It was many, many moons ago when I first found out about the Fête de la Musique. We were in France together for the first time, pre-child, cruising the Dordogne and Lot valleys in Deborah’s old bottle-green ex-German border patrol Beetle and prospecting vaguely for houses with a fosse septique that cost no more than ₤15,000.
Wandering around Argentat, coveting the impossibly old houses with their fish-scale slate roofs, we wondered why Ella Fitzgerald was singing the Cole Porter songbook via a network of loudspeakers. It was the 21st June – that awful longest day after which the evenings start to diminish in a headlong rush towards winter – and Ella’s mood-indigo voice was helping to dispel my customary melancholia. What a nice place. How sweet and thoughtful of the municipal council to serenade the summer visitors in such a way.
Some time later, of course, we discovered that something similar was going on in just about every township in France. The Fête de la Musique is a laudable idea: an evening devoted to the celebration of music to mark the official beginning (of the end) of summer. It’s a time for semi-pros and enthusiastic amateurs to get out into the streets and show the world what they’re capable of. Sometimes it’s not very much, but at least they’re given the opportunity and a ready audience.
The last time we went en famille to Brive for the fête, the heavens opened and all the outdoor events were cancelled at the last minute. Crowds of people wandered the streets like refugees in search of a haven. You could almost smell the disappointment in the air. We treated ourselves to an ice cream and then made our way home. Thereafter, we’ve tended to go somewhere nearer to home.
This year, in spite of the rain forecast for the evening, I decided to give Brive a try once more. The girls couldn’t come with me, because they were too darned tired, what with the baccalaureate and the demands of clients. So I phoned da boyz and made my own arrangements. Just Dan and Moke and I. Three men in a car and then three men in a town, footloose and fancy-free, at liberty to cruise the streets in search of a good concert.
Rain never seemed remotely likely. The evening was balmy, the ‘Brivists’ were out in force and there was something musical going on everywhere you turned: big serious stages in the shopping plaza and outside the refurbished theatre, smaller stages by the Crédit Agricole and outside the Hôtel de Ville, and smaller concerts in cafés and squares and just about anywhere that people could congregate. It must have cost a packet and no doubt it was our exorbitant taxe foncière that was paying for it all – but I resisted the temptation to rant about the profligate use of public funds, because there wasn’t a hint of trouble anywhere and everything seemed so… so nice.
Brive is normally moribund once the shops shut and the workers go home. On this night, however, all the terraces and verandas of every bar and every restaurant were packed to the seams. It was a true café society: a template for a civilised urban community. No sooner had we settled down to eat a pasta supper at my daughter’s takeaway of choice, to the accompaniment of some acceptable blues played by two aging long-haired guys on acoustic guitars, than we bumped into more friends out on the prowl. Everyone was abroad. We stayed long enough to hear their rendition of J.J. Cale’s ‘Cocaine’ before wandering off to check out the main stage in the plaza. A four-piece rock band fronted by a pair of British ex-pats kept trying to whip up applause at the end of each lacklustre number – which didn’t strike us as quite the done thing. We bought ourselves a lager at the beer tent and then sauntered off to the big stage outside the theatre, where frustratingly we caught the tail end of a set by a very competent Afro-reggae band.
On the way to the town hall, we passed a small crowd gathered around a young woman belting out ‘The Eye of the Tiger’ over a backing track. Dan, I think, was ready to linger, but I explained that it was one of those songs – like Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ – that simply don’t agree with me. All that emotional overdrive and all those fatiguing crescendos wear me out. He said that he was disappointed in me and we moved on.
Outside the Hôtel de Ville, we caught the tail end of a rousing orchestral concert. A man in black conducted his musicians in black with enough gusto and joy to suggest that this concert marked the culmination of at least six months of hard work. It was lovely to witness such unity of purpose for such common good. I wanted to shake his hand, but why single out one when there were thirty or more equally deserving ones to clasp?
Night was falling by now and next up was a reggae band round by the back of the bank. The lights on the stage made it look as if it had been raining. This time we were there for the beginning of the set and able to secure pole position right by the stage. I studied the drummer, transfixed by the ease with which he kept time. The reggae ‘riddim’ with its disconcerting emphasis on the third beat of four always seems to me one of the most difficult to play. It wasn’t fair. Even in my wildest of dreams, I’d never manage it – and yet he made it look so easy. As if coordinating your hands weren’t hard enough, there are also two feet to think about: one to beat the bass drum, the other to work the hi-hat. The combination must do your brain in. No wonder the great Sly Dunbar now wears glasses.
Finally, we ended up at a swish new reconditioned restaurant near The Daughter’s school. Moke’s brother-in-law’s band was well into its second set when we sat down and ordered a coffee. I don’t normally drink coffee after midday, let alone round midnight. The consequences could be disastrous, but this was an annual fête and I was living dangerously. The trio – known to friends and family as The Three Steves until the three guys named Steve change their name, as mooted, to the Stevareenos – were going through their customary repertoire of R&B from the ‘50s and early ‘60s. The diners were finishing off their meals by now, but the waiters were still busy attending to hangers-on and late arrivals like us. Even after midnight passed, I still had sufficient wits about me to tell a Telecaster from a Stratocaster. It’s reassuring to realise that, even at my great age, I can still stay up late. After their set, the three Steves came to join us for a chat before packing up their gear. And still we stayed, determined to squeeze the last drop of sociability from the feast of music.