Now is the season of our music festivals, made glorious by this sun of July...
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: our French brethren and sisteren, often so modest and reserved at parties, unable to shake off the shackles of ‘correct’ behaviour, it might appear, except when behind the wheel of an automobile, do make exceedingly good audiences at music concerts.
And so it transpired again this summer. The end of July is the time here when local festivals normally clash. Perhaps the organisers of Africajarc and the Souillac jazz festival finally realised that this is a shame and that a percentage of their audience might wish to attend both. Perhaps they conferred and collectively bargained. Thus it came to pass that jazz and African music were served up on separate weekends in 2013.
Souillac on the Dordogne, pronounced approximately Swee-yack rather than the Solly-ack or something daft they once managed on one of those TV shows about buying property abroad, is an unprepossessing place. When the tourists aren’t here – for 10 months of the year – it exudes abandonment, like a local Detroit. But every year at about this time, a modest four-day jazz festival pumps the deserted town full of adrenaline. The weather is always balmy and the restaurants of the medieval quarter spill onto the street, packed with diners, busily eating and drinking Souillac’s fragile economy temporarily back into the black.
It all takes place in the vicinity of Souillac’s one incontrovertible treasure: an abbey originally conceived as a monastery, which dates back many centuries before Bunny Bolden supposedly invented jayazz. Me and the missus, we like to don our glad-rags and strut our funky stuff on the headline evening each year. Everything runs like clockwork and, while you wait for the concert to start on time, you get to sit in the place behind the abbey and watch its current residents, the swifts, dart and dive in search of insects to take back to their nests somewhere under the building’s extraordinary roof.
When night falls imperceptibly, the moon pops up over the perimeter and the lighting technicians’ filters create a lightshow worthy of the Tate Modern on the white stone walls of the abbey and the adjoining college of music. If the music’s as good as the ambience, it’s a bonus. This year, the young Cuban jazz pianist, Roberto Fonseca, and his sextet of bass, drums, percussion, guitar and Malian kora served music to make the spirit soar like the swifts. The kora for those who have never heard this heavenly instrument is a kind of West African harp that looks a little like a sitar. For aficionados of the jazz piano, young Senor Fonseca – a charming individual with a fine hat and a quirky French accent – plays like the immaculate conception of Hilton Ruiz, Chucho Valdes and Ahmad Jamal. The band were as tight as the lid of a vacuum-sealed jam jar and it was, we agreed in the car afterwards, one of the finest concerts ever witnessed in decades of combined concert-going.
However… what never ceases to surprise the royal ‘us’ is just how vocal and demonstrative a French audience can be. By the second number there was a palpable bond between audience and performer. During a piano solo, when he quoted from ‘Besame Mucho’, the audience – much to Fonseca’s evident delight – burst into a spontaneous rendition of the classic. A heartfelt and noisy standing ovation was inevitable.
On Friday evening, my friend Moke and I made the pilgrimage south to Cajarc for more kora. A whole evening and early morning, in fact, dedicated to the stirring music of Mali.
If France’s imperial history means that the emphasis of the four-day Africajarc festival tends to be on north and west Africa, never mind: the streets are lined by the stalls of an authentic and exotic enough market, and the air resounds with the thumping of djembés. In looking for a barquette of chips to fuel the marathon ahead of us, I bumped into the architect of Maison Sampson for the second year running. Monsieur Gilles Faltrept of Figeac, renowned for his plaited beaded beard, appalling teeth and the obscure cartoons that arrive occasionally by e-mail, complimented me on my sunglasses.
The Africajarc arena is a plot of otherwise unused ground between the former railway station and the river Lot. It accommodates the multitudes easily but uncomfortably. Either you stand in front of the stage (and wave your arms in the air like you just don’t care) or you sit on the precipitous slope and try to stop yourself from sliding down. It’s a good job that I love African music so much and can use my Songlines connection to blag a free press pass.
This year I brought with me an old blanket largely allocated to the dog and a pensioned-off pillow. We found a spot with some other friends on some higher ground where the slope is gentler, just underneath a few rows of occupied benches that Véronique dubbed ‘the tribune’. And there we sat to listen to a Malian poet, to watch short films made by students from Bamako, to listen to the irritating banter of the co-presenters (a colourful version of Ant and Dec), and to watch the long succession of acts: a Touareg vocal group from the Sahara, specialising in those amazing blood-curdling yodel-shrieks; Pedro Kouyaté, a kora player with the gruffest singing voice known to man; the kora maestro, Ballaké Sissoko, backed by a group of two acoustic guitars and a simply wonderful balofon (wooden vibes) player; the extraordinary actress, dancer and singer, Fatoumata Diawara, the undoubted star of the show; and Mamani Keita, who had the unenviable task of following ‘Fatou’.
By the time Ms. Keita came on, looking incongruously like someone who might have just made a guest appearance in Coronation Street, there were spare seats to be had in the tribune. From up there, you can see the whole stage and peep over the perimeter fence to see the river itself. It was past two by this stage and, after four of Mamani’s numbers, we decided to call it a night. We trudged off for the car. Being a creature of habit, I leave it in the same spot every year, primed for a rapid exit.
They were still there at the front of the stage, bobbing about and waving their arms in the air like they just didn’t care that it was way past their bedtime. French audiences, eh? Sacré bleu! You gotta hand it to 'em.