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Paris — Capital of the World of World Music

Why does the City of Lights attract — and help spawn — so many sounds?

May 8, 2004

Why does the City of Lights attract — and help spawn — so many sounds?

If you were looking for a place that might be the capital of world music, logic might compel you to look at the world's largest cities. After all, a large population should result in a panoply of musical tastes and forms.

With 33.8 million people, Tokyo is the world's largest metropolis. Yet, no one would argue that it is a serious contender for capital of global music. (Nor is Osaka, the ninth-largest city in the world, with 16.7 million people.)

The world's second-largest city, Mexico City, boasts a wonderful musical heritage, but it is a bit narrow to contend for the top spot.

Other large cities have tremendous vast influences within particular stylistic genres. Still, they cannot be said to have a truly global scope. Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil (the world's fifth-largest and 18th-largest cities) and Buenos Aires, Argentina (the world's 15th-largest city) represent the power and poetry of the samba and the tango, but lack a broader musical mandate.

India's trio of Bombay (at number six), Delhi (at number seven) and Calcutta (at number 13) are growing in musical influence, but remain too narrowly focused for the honor.

Three cities among the top 20 might lay claim to the title of world music's capital. New York (at number three), Los Angeles (at number eight) and London (at number 20y) all have thriving music scenes that draw upon multiple cultures and regions.

Yet, they are also the centers of a pop music business that distills and homogenizes such influences. And rarely, if ever, do records that are recognizably "world music" show up on their popular music charts.

Paris, France is not even included in the list of the world's 20 largest cities, but the argument for its status of capital of world music is a strong one. Not only is there a strong native tradition of the chanson in Paris, but the City of Lights has welcomed luminaries from all over the globe to make music there.

Like New York, Los Angeles and London, Paris' music scene has benefited greatly from an influx of immigrants. Many musicians have come from Francophone Africa and the Middle East.

For instance, France's top rapper is MC Solaar, a Senegal-born artist who moved to Paris and has seen his albums dominate French charts for over a decade.

Prominent rai/rock musician Rachid Taha was born in Algeria, grew up in Lyon — and has recorded much of his best work in Paris. His 1991 album, Barbes, was named after an immigrant-dominated section of Paris.

But musicians have also immigrated to Paris from places with no particular linguistic or cultural connection to the city.

The wonderful blend of tango and dance music created by Gotan Project is a Parisian blend, its members are based in the city.

Perhaps Gotan Project drew inspiration from tango giant Astor Piazzolla, who traveled from Buenos Aires to Paris to study composition with Nadia Boulanger in 1954.

It was Boulanger who urged Piazzolla to abandon classical composition and fuse that tradition with his own roots in tango.

Brazilian musicians have also found a home in Paris. Whether sunny or moody, the economical melodies of Brazilian pop music bear some similarities to the classic French chanson.

One of the most popular club nights in Paris, in fact, are the Brazilian "Favela Chic/Postonove" nights at the Elysee Montmartre club – a mix of classic Brazilian melody with new sounds that is showcased on the recent Postonove 3 record.

Not content with immigration, some Parisian musicians have gone abroad to find new music to import. Legendary pop-rock singer Serge Gainsbourg, for instance, decided in the 1970s that he wanted to record an album that mixed his own sounds with reggae.

He went to Kingston, Jamaica, and hired some of the best reggae musicians of that decade to record two discs – Aux Armes Etcetera and Mauvaises nouvelles des étoiles.

The first record's reggae version of the French national anthem "Les Marseilles" caused a scandal – and introduced reggae to a French audience, where it took hold as a strong influence.

No other world city can boast of the number of world musicians working within its limits. The world music recorded in Paris also has a scope and popular success that are unique to France's capital. Perhaps the best advice for world musicians seeking their fortunes is not to flee to the Big Apple or the City of Angels, but rather to the City of Lights.