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Publication Date: Friday, July 12, 2002|
(July 12, 2002) 'Vive la World' celebrates the music of modern-day France
by Robyn Israel
W hen French-born concert promoter Helene Gherman lived in New York City in the '90s, she was always disappointed by the musical entertainment that would take place on Bastille Day. For her, the July 14 holiday was an opportunity to honor her French roots in her adopted country. But the celebration was typically a throwback to the old-fashioned "bal musette ," consisting of familiar French standards, sung to the accompaniment of an accordion.
To her, it felt like being in Venice -- a city she considered stuck in the past.
"I loved it, but this was not accurate," Gherman recalled in a recent phone interview from her Paris home. "It's not what's happening in France today."
Desiring to demonstrate the modern-day diversity of French music to American audiences, Gherman teamed up with producer Bill Bragin to create "Vive la World!," a music festival whose content was dramatically different from earlier Bastille Day celebrations. First staged in Manhattan's Central Park in 1997, it remains a showcase of musicians who more accurately represent, according to Gherman, the multiethnic communities residing in France today.
Five years later, Gherman remains the organizer of the festival, which also celebrates the revolutionary principles of Bastille Day.
"It's a musical caravan that displays the concept of liberte, fraternite and egalite," Gherman said.
Produced in France, "Vive la World" will visit nine different cities in North America, including New York, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles. After a string of Canadian dates, the festival will touch down on Sunday -- Bastille Day -- at Stanford University's Frost Amphitheater.
Presented by Stanford Lively Arts, the bill will include Algerian singer Cheika Remitti, Malian singer/songwriter Issa Bagayogo and the Franco-Cuban hip hop of P18. All three headliners will be making their North American debut.
Joining them will be Huun-Huur-Tu, the "throat singers" of remote Tuva, renowned for their ability to sing several tones at the same time. Formed in 1992, the group hails from a region north of Mongolia, 2500 miles east of Moscow. Part of a south Siberian Turkic people that numbers 150,000, they preserve some of the world's oldest form of music-making.
For Bay Area audiences, the one-day festival offers a unique opportunity to hear musicians who have huge international followings, but aren't as well known in the United States. This year, the festival is expected to reach 100,0000 people in the United States and Canada.
The cosmopolitan quality of contemporary French music is reflected in the name of P18, one of the three headliners on Sunday's bill. Assembled three years ago by Tom Darnal, the group is named after the 18th arrondissement of Paris, one of the City of Light's trendiest and hippest districts, where Montmarte beckons tourists to its village of artists and musicians. Darnal -- whose influences include Parliament, Trouble Funk, Mantronix, (an '80s electro-funk band) and Creedence Clearwater Revival -- has lived in the neighborhood for the last 15 years.
A former keyboard player for Mano Negra, a French-Spanish band that featured Latin-alternative star Manu Chao, Darnal spent three years in Cuba working on the project before returning to Paris to polish it up. Made up of 10 musicians -- four from France; six from Cuba -- the Paris-based band is a spicy mix of tropical sounds and urban electronica.
"It's a fusion between Cuban inspiration and electronic music inspiration," Darnal said in an interview from his Paris home. "And you also have jazz influences, Afro-Cuban influences, drums, bass and house. We are mixing all this music together."
The band's recent CD, "Electropica" (Virgin Latino), released in the United States last month, showcases the band's sound. Sporting a guest shot from Nigerian saxophonist Femi Kuti, the son of Afro-beat legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the album mixes breathless rumbas, steamy funk and hypnotic chants to joyous effect.
But P18 means more than mere music, Darnal stressed. Inspired by old-fashioned spectacles, P18 delights in making dance an important component of their live shows. One example is a traditional Nigerian dance that was first introduced to Cuba when slaves were brought over from Africa, and which still survives in Havana, Darnal said.
"We are, above all else, a dance band," Darnal said. "There's a theatrical component, thanks to the choreography. And plenty of costume changes."
According to Darnal, P18 is a band that will remind audiences of the orchestras that were popular in Havana during the 1950s. But the sound is completely modern, full of funk and house music. And Darnal will be front-and-center onstage with his bandmates -- a switch from the earlier days, when Darnal used to remain in the back, performing on keyboards and manning the mixing desk.
"Everyone's dancing, and you're alone, behind the mixing desk. It gets boring, pushing the buttons. And there's a lot of physical energy in the show, and it transmits to the rest of the band," Darnal said.
So now Darnal prepares beats and dubs sequences in advance, and come showtime, all he has to do is push play.
Like Darnal, Malian singer-songwriter Issa Bagayogo (known as Techno Issa to his fans) also delights in adding modern touches to traditional music, a genre the locals call Afro-electro. "Sya," (1999), his first album, soared to the top five on the European world music radio charts. And on his second album, "Timbuktu" (2001), he continues the interesting fusion of old and new sounds. Formerly a bus driver, Bagayogo composes songs that address the universal themes of community and marriage, praise for ancestral warriors, and the darker issues of death and drug abuse.
In addition to his smoky vocals, Bagayogo plays a traditional six-stringed lute called the kamele n'goni. Other members in his band play djembe (hand drum), calabash (a thumb piano or small harp), balfon (a wooden xylophone), acoustic guitar and several wind instruments.
Sunday's audience is sure to be enchanted by the singing and dancing talents of Algerian chanteuse Cheikha Remitti. Considered the Queen of rai music, Remitti specializes in singing the blues of North Africa, which traces its roots to the depression of the 1930s. Having graced many European stages throughout her career, Remitti is embarking, at the age of 79, on her maiden voyage to North America.
A prolific songwriter, Remitti uses the language of the streets to sing of love, alcohol, prostitution and the life of the working-class. Her songs are sensuous, even crude, and her style is downright sassy and sexually suggestive. And though nearly 80, Remitti still loves to flirt with her audiences, shimmying onstage -- "an untamed, unstoppable life force," according to the New York Times.
Orphaned at a young age, Remitti took her last name from the Algerian town where she spent her childhood. Her first name honors the cheikhas, the women of western Algeria who sang and improvised raunchy ditties in a dialect unique to the area surrounding the seaport of Oran. Today, young rai singers consider Remitti to be a living legend.
Unfortunately, Sunday's show will lack Cheb Sahraoui, the man who was scheduled to be Remitti's special guest star. A singer of pop-rai, Sahraoui has fallen victim to the post-Sept. 11 bureaucracy that has impeded the travels of young Middle Eastern and North African men. A week prior to the festival, Gherman was still working frantically to secure visas for the young Algerian singers who were scheduled to accompany Remitti onstage.
But politics will undoubtedly be far from people's minds on Sunday. When it comes to music, geographical barriers disappear, leaving only the sweet harmony of voices and the pulsating rhythms of the night.
E-mail Robyn Israel at email@example.com
What: "Vive la World! 2002," a festival of world music featuring Huun-Huur-Tu, Cheikha Remitti, Issa Bagayogo and P18. Presented by Stanford Lively Arts.
Where: Stanford University's Frost Amphitheater
When: Sunday (Bastille Day). Gates open at 4:30 p.m. and the performances begin at 5:30 p.m.
Cost: Tickets are $35 for chair seats; $30 for lawn seats. Student discounts are available and youths under age 15 are half-price.
Info: Call (650) 725-ARTS or visit http://livelyarts.stanford.edu