Recently I’ve been reflecting on the outsize impact of one of France’s smallest administrative departments – Seine-Saint-Denis, which covers a little over 90 square miles and is known informally as le quatre-vingt treize or le neuf-trois – ‘the ninety-three’) after its department number – on French popular music. Listening to Gazo’s superb Drill FR release and looking up some autobiographical details, I found myself thinking “oh, le 93 again!”
Established in 1968, Seine-Saint-Denis is part of Paris’s red belt, with the Communist Party and socialists historically dominant in local government. It also has one of the highest crime rates, is home to more immigrants than any other French department (with a significant proportion having come from North-West Africa, the Maghreb), and was the flashpoint for the 2005 French riots after teenagers Bouna Traore and Zyed Benna died of electrocution while hiding from police in an electricity substation.
Somewhat inevitably, the stars of le neuf-trois tend to be those in the category of musiques urbaines; one of the best-known acts to emerge from le neuf-trois, duo Suprême NTM or just NTM – the authors of ‘Seine Saint-Denis Style’ and many other golden-age French rap classics – are soon to be getting the biopic treatment (and Spiral fans will have seen Kool Shen as crime lord Cisco in the final season). More recently Aya Nakamura, who grew up in Aulnay-sous-Bois in Seine-Saint-Denis after her family moved from Bamako, was named “the most influential French musician in the world” by Vanity Fair in 2019 and is one of the most streamed female artists on the planet.
In an article for the Le Rap En France website last year, Guillaume Echelard and geographer Séverin Guillard, one of his interviewees, make the distinction between a scène’ – suggesting solidarity, shared infrastructure etc – and mise en scène’, or ‘staging’, i.e. what a film or theatre director does. This idea places more emphasis on the impact of the lived environment and the manner in which it is ‘staged’ in the music. It is the latter that seems more appropriate to a lot of the music that has emerged from le neuf-trois over the years, that ‘environment’ being one of poverty, exclusion and criminality but also a rich, multi-cultural heritage. One gets all of that in Gazo’s music but in terms of the first category, Gazo’s scène’ is really the truly internationalist drill scene – one track on Drill FR, featured in this month’s mix, sees him collaborate with both East London’s Unknown T and Coventry’s Pa Salieu, while Belgian Hamza and German Luciano also make guest appearances.
Gazo joins another 93 rapper, K.S.A, in the latest Rockfort mix (sharing the mic with superb Swiss rapper Slimka). As well as tracks from the albums covered below, it also includes a murky electronic jam from Marseille’s Abbrumer; some modular/field recording interaction from Julien Boudart; richly melodic songcraft from Raoul Vignal (of the Nick Drake-y variety) and Maxwell Farrington & Le Superhomard (more in Lee Hazlewood and MOR Scott Walker territory); high energy post-punk from Howlin’ Banana signings Unschooling; a slice of shimmering dream pop from Requin Chagrin; frisky bass sounds from DJ F16 Falcon; a selection from the third volume of Born Bad’s Wizzz series of 60s psych pop compendiums; and a lovely, partly French-language cover of Portishead’s ‘The Rip’ by Bureau Asso. The latter is from a compilation by L’Affect Records in support of the 2MSG association, which supports LGBTQI+ immigrants and asylum seekers, and also includes covers of Björk’s ‘Venus As A Boy’, Mylène Farmer’s ‘Sans Contrefaçon’ and even a floaty reggae take on Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’.
Paris and its suburbs aside, Marseille is the other traditional bastion of rap in France and SCH is one of the city port’s major stars. The trap and cloud-derived beats are laced with perfumes of the Mediterranean and North Africa but above all it’s his rasping delivery, frequently operating in the space between a whisper and a growl, that stays with you. The superb JVLIVS II is the second in a planned trilogy of albums spinning out some kind of multi-generational, familial gangster epic. The precise plot points escape me but the interludes feature the even-more-gravelly voice of José Luccioni, the actor who dubs Al Pacino in France.
Ernest Bergez is a firm favourite of this column, whether producing and mastering for others or releasing music under the name Sourdure. He’s one of the key practitioners of a new French folk that takes pride in its jumbled, mongrel nature – rooted to a degree in the traditional music of the sparsely populated Auvergne (part of the larger southeast-central Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region since 2016), where his mother was born, and employing the Occitan language, he also seeks connections, and lively frictions, with musique concrète, dub trickery, North African and Middle Eastern musics, rap and techno. His work can flow slowly and majestically, as on the Mantras and Mantra Del Vespre releases, but his latest builds on 2018’s LEspròva in giving us more concise capsules of the tangy Sourdure brew. Assisted by a number of familiar names from the French avant-folk scene (Jacques Puech of La Nòvia, Arlt’s Eloïse Decazes, Maud Herrera of Toulousain voice and percussion group Cocanha and others), on De Mòrt Viva he gives us pieces like ‘Na Festa’ with myriad ingredients jostling for attention – voices, bobbling percussion, car horn-like blares – achieving their own sort of lopsided equilibrium; the thunderously percussive ‘Tota Perta’; and the keening folk of ‘L’Ivern Daus Astres’. And it all sounds brilliantly, playfully, furiously alive.
Hassan K’s Isteghna – the work of French-Iranian, Keyvane Alinaghi, based in Lille – is a big, bold helping of what the fuck is going on here?. Perhaps the most familiar connection explored on Isteghna is that between surf and eastern Mediterranean/Arabic music. The Byzantine scale employed by Dick Dale, who was of Lebanese descent on his father’s side) on ‘Misirlou’, itself adapted from a folk melody that may have been Turkish or Egyptian in origin. But Alinaghi’s delirious, vaulting fusion also sucks in metal, Bernard Hermann soundtracks, jungle, synth pop, big band swing and more into its maelstrom. It would be incorrect to say that it all fits together organically – in fact the quite deliberate aim seems to be to create something that feels excitingly unnatural, in the way it pitches ‘real’ instruments (guitar particularly) into the mix with sounds that advertise their artificiality and have a certain sonic ‘cheapness’, like the ultra-dry drum machines and synth strings doing Psycho-style stabs. The result is that the songs “linger within virtuality” as the press release rather neatly puts it.
Heimat are the duo of Olivier Demeaux (Cheveu, Accident Du Travail) and Armelle Oberle (The Dreams and Badaboum), and their first album on Teenage Menopause was one of the real underground French gems of the past five years, with its feet in cold wave and its head in a mist-shrouded Indonesian temple. Its successor retains some of the key features of the debut, such as the macabre mood and Oberle’s incantatory vocals, but this feels like an armour-plated upgrade. The beats hit harder, particularly on pounding opener ‘ITA’, and there’s been a shift in the sample sources – “more discreet and from Western, sometimes central European sources” according to the band. Their own descriptions of the songs are pretty funny and make my own attempts reasonably redundant (“‘Tu Miedo’ is Hardtek-meets-weird flamenco… ‘Unterwegs’ is remisicent of Heidi, the Swiss TV series, on acid” and so on). Employing Lise Barkas’ hurdy gurdy on a couple of tracks, they also see the album as having a link with the ‘neo-traditional’ movement of La Nòvia and co, but in mood rather than a style – the brief ‘La Colline’, with its loop of a few strummed guitar chords, bell chimes and a metallic rhythm that could be ringing out from the village smithy’s workshop, certainly has an uncanny charge bordering on folk horror.
Although Covid has so far delayed a full assessment of its impact, Brexit is taking its toll on labels as well as the live sector. This month, OULS – the artist and label services wing of the Outré label which handled UK releases for the excellent likes of Grand Veymont, Odessey & Oracle and Hidden People (reviewed in the last column) – announced that it would no longer be operating: “Britain’s daft political posturing has led to the inevitable consequence of making French pressings in the UK at domestic prices unfeasible.” Before bowing out though, OULS have provided us with an excellent sampler from the Dur Et Doux label, and EPs from Laure Briard and Wendy Martinez. Briard’s Eu Voo is her second collaboration with Brazilian band Boogarins and sees her continuing to nurture her love of Brazilian pop. While its predecessor Coração Louco had a delicately spun, barely-there quality at times, Eu Voo is a groovier and more fulsome follow-up. Tunes like the title track and ‘Supertrama’ still caress you with melody but there’s also a more pronounced 70s bounce to ‘Morena Na Janela’ and ‘Não Me Diz Nada’.
Martinez is one of the three female singers in Gloria (reviewed last time) and her debut solo recording, La Chevauchée Electrique is a collection of (mostly) moody, acid-tinged ballads – and a little new wave pop, on ‘Ecran Triste’ – her voice winding its way around the melodies in almost Arabic fashion.
The Un Je Ne Sais Quoi label has two great new releases for us this time round. Dothe is the first solo release from Rachel Langlais (Borja Flames, La Colonie De Vacances). A few years ago, Langlais trained as a piano tuner and this close attention to acoustics and tone has fed into the creation of these pieces for two (differently) prepared and tuned pianos, with the results then treated to further edits and digital processing. The approach to preparation may be familiar (the placement of various objects on the strings), but the results are both surprising and moving as she extracts all manner of fuzzy, wavering, droning and clacking sounds from the instruments without sacrificing melody and harmonic warmth.
The other is In C Pour 11 Oscillateurs Et 53 Formes, from Soia, Julien Sénélas and Jérôme Vassereau. It is, as the title suggests, a performance of Terry Riley’s ‘In C’ using 11 oscillators (from two modular synths) instead of the original 11 acoustic instruments used on Riley’s 1968 recording, in response to a graphic score produced by visual artist Soia (which you can find in the booklet that comes with the physical release). This initially plinky and perky interpretation phases its way through passages that are more or less ominous, and even humorous at times, before reaching a tempestuous climax and fading out with a stream of acidic, analogue droplets.
There are two excellent GRM-related items from recent months to highlight: Matthias Puech is an engineer at the Groupe de Recherches Musicales, France’s centre for electro-acoustic research, and a researcher in theoretical computer science. On A Georgraphy Of Absence field recordings rub up against sounds produced by synths he has designed and developed himself, like the Oscillator Ensemble and the Tapographic Delay, creating eerie, pockmarked landscapes full of crackling texture and distant bass. On ‘Tunnel Vision’ you’re submerged in a wave of demonic cowbells, and ‘Homeostasis’ brings in a piston-like beat and takes you to the edge of a rain-lashed precipice.
Out on the GRM Recollection (the Editions Mego imprint) is the ravishing Rhapsodia/Battements Solaires release from Michèle Bokanowski. It brings together two 17-minute-plus pieces, one from 2018 and the other from a decade earlier and taken from a film by her husband Patrick Bokanowski. Interested in music concrete from an early age, she studied under Pierre Schaeffer and with Éliane Radigue. But there is considerably more incident in her music when compared to the glacial evolutions of Radigue’s work – the two parts of ‘Rhapsodia’ are built of soft, warm loops, sweeping pads, and feel suffused with golden light. ‘Battements Solaires’ appears at times like it’s channelling solar winds through the listener’s speakers, and delivers on the sense of massive cosmic forces at play promised by the title with its deep bass rumbles and evanescent higher tones. Some time later, a brief snatch of crystalline melody appears only to be lost again in the milky immensity.
Anyone wishing to continue the deep listening might want to try ‘Élémentaires Du Combat’ by Le Cabanon label boss Guillaume Malaret. He has worked with recordings from the countryside in the south of France and woven it all into two 12-and-a-half minute pieces that prize disruption as much as flow. On ‘Fissures, Appel’, the deeply evocative cicada songs are the most alluring ingredient, while on ‘Brises, Soulèvement’, watery sounds and water birds co-exist with a bright organ drone and clanging cow bells (again!)
Quietus Mix 26
Joanna – ‘Hold-Up Inusité’ (Born Bad)
Laure Briard – ‘Não Me Diz Nada’ (Midnight Special)
Raoul Vignal – ‘By A Thread’ (Talitres)
Bureau Asso – ‘The Rip’ (Affect Records)
Heimat – ‘Weiss Du’ (Crybaby/Teenage Menopause)
K.S.A & Slimka – ‘Tractions’ (RPTG Le Label)
Abbrumer – ‘Alma’ (Opal Tapes)
Matthias Puech – ‘Tunnel Vision’ (Nahal Recordings)
DJ F16 Falcon – ‘Love Blow Dem 40’ (Association Fatale)
Gazo ft Pa Salieu & Unknown T – ‘Mon Cher’ (BSB/Epic Records France)
SCH – ‘Euro’ (Rec 118/Warner Music France)
Rachel Langlais – ‘En Brasier’ (Un Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi)
Sourdure – ‘Rondaleira’ (Murailles Music/Pagans/Les Disques Du Festival Permanent)
Maxwell Farrington & Le SuperHomard – ‘Hips’ (Talitres)
Requin Chagrin – ‘Juno’ (KMS/Sony Music France)
Unschooling – ‘Social Chameleon’ (Howlin’ Banana Records/Modulor)
Hassan K – ‘Bâgh’ (October Tone/Extra Normal Records)
Julien Boudart – ‘Marsyas’ (Carton Records)