Paris: A year on from the terror attacks, a dispatch from the city’s multicultural underground music scene

Our writer travels to the french capital to meet three groups that symbolise the city's thriving attitude towards acceptance, despite what the far right would have you believe.

Outside the Bataclan on a brisk and wet October morning there is little about the building that indicates what took place here almost a year ago. Currently closed and under refurbishment, the building is wrapped in metal sheets that are scribbled in messy graffiti. People walk past, joggers jog, cars drive by, scooters whizz past, a homeless man with a thick white beard flashed with nicotine yellow plunders the bins for salvageable foods and the washing machines in the neighbouring laundrette spin and continue their cycles. Life moves on.

Like any public tragedy, often the only thing to identify an atrocity has taken place is the limp and scattered flowers that remain. The Bataclan is no different and where a mountain of flowers, candles and message of love and grief once lay in a kaleidoscope of colours, now are just three small bunches: a dulling handful of white roses next to a dying bunch of red ones and a rotten and drooping pair that bend over in half, saturated from the previous evening’s heavy rainfall. A laminated French poem with Clip Art flowers clings to a nearby lamppost but beyond that there is little indication of the attack in November of 2015.

Two people stop in front of me for a moment and stare, soaking it in in quiet reflection as though they are paying tribute at a graveside. They soon pull out laminate wallets stuffed with map print outs and it becomes clear they are essentially sightseers, turning the place into a grim tourist attraction for a fractured world. I realise I am fundamentally doing the same and I leave.

To say great art stems from trauma or prolonged hard times – be them fiscal or social – is often as true as it is a cushioned cliché to press your face into in the hope that it wasn’t all for nothing. France is certainly not alone in its turmoil surrounding national identity and a creeping rise in racial and religious bigotry (even a cursory glance at the tabloid headlines in the UK is enough to realise we’re living in troublingly pernicious times) but the city of Paris currently seems to be bustling with activity, in which the nightlife and the music it produces are being reclaimed as an inclusive, expansive and unifying creation – sonic bridges that connect cultures, countries and religions.

This hasn’t been taking place in the wake of – or as a reaction to – last year’s terrorist attacks, necessarily, it’s been going on for years, but its impact feels stronger and more defiant in the fallout. Three artists from the city, all who represent a globetrotting exploration in one way or another, have all recently released new material. La Femme, the pop-rock-psych-surf-new wave outfit who recently released their second album ‘Mystere’; electronic duo Acid Arab (who sound exactly as the name suggests) just put out their debut album,  ‘Musique de France’, and the suave disco outfit Bon Voyage Organisation’s ‘Geographie’ EP is newly released also.

Each in their own very distinct ways – and in positions that weave between the deep underground and the mainstream of Paris music – embody a multi-cultural musical examination and expression of the city they live in. La Femme have their ears and minds open to sounds and genres from anywhere in the world; Acid Arab are intent on exploring and giving a platform to various types of Eastern music (with various contributors from all over the world) through the channel and template of western electronic music and BVO’s Adrien Durand is as fascinated with exploring African and Chinese music as he is cosmic disco. Some people may suggest that people taking on the sounds of North Africa and the likes to be a form of cultural appropriation but the point being made here is that this is part of French culture. It’s ingrained within in. The two are entwined.

La Femme outside the Accor Arena

If national identity is something that feels like its being tightened into a one-dimensional categorisation then these are groups that personify the loosening and expanding of it. “We are citizens of the world,” La Femme’s Marlon Magnée tells me backstage at the Accor Arena where the group are supporting the Red Hot Chilli Peppers for their sins. It’s a statement that combats the UK Prime Minister’s recent comments at the Conservative Party Conference in which she declared, rather terrifyingly, “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”

For many of these groups, though, this is not a case of being political, it’s just a natural part of their ethos, a common sense approach of being better off together, of sharing the party and moving forward together in unison. The commonality the groups all share primarily though is their home city of Paris, a city that has seen enormous changes but is currently undergoing a boom in its music scene, be it through bands such as La Femme – rising from playing basement venues to arenas in a space of six years – to the pioneering club culture in places like Concrete to the illegal squat and warehouse parties that are sending people flocking to the suburbs for the best and wildest nights out.

La Femme are a group that embody a contrast – the sleazy grit and grub, as well and the glamour and the gleam – and it’s a duality the band love to operate in both sonically and aesthetically. A great deal of this has come from the sense of liberation they feel in the city after Magnée grew up in the small surfing town of Biarritz. “I moved here when I was 15 and there was this huge culture of music and movement,” she tells me. “In Biarritz it’s like a little town, everyone likes the same stuff and if you are dressed too much weird you are called a weirdo or a fag but in Paris you can be whatever. If you want to be punk you can be punk, if you want to be Rasta you can be Rasta – there’s all these different cultures.” The result of this approach is a sound that on stage feels so much more varied and alive than the band they are supporting, an all-encompassing broadness and vitality to the stagnant and antiquated churn of the Chilli’s.

Adrien Durand of BVO, who began making music as Les Aeroplanes around 7 years ago, tells a story of an ever-changing neighbourhood as we sit in his newly refurbished studio filled with glorious and pristine analogue equipment.

“When I was a lot younger and I would come home at 2am and I was really quite afraid of walking home to Republique, which is now crazy because there is nothing to fear. Although the nearby metro stop Oberkampf in the ’80s and ’90s really was the place for heroin and crack dealers, and there used to be crack heads walking down the streets.” Durand has no issue with gentrification in that sense and feels the neighbourhood has benefited from a cleaning up. “What is bothering me is the uniformisation of everything,” he says. “All the shops that open are the same and they don’t specialise in anything. It’s just like, ‘have brunch, have records, have bikes.’ I’m not into this. It lacks a dynamic and it’s true that it used to be more edgy and that might be bad for curiosity.”

Adrien Durand aka Bon Voyage Organisation in his studio

As we move onto a local bar, over white wine he tells me that he only sleeps three or four hours a night and is a staunch workaholic. Like La Femme he currently finds himself an artist in the midst of a crossover stage in his career, his early work being released on Hieroglyphic Being’s hip Mathematics Recordings and now he has recently quit his job, signed with Columbia and aside from working on BVO releases, is also an in-demand producer that will soon be working with an act that have already gone platinum in the country. When trying to crowbar open an insight into the world of the Parisian underground, Durand finds that it’s not quite as binary as underground and mainstream in his world. “The lines are blurred these days,” he says. “It’s very difficult. I mean, would you say the last Solange record is a mainstream record or an underground record?” He also feels it’s tough for French bands to break beyond their home country before conquering it first. “It’s tough for bands to break through straight away, I don’t know any acts that became internationally famous before becoming famous in France – we’re not as open to the world as we appear to be.”

The conversation inevitably turns to how the music community has been impacted by the events of 2015. “We all lost people that we knew because it’s a small world, so everybody knew somebody that knew somebody.

“We played the Bataclan opening for FFS a few months prior to the attacks so it was very strange. For me – and I used work in an organisation that was international and dealing with crises abroad – my view of things is that what is happening here now, it’s ten times worse over there, you know? And nobody gives a shit about people living in Beirut that have been living in fear for thirty or forty years. It’s like [a mind-set of] when it happens to my neighbour I don’t give a shit but when it happens to me, I care. That time it felt so close to them they had to react. I had a radio show the next day and I just played Arabic music for it.”

Via propulsive disco and shimmering pop on ‘S.S.D’ – taken from their recent LP – La Femme recall (in French, always in French) the tale of a crazy night out in the area around the city’s metro stop of Strasbourg, Saint Denis, a notorious party district, and it’s near here in the 10th arrondissement that Acid Arab are located in a homely and inviting studio that is wall-to-wall synthesisers crammed in a room. A framed Throbbing Gristle poster hangs on the wall and there’s not a guitar in sight. Guido Minisky and Hervé Carvalho, the core duo of Acid Arab (although Pierrot Casanova and Nicolas Borne are both members and are also present in the studio) sit down and talk about the ongoing changes of the city, culturally and musically, as well as to their neighbourhood.

“I’ve been here 20 years and the neighbourhood has changed a lot,” Minisky says. “It’s taken a gentrified step now but it still has a real mix of community and culture here – you have Indian people, Kurdish, North African, Chinese and Turkish.” It was the music of the Turkish and Indian communities that was an early musical awakening for Minisky when arriving in the city. “One of the first things I discovered when I moved to this neighbourhood was the Turkish cassette shops,” he says. “I was not at all into this music at the time – it was a bit of a shock. Then we discovered Indian Bollywood CD shops, the North African CD and cassette shops that were all around this neighbourhood. Now there is only one music shop still open and there were around 15 near my apartment.”

Minisky met Carvalho around 9 years ago in the city’s party scene and soon began hosting parties themselves under the guise of Acid Arab, with the intention to host an event that celebrated the best in western electronic music and acid house, alongside flavours of the Eastern music they were becoming slowly infatuated with. “The first party of these that we did was a squat party,” Carvalho recalls. “I have a friend who is still doing squat stuff here in Paris and was living in a squat in this area and I was working in a bar nearby and we organised a party together in the squat once. At this time there wasn’t too many illegal or squat parties in Paris, it was a bad moment for the night in Paris at that time. It went well and we thought about doing it again and so this illegal party ended up coming to this club, Chez Moune. In this club we had a lot of freedom, so…”

“It was wild,” Minisky interjects.

“It was really wild,” says Carvalho.

How wild?

“You could do almost anything in there,” Minisky says with a slight glint in his eye and he puffs on a cigarette. “It was a very small club and there was this huge line outside every month. It was crazy and everybody was allowed to do whatever they wanted, including smoking and fucking in the toilets and whatever. The beer was very cheap; it was the cheapest beer in the history of beer in clubs in Paris. The music was wild as well.”

There were four DJs, each with a distinct personality as Carvalho recalls. “One was pop, one was coldwave, minimal synths stuff, Guido more disco and I was more house and acid house stuff, and so between the four of us it created something really special at this party.”

A liberating experience having such freedom in a club, one must presume?

“Oh yeah. Too much even,” Minisky laughs. “A DJ once pissed whilst playing and I thought that night, ‘maybe that’s too much.’”

Whilst that club has now been taken over and sanitised, there is a mirror to be held up to the Paris of today, which is brimming with underground parties and illegal raves as Carvalho tells me. “There is an amazing place called Champs Libres that is a bit like a squat and it’s worse than the backroom of Berghain,” he says.  “There are a lot of places like this in Paris now – the club nightlife is really exciting now.”

For years the duo held parties and they would work on remixes as Acid Arab, released first on EPs and finally reissued collectively as ‘Collections’ in 2013. It featured remixes of everyone from Omar Souleyman to Etienne Jaumet.

Hervé Carvalho and Guido Minisky aka Acid Arab in their studio

It sounds like a hedonistic and cultural awakening is taking place deep into the city’s night but what is every day life like in Paris after last year’s attacks? I ask Acid Arab is there a palpable tension in the air? Both go quiet for a moment and Minisky rather cagily answers. “We don’t even think about that, we’re not at all into politics or religious questions or whatever. This is only about music and culture.”

But as citizens of Paris, I say, they must feel the impact.

“A lot of racism has emerged during the last year, but it’s not only the terrorist attacks, it’s the politics. Nicholas Sarkozy’s administration, they gave the feeling to a lot of people that they were right about fearing immigration.”

“They put the problem of national identity to the forefront,” says Carvalho.

Minisky: “They created a national identity ministry [The Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Codevelopment of France – 2007], which thank god is now shut down but it existed”

Carvalho: “I mean, what is the national identity of a country with all this immigration? The name of our album is a response to this kind of bullshit. What we are doing is not about exoticism, or a trip or a journey, it’s about the French culture, what’s in front of us.”

Minisky: Some people may ask us, ‘have you been to North Africa to hear the music from there?’ and I say, ‘We don’t have to, we have it here.’ North African’s have built this country, whether you like it or not it’s like that. It’s very easy for some people to say today, ‘We have a nice country with freeway’s and buildings and stuff so can you please go the fuck back to your place,’ and no, it’s not like that.”

Carvahlo: “Some of these people have been here for three or four generations, they are born and raised here and their culture is part of this country as well. It must be awful for someone whose father has been born in France and they are born in France and they grow up in France and then when you go somewhere they ask you were you are from. It’s like asking an African American each time you see them, ‘which country are you from?’ You know, they are more French than you maybe.”

I ask how do they feel about the future. Are they hopeful that racial tensions will subside?

“It’s really touchy,” Carvahlo says. “I think things are going to get worse than now, for sure, but to which point things will go, I don’t know. It’s going to be worse; we are just in the beginning of something really violent.”

Whilst it’s clear that Acid Arab are a group that promote a multi-cultural Paris and all the forces the music can bring as a result, how much of this collision, I wonder, takes place in the city? I mean, are their gigs and parties as racially integrated as their music?

“Certainly not,” Minisky says, rather sadly. “Maybe after one year of us playing as Acid Arab we had this opportunity to have a party at the Arabic Institute in Paris and for this party there were pre-sale tickets and before that we had party’s in clubs where people showed up and they got in or not, and so that night we had a lot of Arabic people there. It’s not a good term to use but people with Arabic roots, I mean, and we really had a lot there, like 50% of the people and a lot of people came up and said, ‘Ah, great we finally get to see you.’ We were like, ‘We’ve played this place and this place,’ and they said, ‘We cannot go to these places, when we arrive at the door they say, ‘no, not you.’”

The group are keen to now do more pre-sale ticket shows to expand the diversity of their audience, which in the wake of their debut album has no doubt expanded further through their widespread variety of guests, such as the Syrian dabke player Rizan Said, the Algerian singer Rachid Taha, the Turkish composer Cem Yildiz (also a member of Insanlar) and various other musicians. The resulting collaborations on the debut lead to an album that hums with the vibrancy and diversity of the city streets you walk around near their studio and sparks with the life and energy of the nightlife they are so deeply immersed in. For Acid Arab, and everyone else I speak to whilst here, the sound and identity of France and Paris is not captured and projected in the rising rhetoric of the likes of the National Front but in the multicultural heart of the place that beats louder and funkier than the drum of hate and intolerance.