On June 21, the shortest night of the year, towns and villages in France are filled with music. Instruments in hand, people of all ages everywhere turn out for the annual Fête de la Musique, singing and dancing until the sun comes up. This year, that free, much-beloved grassroots festival marks its 30th birthday. And that’s something to celebrate, because during the Fête, our elegant, monumental French capital becomes a light-hearted, playful, magical place. For one enchanted evening, Parisians are not only friendly, they’re joyful.
We owe this event to two remarkable men: Maurice Fleuret and Jack Lang. Fleuret, who died in 1990, was an eminent musicologist, an ardent champion of French contemporary music and a tireless advocate of music-making, which he valued above passive listening. He was named Director of Music and Dance at the Culture Ministry in 1981, the year Lang became Minister of Culture. François Mitterrand had just been elected president, and the motto of the day was Changer la vie. I’m not sure they really “changed life,” but thanks to those two visionaries, for at least one night a year it has never been quite the same.
The pair had a hunch that the event would be a success: Statistics showed that five million people (nearly 10 percent of the population) played an instrument, and that one of every two young people did. Their idea was to get all those musicians into the street to play for others and make others want to play too. Fleuret came up with a catchy slogan, “Faîtes de la musique, Fête de la Musique”—and the rest is history.
Each new edition serves up memorable moments: seniors doing the twist, young lovers lost in a slow waltz, marital disputes working themselves out in combative tangos…. Gathered around a small band on a corner you might see chic revelers, sweet old grand-mères, African funk rockers, pink-mohawked punks, black-clad Goths, paunchy rockabillies—in short, people just like you and me. What they all share is a sense of pleasure at being in Paris, suddenly a sensual, open, amenable city. Bars spill out onto the sidewalks, terraces overflow, even the police seem to be floating on a cloud. Smiling, tolerant, gallant, they walk in pairs like lovers, occasionally offering a few gentle words to calm some overexcited kid before he breaks something. I can just imagine a few of them going undercover, sporting pompadours and motorcycle jackets and strumming guitars in some of the hundreds—did I say hundreds? thousands!—of bands dotting the city. Music is everywhere, and no one even considers turning down the volume, because no one intends to sleep.
The Fête de la Musique has grown considerably over the years, first spreading from Paris to towns throughout France (last year some 18,000 bands entertained 10 million spectators) and then on to more than 100 countries around the world. Music is everywhere: on squares, waterfronts and beaches, but also in prisons and hospitals. I’m positive that the festival’s popularity has motivated quite a few young people to become musicians, and each year, those who come out and play seem more and more talented.
The festival is so inspiring that inevitably, as I make my way home in the wee hours of the morning amid strains of accordion music and the blare of brass bands, I resolve to take up the drums again. In high school, I had a snare drum and some cymbals, but my career as a percussionist was short-lived. Like so many kids, I dreamed of forming a band and becoming a rock star, with girls tearing at my shirt after concerts. Regretfully, that project fizzled out and all my buttons remained intact.
Still, every June 21, I remember how much I loved steadily, tirelessly beating out rhythms on my drum set and promise myself to do it again. But resolutions made during the Fête de la Musique are like the ones you make on New Year’s Eve: You tend to forget about them. One of these days, though, I’ll track down my old buddies from back in the day. We’ll re-form a group, The Old Timer Blues Rock Band, and play dance tunes in Abbesses or Batignolles for our adoring young groupies. Or more likely, for their moms.
In North America, the festival is celebrated in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City and Washington, DC; Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver; and Mexico City. For additional information, visit the Web sites of the local French consulates.