March 27, 2009
We in the Anglophone world know and often regret that our close relatives across the Channel seem to possess a gene that lends their team performances an element of star-quality that seems to just flow effortlessly, when it works. This seems to be true in abundance when one encounters the part manic, part majestic efforts of this particular 3-man ensemble La Campagnie des Musiques à Ouir.
Described everywhere as multi-talented and multi-derivative, this band is not the first collective of musicians from France who in fact are proud to reflect the multiple diverse cultural influences that have permeated their homeland for many eons. To baby-boomer listeners it was probably Django Reinhardt, the Belgian gypsy refugee to France, whose virtuoso guitar music transcended boundaries and borders and who raised the international profile of this nation of energetic peoples. Playing with musicians of all nationalities and classes, Reinhardt and his Hot Club of France raised the French flag to the top of the mast of pan-European culture back in the 1930s. The Campagnie are reflecting the same multiple influences on their recent recording while posting their colors high up on the same mast.
This music obviously frustrates many with its disparities, lacking any overt continuity of development or color. It appears to jump from one tempo to another, one lead instrument to the next, one influence to the next. But beneath this scattered appearance there is an interplay among the trio that delights in conjuring up small glimpses of rhythm and pattern that are regularly traded among and elaborated by members. On this tour the permanent accordionist Alexandre Authelain was unavailable and was replaced by instrumental guitarist David Chevallier, bringing a more contemporary, even rock, sound through slightly processed 12-string acoustic and 7-string solid electric. Despite the lack of the archetypal Gallic squeezebox, founding members Denis Charolles and Fred Gastard, on percussive devices and various saxophones respectively, steer the company between the flights of the ultra-modern and the streaks of nostalgia that their repertoire hints towards.
It's a simple truism that all bands navigate between extremes of ancient and modern, but few if any nations seems to command this technique as adroitly as the French. Chevallier would be hunched over his fretboard working the flurry of fingers around scales too ephemeral to quite capture. Gastard opposite blasts his bass sax's tumbling riffs directly into the audience from his angled instrument, while bouncing from one leg to the other in his interaction with the rhythm. In the middle Charolles squats slightly askew to his kit, equally absorbed in the interplay between musicians, but constantly swapping between percussive implements like knitting needles or metal knives and plates from a wooden box atop his battering marching bass-drum, every one of which he seems equally familiar with. As well as playing a major compositional role he performs modest lyrics too, offering some lines from his drumstool, but towards the end of the evening advancing in front of the audience. In his arms is an up-turned metal watering-can played as an udu or shekere drum with which he delivers a near a capella song of Gaston Couté. The audience's modest appreciation of the tortuous text in no way impairs his enthusiasm, and the same could equally well be said for the music too.
Indeed there are glimpses through the chaos of clear intentions and tendencies that make this music more accessible than might ever think. The children's concert that same afternoon had started with Thelonius Monk's, "Epistrophy," which the young listeners received without batting an earlobe. The evening audience listened as enthusiastically to this musical spectacle, heavy with humor that flew far above the limitations that language might have otherwise imposed.