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Summer music festivals belie notion that France is no longer a cultural hot spot.
PARIS — Before a looming cathedral, in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, a handful of children sat in a semicircle, knees hugging large wooden drums. Tac-tac-toom, they beat out, faces rigid with concentration. Tac-tac-toom. Parents looked on with admiring eyes. Tac-tac-toom. Other spectators paused, and then strolled on, beckoned by a melody echoing from farther down the street. The Paris chapter of the annual French music celebration, Fete de la Musique, had begun.
Twenty-seven years ago, Jack Lang, then France’s minister of culture, transformed Paris into a stage for the country’s first Fete de la Musique. On this day of free music musicians of all levels and experience pour into the streets, plucking, strumming and wailing out their ambitions to a roving audience of the musically-versed or just plain curious. Since Lang's time, Fete de la Musique has spread from Paris to cities around the world.
This year’s festival in France revolved around the theme of 50 years of French song, broadly interpreted. The mellow tones of Bossa Nova, the craze of Klezmer and an homage to greats like Piaf and Gainsbourg collided in the open air. Paris alone hosted nearly 390 performances.
So why is there a raging debate over whether France is still the cradle of culture it once was?
“France today is a wilting power in the global cultural marketplace,” wrote Donald Morrison of Time magazine in 2007.
“The modern world has sucked out some [of Paris’] essence, leaving a film-set perfection hollowed out,” wrote Roger Cohen last year in the New York Times.
Most recently, French President Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly attacked Paris’ mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, for lacking ambition regarding the capital’s cultural and urban development.
But Fete de la Musique sits at the helm of France’s festival-laden summer. The Festival d’Avignon, a theater festival in the South of France, is in full swing. The Cannes Film Festival just wrapped up. This week, Paris plays host to the 26th Chopin Festival, a jazz festival and the Fete du Cinema.
The throngs of people who gathered in the Place Sainte Marthe, in Paris’ 10th arrondissement, on Sunday, were not deterred by the pessimists of old media and politics. A temporary stage had been erected in the square, and at almost midnight a group performing covers of Malian singer Ali Farka Toure took to the stage. Audience members danced, bounced and stood cramped into the space that the small square afforded.