‘It’s important for children to meet an artist in the atmosphere of a workshop. They too have a right to beauty, to culture and to become used to focusing on a creative project.’
Nelly Roland Iriberry, Maire de Villepinte (2011)
Seine-Saint-Denis, on the northeast edge of Paris, is the very image of France’s ‘banlieues‘, though there are similar places on the edge of most French cities and, indeed, throughout Europe. A British parallel might be estates like Castlemilk in Glasgow or new towns like Skelmersdale – huge post-war housing schemes raised to accommodate growing populations. Torn between the modernist dream of an egalitarian society and political constraints of money and class, these developments have rarely met anyone’s plan. Today, their residents, who include immigrants from former colonies and recent war zones, often face unemployment, poverty and social exclusion. The problems of such communities are not helped by being more often talked about than listened to.
So it may be surprising to find that Seine-Saint-Denis is home to one of France’s liveliest jazz festivals but of course the banlieue is just one reality of a département with 40 communes keen to attract visitors. Banlieues Bleues was founded in 1984 on the initiative of local politicians. Since then it has brought many exceptional musicians to perform in local concert halls, schools and improvised venues across the district.
One of the first concerts was given by the then little-known Michel Petrucciani. Since then Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, Dizzy Gillespie and Otis Taylor are among hundreds of jazz artists who have crossed the Boulevard Périphérique to perform for the people of Villepinte, Clichy-sous-Bois, La Courneuve and 24 other towns in the département. Last spring, during the festival’s four-week week run, 42 established stars and young performers played for large, enthusiastic audiences. The festival is not an exclusive domain of jazz buffs. It thrives on connections of shared experience in a music born of hybridity and improvisation that resonates here, even if music is the only common language between artist and audience.
What makes Banlieues Bleues more than just a great jazz festival (and important in this context) is the organisation’s approach to participation and co-creation. From its earliest days, there was a commitment to opening jazz to new audiences through ‘Actions Musicales’. These take many forms – workshops, open concerts, masterclasses, meetings – and include not just young people in school and college but amateur musicians, teachers, conservatoire students, young professionals and others. All these activities have in common an encounter with an artist performing at the festival, and the creation of music. They are rooted in an ethos of equality between all participants. Those taking part may bring very different knowledge, abilities, culture and experience but everyone has something important and unique to offer.
A characteristic example is the project undertaken with the Chicagoan saxophonist and bandleader, Ernest Dawkins. Between September 2002 and March 2003, local musicians, teachers and animateurs worked with teenagers in several schools on a new work with texts written by the young people and music composed for them by Dawkins. The piece was called ‘The Last Diaspora’ and its focus – like much of Dawkins’ music – was the experience of migration between Africa, America and now France. It provided a space in which to explore identity, heritage and choice for participants with roots in Algeria, Senegal, Turkey, Vietnam as well as Seine-Saint-Denis. During rehearsals, Ernest Dawkins told the students:
‘This is a multicultural society. It’s your responsibility to establish your own identity and […] learn how to challenge your energy and channel it in the proper direction. Music is just a means to an end. That’s all it is.’
Their work came together in a remarkable concert featuring the young people as singers, drummers and dancers, performing new compositions with a local brass band and the Ernest Dawkins Quartet. If the driving musical ideas came from the professional artists, they were shaped by the contributions and responses of those who were meeting jazz for the first time. The result was a musical co-creation of the first order.
In 2006, Banlieues Bleues opened a former sack factory in Pantin as a base for shows, workshops and other events. Renamed ‘La Dynamo’, it has enabled the participatory work to become a year-round programme. The link with musicians performing at the festival is still the beating heart of the Actions Musicales but it is now sustained throughout the year by local musicians and animateurs. One impressive initiative is the jazz magazine produced by young people, which carries interviews with many of the festival’s stars. The best of these have subsequently been published in book form. It gives an original insight into contemporary jazz because the musicians are speaking in response to the interests of the young people of Seine-Saint-Denis: questions can be telling too.
None of this has been easy. Banlieues Bleues is based in a poor area and funds are hard to find, whether from cash-strapped local government or from audiences. Sponsors prefer to support concerts in more affluent locations, while Parisian audiences aren’t always keen to come to suburban towns they don’t know. The closure of the young people’s magazine is one casualty of recent budget cuts. Still, the success of Banlieues Bleues and its Actions Musicales rests on the vision and commitment of a small, passionate team. Whatever the ebbs and flows of official support, they have learnt they can depend on the openness of local people and visiting stars towards one another and the joyful music that often comes out of their encounters.
It is sometimes said – especially by people with limited experience of it – that standards do not matter in community art, that this work is just a kind of social project or activism in which art is a secondary consideration at best. But artists who work with communities are as committed to art as those who stay in studios or well-resourced institutions. Some are better than others; some participatory art is mediocre. But that is true in every field of artistic practice. Excellent art is rare, despite the rhetoric of artists, and it deserves to be celebrated wherever it is found.
But honest art deserves appreciation too, even if it doesn’t achieve that highest standard. What differentiates the work of community artists is the nature of its collaborative practice and its limited resources. It is not a lack of interest in art, ambition, or stretching boundaries. After all, if you are working with people living in third-rate housing, attending poor schools and working in dead-end jobs, you would have to be extraordinarily cynical intentionally to offer them bad art too. That is not how artists think or act. There are many problems in creating art with people living in poverty and deprivation but lack of commitment to the best is not one of them.
Banlieues Bleues has demonstrated that year after year. The great musicians they have invited to work with the people of Seine-Saint-Denis have shown that too – not only in their open-minded interest in leaving their usual paths but also in the creativity they have sparked in doing so. And the music they have made together, the unique concerts and performances, prove that co-creation between the most and the least experienced artists can create art that is new, extraordinary and beautiful.
‘There is no ocean between us. They came for a concert and now they leave. It’s very rare. Did you see the work I did with the students? I think it’s a fine thing to show, starting from nothing, just a broom handle and a drumstick, the emotion you can release with 160 students.’
Photos of Ernest Dawkins The Last Disapora project by