sénégal et de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (Senegal and West Africa Company), located on the same street at Number 9. Its mission is to promote the work of African artisans and to create equitable trade links with them.

 Le Petit Dakar
© Discover Paris!

The size of the restaurant lives up to its name – it is indeed small. But it is not cramped, as one might expect. White walls, light wood tables, and a light tile floor add a feeling of spaciousness to the single dining room. Tables are set well apart. Art by one of the cooks, Babaka Diop, graces the walls. The menu is simple, relatively inexpensive, and varied. Service is gracious. Most importantly, the food is well prepared and nicely presented.

 Le Petit Dakar Interior
© Discover Paris!

We began with punches for aperitifs – Tom had vodka bissap orange and I had rum ginger pineapple.  (Bissap is a beverage made from hibiscus flowers.)  These drinks were quite refreshing and not overly potent. We had entrées of sautéed prawns (Tom) and boudin (me).

For our main dishes, I had Yassa, a traditional dish made with chicken and onions marinated in lemon juice; and Tom had thieboudienne – a traditional fish and rice dish made with tomato sauce and accompanied by carrot, okra, eggplant, and igname (yam).

© Discover Paris!

For dessert, Tom had a café gourmand – an espresso with a side of fondant (a soft chocolate cake). I decided to not to indulge. We left the restaurant perfectly satisfied and not stuffed. As an added bonus, our bill came to less than 80 euros.

Though we’ve known about Le Petit Dakar for years, this is the first time that we’ve eaten there. It will not be long before we return! The restaurant is open until August 24th (evenings only), so those of you who are in Paris may want to dine there before they close for their summer break. If you want to attend a Caribbean ball at the Bassin de la Villette, another one is scheduled for August 20th from 5 PM to 8 PM.

Le Petit Dakar
6, rue Elzévir
75003 Paris
Metro: Saint-Paul

Bassin de la Villette
Place de la Bataille de Stalingrad
75019 Paris
Metro: Stalingrad, Jaurès


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Entrée to Black Paris!™ is a Discover Paris! blog.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Café Tournon

Ayanna and Char across the street from the Café Tournon
© Discover Paris!

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of providing the two lovely ladies pictured above with a private walking tour of the 5th and 6th arrondissements.  Our topic was Black Paris after World War II, and the final point of interest was the Café Tournon (visible in the background).  I talked at some length about the African-American expats who hung out at the Tournon during the walk, so by the time we arrived, Ayanna and Char were ready for a couple of stories that unfolded at the café.  These epitomize the humor and drama that characterized the relationships of the men who comprised the group.

I read a passage from William Gardner Smith's essay "Black Man in Europe" from Return to Black America, which describes the camaraderie of the group.  It included Richard Wright, Ollie Harrington, Chester Himes, and many others.  Smith described Harrington's keen storytelling ability, and spoke of the "raucous laughter that reverberated from the room" when Harrington told a joke.  He indicated that conversation often drifted toward the race problem in the U.S., and whether or not France was any better in this regard.

I then relayed the story of the "Gibson Affair," a tale of conflict, deceit, and accusations of espionage that proves the old adage that "truth is stranger than fiction."  Richard Gibson, a journalist at Agence France Presse (where Smith also worked), and Ollie Harrington had an altercation about Gibson's sublet of Harrington's apartment.  The two argued, and even fought publicly, over this issue.  But the underlying story of a plan to support the Algerian effort in the Franco-Algerian war that went awry, involving Gibson, Harrington, Smith, and others, marked a turning point in the relations among the African American expats of the era.

Café Tournon is well aware of its connection with African-American history in Paris.  Once, a waiter brought over a photo of Duke Ellington and Beauford Delaney seated in the café to a group that I led on a Black Paris walk.

Duke Ellington and Beauford Delaney at the Café Tournon
Photo from Paris Noir by Tyler Stovall

The Tournon's Web site acknowledges this history on a page entitled "Historique," which is complete with photos.  It also mentions the literary group Paris Review, founded by George Plimpton, Peter Matthiessen, Howard L. Humes, and others in 1953, that met regularly at the café.  William Gardner Smith (top row, second from right) and Wilma Howard (bottom row, first left) were members.

1954 Paris Review
Photo from the Wall Street Journal (obtained from the Morgan Library)

The façade of the café has changed a few times over the past ten years, and the interior has been refurbished.  But the "hideous paintings of the Luxembourg Gardens on the walls," described by William Gardner Smith in "Black Man in Europe," are still there!

Café Tournon
© 2001 Discover Paris!

Café Tournon
© 2005 Discover Paris!

Café Tournon
© 2009 Discover Paris!

Café Tournon interior
© 2009 Discover Paris!

Cafe Tournon
18, rue Tournon
75006 Paris
Metro: Odéon (Line 10)

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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Louvre Features the Ancient Black Capital of Meroë

Catalog cover
Meroë - An Empire on the Nile

This February, my husband and I took a long awaited cruise on Lake Nassar in Egypt.  We visited several of the temples that were preserved in the face of the creation of the lake, including Ramses II's famous Abu Simbel.  We even attended the sunrise ceremony on February 22, one of two days of the year when the sun fully illuminates the statues of the four gods that sit at the rear of the inner sanctuary.

The temples on Lake Nassar lie in an area that is known as Nubia, a land that begins at the level of the city of Aswan in southern Egypt and extends south to the area near the Sudanese city of Debba.  In ancient times, Nubia extended past the Sixth Cataract to the location of the modern city of Khartoum and beyond.  Powerful civilizations developed at Napata and Meroë during the first millennium B.C.E. in what is now Sudan.  During the cruise, I saw remnants of temples that were controlled by both Roman Egypt and the kingdom of Meroë during a war that was initiated by the Meroitic queen (Kandake, or Candice) Amanirenas.

Upon returning to Paris, I was delighted to discover that the Louvre is now presenting the first ever exposition devoted entirely to the kingdom of Meroë. Roughly 200 works are on display, including fine jewelry found in the tomb of Kandake Amanishakheto, stone tablets bearing the hieroglyphs and cursive script of Meroë (which have not been completely deciphered), and exquisite carvings of the ram-headed god Amon (who was also worshiped in Egypt).

The exhibit is located in the entresol of the Richelieu Pavilion.  It opened on March 26, and will remain open to the public until September 6, 2010.

Pavillon Richelieu
© Discover Paris!

I visited the exposition a few weeks ago.  It is small, but packed with information and artifacts.  The didactic panel copy (the large panel of text that gives the visitor an overview of the works in an exposition) is presented in French and in English.  No photos are allowed, so I purchased the catalog for the expo before leaving the museum.  It is completely in French, and costs 39 euros, but it is well worth the price if you can read French.

 Entrance to the Meroë exhibit
© Discover Paris!

For me, the most impressive works were the statue of the archer king, located at the far end of the exposition, and the stele (stone tablet) displaying Kandake Amanishakheto receiving the breath of life from the goddess Amesemi.  The Louvre selected the archer king as the symbol for the exposition—you see its image on the posters and billboards that announce the expo. There is a section of the exhibit to the right of the archer king display that provides information about an archaeological excavation that a team from the Louvre is currently undertaking at the ancient city of Mouweis.

There is also a small, permanent exposition of artifacts from the kingdom of Napata at the Louvre.  This is located on the landing of the Escalier du Midi outside the Egyptian exhibit on the first floor of the Sully Pavilion.

Relics from the Napata kingdom
© Discover Paris!

Napata is the kingdom that produced the Black Pharaohs of Egypt's 25th Dynasty.  The Louvre borrowed one of its own works, that of Pharaoh Taharqa kneeling before the falcon god Hemen, to complete the collection that is displayed in the Meroë exposition.  This, along with other works from the 25th Dynasty, have a permanent home in Room 29.

 Taharqa kneeling before Hemen
 © Discover Paris!

You may wish to see these works to complement your visit to the Meroë exposition.

There are only a few weeks left to see Meroë – An Empire on the Nile. There is no special fee—you may access this exhibit along with the rest of the museum's collections for a standard fee of 9.50 euros (6 euros if you enter after 6 PM on Wednesdays and Fridays). Entry to the Louvre is free on the first Sunday of each month, so there is still one chance (September 5th) to see the Meroë exhibit at no charge!

If you arrive at the Louvre at opening time, head for the Meroë exhibit first. Very few people will be there for the first half-hour or so, which will give you time to see a good part of the exhibit without having to compete with a crowd.


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 Entrée to Black Paris! is a Discover Paris! blog.