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Participatory music in the suburbs of Paris

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 all French cities and, in different forms, 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 inhabitants, who include many immigrants from former colonies and recent war zones, face unemployment, poverty and social exclusion. They are more often talked about than listened to and that is part of the problem of the banlieues.

A Jazz Festival on the banlieue

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.

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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.

‘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)

The Last Diaspora

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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 local schools, on a new creation that combined texts written by the young people and music composed for the occasion by Dawkins. The piece was called ‘The Last Diaspora’ and its focus – like much of Dawkins’ music – was the experience of migration between Africa, Chicago and Paris. It provided a space in which to explore identity, heritage and choice for participants many of whom had roots in Algeria, Senegal, Turkey, Vietnam or elsewhere. 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.’

Dawkins’ music created space within his own ensemble for young drummers and singers as well as a brass band of local amateur musicians. After months of working apart, the group rehearsed intensively together in the week leading up to the concert. The teenagers learned about rhythm, singing and jazz as they worked with Dawkins and his band. But the most important learning was not about theory or technique. It was about the joy of making music, of singing their own words, of performing to an appreciative audience that had no idea what they could achieve. It was about pride in their roots and identity and what other cultures have given the world. It was about how a person can achieve dignity, rather than stardom, through musical talent and commitment. And they learned that a celebrated musician valued them and their imaginations enough to spend a week rehearsing and performing with them – not as a favour but because he believed that together they could give a paying audience a night of exceptional, beautiful music.

 

In ‘Watch Me!’, a documentary film about the project, there are long sequences shot in the schools where the music was slowly developed in the months before the concert. The contrast is telling between posters of European composers and white men demonstrating how to hold an oboe on the classroom walls and the multiracial group of adults and children assembled to create new music composed of djembe drums, contemporary jazz, and the words of disregarded teenagers. The image speaks volumes about the gulf between approaches to teaching music.

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 ideas and response of those who were meeting jazz for the first time. The result was a musical collaboration of the first order.

Year-round support for participation in music

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 to  the musicians who perform in the festival is still the beating heart of the Actions Musicales but it is now sustained through the work of local musicians, teachers 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 not easy to come by, whether from cash-strapped local government or from audiences. The sponsors keen to support concerts in more attractive locations can be as reluctant to come to an ill-reputed suburban town as well-heeled Parisian audiences. The end of 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 is often created as a result of their encounters.

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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 fails to 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 deliberately to offer them bad art as some kind of compensation. That is not how artists think or act. There are many problems in creating art with people living in poverty and deprivation but the desire to achieve 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 wonderful new music. At the end of the film made about Ernest Dawkins’ work in Paris, one of the young participants says about the final concert: ‘franchement ça a été grand’  (‘honestly, it was great’). She was so right.

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Avan van & Dédé Saint-Prix at Banlieues Bleues 2011 (photo Alfred Jocksan)

‘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.’

Dédé Saint-Prix

Photos of Ernest Dawkins The Last Disapora project courtesy of Banlieues Bleues