The Observer

La Fête de la Musique: How France’s Annual Musical Jamboree Enchanted the World

Amid doubts about how many people will turn out for the next round of Yellow Vests demonstrations, I can make one prediction with absolute certainty: Thousands will take to the streets of France on June 21, carrying nothing more than guitars, trumpets, drums, kazoos, and all sorts of music-making paraphernalia.
© Fabian Charaffi/Office du tourisme de Paris

They will be celebrating la Fête de la musique, an annual carnival-cum-concert fest marking the summer solstice. This year will see the 38th edition of the event, which started in France and quickly took the world by storm, eventually becoming World Music Day. It’s now as big in Noumea and New York as it is in its birthplace. In fact, more than 1,000 cities in 120 countries around the globe now celebrate the event, called Dünya Müzik Günü in Istanbul, Swieto Muzyki in Warsaw, Fiesta de la Música in Barcelona… Whatever the name, the watchword’s the same: Get out and make music (which, in French, is faites de la musique – a homophone of fête de la musique).

When I tell Americans that this annual musical jamboree began in France in 1982, many look at me askance. “So who started it? Charles Aznavour?” is a typical smart-aleck response. The answer to that question is surprising. Officially, la Fête de la musique was the brainchild of the then Culture Minister, who went by the un-French name of Jack Lang. The original idea, however, came from an American: The musician and conductor Joel Cohen, a producer for Radio France who, in 1976, invented the Saturnales music festivals to mark the summer and winter solstices. Jack Lang fine-tuned Cohen’s idea, so to speak, and launched the first Fête to coincide with the summer solstice of 1982. (Some wags suggest that June 21 was chosen because it’s the shortest night of the year, meaning that any caterwauling by amateur musos would be mercifully curtailed.) At the outset, the event was fairly low-key, with a handful of bands playing open-air gigs, a couple of orchestras at mid-sized concert halls, and a few would-be Bob Marleys or Eric Claptons. Interviewed on TV the day after the premiere, several professional musicians admitted that the evening had been fun but thought it was probably a flash in the pan. How wrong they were!

Lang’s invention had a profound effect on the French. While music was obviously part of everyday life, it had too often been confined to big auditoriums or official venues which, in many cases, were expensive, remote, or sterile. It was as if la Fête de la musique had unlocked a tidal wave of hidden talent and democratized music in a way the country had never seen before: La musique par tous, pour tous. It also gave established artists the chance to reach new audiences and, by the same token, brought different styles of music – raï, drumstep, merengue, soca, dub, and beyond – to unschooled but eager listeners. On a more mundane level, the fact that the concerts, gigs, and improvs were free, that local authorities allowed performances to take place in public spaces, and that media coverage was extensive and largely positive, meant that la Fête de la musique was built on broad and solid foundations. Just as important, in a metropolocentric country like France, the festivities took place not only in big cities but in towns and villages across the land. Within a few years, la Fête had become one of France’s biggest cultural events. It also had a knock-on effect, prompting the launch or revival of music festivals throughout the summer months, from Les Francofolies in La Rochelle to the Worldwide Festival in Sète, which are now firmly established and well-attended.

They say that emulation is the sincerest form of flattery, and la Fête de la musique is a textbook case in point. The first spinoffs were seen in France’s Francophone neighbors, Belgium and Switzerland, but other countries quickly followed suit, and today you can find similar events in places as far afield as China. In the U.S., Make Music New York got off the ground in 2007 at the instigation of composer and political activist Aaron Friedman, who had experienced la Fête first-hand while living in Paris. (Interestingly, MMNY has since launched another festival to mark the winter solstice, returning to Joel Cohen’s original format.)

So, with all this international recognition, why are some surprised to learn of the festival’s French origins? A simple answer might be that French music no longer registers strongly on the world’s pop-cultural radar. While it’s certainly true that classical composers like Debussy, Ravel, Berlioz, Bizet, and even Pierre Boulez have entered the musical pantheon, international recognition of popular French singers and musician seems to have stopped at Aznavour, Edith Piaf, and possibly Serge Gainsbourg. Nothing since then, apparently, has made the grade. According to the pundits, the epicenters of the music scene are Los Angeles, New York, and maybe London. Nevertheless, Paris is the center of world music. With influences from as far afield as the Maghreb, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South America, not to mention Central Europe, the scene is livelier, funkier, and more creative than almost anywhere else.

So, as this year’s Fête de la musique gets underway, there will certainly be tributes to the likes of Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Duke Ellington. Big-name orchestras will play under the baton of star conductors. And ordinary folk like me will crank out a few songs (though not too loudly, for the French believe that off-pitch vocals can trigger a rain shower). But there will also be a whole world of music on concert platforms, bandstands, club stages, as well as in village squares and on street corners, as people everywhere rally to the un-martial call of Faites de la musique!

Article published in the June 2019 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.