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Make Like the French; Make Music

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If you were in New York City on June 21 of last year, you already know about Fête de la Musique.

This year, Pasadena in Southern California and Sacramento, San Francisco and one district on Oakland in Northern California will join along with Kalamazoo (one of my favorite city names) and Albion, Michigan to celebrate music, joining the French movement called Fête de la Musique (Festival of Music) and sometimes, using the homophone Faites de la Musique (Make Music).

There are, of course, millions of music festivals, but in this one amateur musicians are particularly encouraged to get out and make music and the concerts are free.

Veronique Maheas, vice president of Alliance Française in Pasadena, commented, “It is a music festival, but it’s different from your typical music festival in the sense that everybody is invited to come and perform. So anyone can come and whistle at the corner of the street or play their guitar or sing a tune.”

Elisabeth Fourney, executive director of France Los Angeles Exchange Foundation (FLAX), was in Paris last year and admitted in a recent phone interview that she had wondered why the Fête hadn’t made it to the U.S., “because I think it's a brilliant idea, a great concept that offers music of all kinds for people of all ages. (In France) People move around stop and listen to music.”

Fourney helped bring a little bit of French culture to Pasadena by arranging for two French bands to come and perform: Adele Jacques with Antipop (Emerging Artists Stage) and the Plastiscines (ANTICS Stage). The acts have the approval of her young sons, but the festival has music for all tastes and ages.

Although it just recently came to the United States, it began in the 1980s in Paris.

According to press release on the San Francisco Web site Christian DuPavillon, who is an architect and a civil servant in the Ministry of Culture, was working as an adviser to the Culture Minister in 1982.

One morning in January 1982, the Director of Music at the Ministry of Culture, Maurice Fleuret, sent me a memo saying that the French owned more than four million musical instruments. Three quarters of these instruments lay deteriorating in cupboards, attics, and cellars before departing this life in dustbins and on rubbish tips. I couldn't help but lament their fate."

This memo became the catalyst for a worldwide movement that encourages people to enjoy "the sheer pleasure of playing."

“I was in France in 1982 when they had the first every Fête de la Musique," said Maheas. "The Ministry of Culture decided to create a platform for musicians to perform any where in the city and for people to come and see them. It was a huge success.” Originally, the Ministry asked for only 30 minutes of music, but people’s enthusiasm went well beyond that.

By 1986, the event had spread to 40 countries and in 1989, the Lincoln Center in New York celebrated the bicentennial of the French Revolution with concerts, but the festival as a neighborhood happening didn’t until 2007 when Berkeley, California native Aaron Friedman, a composer and saxophonist who had previously founded the Silent Majority Citizens Against Car Alarms, organized 560 free outdoor concerts in New York City after seeing the festival in Paris in 2006.

He had spent a year in Bordeaux, but unfortunately left France before the annual celebration. He decided to go back to visit friends in Paris, specifically to see, hear and experience Fête de la Musique in Paris.

"It was like being on the set of a musical comedy," he recalled in a recent telephone interview. He was amazed that “people are actually willing to close down a city on behalf of musicians… It wasn’t professional musicians being showcased by their record labels.”

He decided to bring it to New York as Make Music New York and last year there were 560 free outdoor concerts. “Unlike in France, all the concerts were all outdoors and clearly different from anything else taking over public spaces… some neighborhoods had performers on every block,” he said. 

This year Friedman said there are 760 performances in all five boroughs, including the entirety of Manhattan, on schedule as of the day of the interview. The Governors Island in New York Harbor will be used this year as a concert area for 80 punk rock bands so they can play as loudly as they want. He expects it to be more like France this year with whole streets blocked off since it is on a Saturday.

On the West Coast, the Laurel Village Association, a volunteer neighborhood association in the Laurel District of Oakland, CA, will be celebrating Fête for three years this June. Their third annual Summer Solstice Music Festival will be an official affiliate of Fête for the first time this year.

As for Make Music Pasadena, the musicians scheduled for the main stages range from home grown as the Pasadena Scots to international acts. Some had never heard of the Fête de la Musique.

According to Ed Reyes of The Little Ones, a local indie pop-rock band, he had vaguely heard about the Fête. “Isn’t there a similar thing to do in the Philippines?” Manila is an official affiliate of the Fête with 150 bands expected to perform this year. “It’s amazing,” he added, explaining that “at least in the US, music isn’t really celebrated.” His band will be performing in Old Pasadena.

Carla Azar of Autolux, a local alternative rock band, said, “I thought it was really unusual to have a concert where kids don’t have to pay” and had never heard of Fête. Autolux will also be performing in Old Pasadena.

Senon Williams of Dengue Fever, a local indie band that combines Cambodian pop music with psychedelic rock, commented that although he had never heard of the Fête, he wasn’t surprised that Pasadena should be the first city to welcome this celebration on the West Coast. “Pasadena is a little open-minded haven that embraces explorations into the arts.” Growing up locally, he commented that visiting Pasadena is like “going on vacation” and Dengue Fever will be taking a stay-cation, playing in the Playhouse district stage.

The bébé (young girl) rocker group, the Plastiscines, have already performed in California (at Coachella and appeared in a New York Times photo layout), and have been involved Fête before according to guitarist Marine Neuilly responding via email, “I think we played two times to celebrate Fête de la Musique ! Last year we went in St. Cyr L'école, in the suburbs of Paris where we live, to see friends playing for it. The year before, we supported Razorlight on a huge stage outside in Paris; it was really cool…The first gig we ever played to celebrate Fête de la Musique was in the street near St Michel in Paris. We played with the Second Sex, friends of us and it was really messy! People had to jump on the cars to see the gig; everyone got crazy and we played almost in the trench! Good times.

“We are looking forward to play this year in another country and another city! It’s gonna be the first time we won’t be in Paris to celebrate it, so we guess we'll have a lot of fun there in Pasadena!"

Fussible (aka Pepe Mogt) as part of the Tijuana-based Nortec Collective Presents Bostich + Fussible, has not only heard about the Fête, he’s been to one. Responding via email, he commented, “I actually performed in Paris as part of Fête de la Musique back in 2004 with Hiperboreal from Nortec Collective. Our show was sponsored by the local Mexican embassy – it was a really great day. Lots of fun! We played in the street and also at Fabela Chic – a local nightclub.”

Although he feels “it’s a really cool concept,” he’s not sure why it hasn’t come to Mexico, his home country. “I have heard some rumors about a Fête de la Musique happening in Mexico City. At one point, they had even invited me to perform a solo show just as ‘Fussible’ But it didn’t end up happening for whatever reason. I hope they eventually do it and invite us to play!“

Other countries in Latin America, such as Colombia and Argentina, are already official celebrants. Nortec Collective will be performing at the Playhouse District stage in Pasadena.

Through a casual mention of the festival while working on a joint project with various local organizations in Old Pasadena, Maheas brought the festival to Pasadena this year. She admitted to being disappointed when she found out that New York had already held a large citywide celebration spanning five boroughs. Yet the Pasadena event will be the first in Southern California. Maheas commented that the amateur nature of Make Music is the real emphasis of the celebration and that’s why the first act on the Alliance Française stage at Kendall Alley will be Lycee International de Los Angeles (LILA) Elementary School.

For more information go to the official international Web site. As DuPavillon commented about the first Fête, "All that was missing from this mammoth concert was a name, a date and a Prince Charming to awaken Sleeping Beauty," and maybe all that your community needs to join the over 100 countries and over 300 cities is a Prince with a guitar and not necessarily the one who recently played in Coachella.

Experience the Fête vicariously by watching the best videos mixed on Echos de la Fête.

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  • I miss this tradition a lot, I am glad it’s coming here:-)

  • Why wait? Start one in your neighborhood or city!

    And if you have tango music, invite me. 😉

  • Fabulous idea!