Placeless nostalgia for a primitive future
Marty Lipp talks with Dominic Cravic about
Les Primitifs du Futur
Can you be nostalgic for a place you've never been? On January 21, the 2007 edition of Globalfest took place at Webster Hall in New York City, and hosted several bands that recreate times and places that few if anyone in these parts ever experienced. In fact, the musicians themselves were never there. Still, they conjure up a spell strong enough to create a place you'd really want to be.
One of the featured bands was Les Primitifs du Futur, led by guitarist Dominic Cravic. Cravic is a French musician who was playing jazz and rock in the 1980s, but also loved bal-musette, a style born in poor Parisian districts in the 1880s. It then spread to the upper classes through the early 20th century. At first, the bourgeousie would go to bal-musette dancehalls as a kind of "slumming," which the proprietors sometimes indulged by staging mock police raids. The musette dancehalls swung to a variety of partner dances - waltzes, tangos, fox trots, as well as the risque hands-on-butts java style.
The older music, Cravic said, was from an era before big media and industrialization. "It has a perfume of a homemade music played for dance for ordinary people and some high-society members who liked to hang out with the 'milieu' [in the dancehalls], the hoodlums, pimps, et cetera."
"It's sure that something has been lost," Cravid added, "but no one can tell if things can reappear again. I always give the example of Manouche or Gypsy style á la Django Reinhardt: fifteen years ago, you could count the Manouche guitar players on both hands - some genuine old guys playing in some little cafes at the flea market and a few gadges [standard French guitarists who loved the music]. Today, it's a huge worldwide craze with a lot of festivals, clubs, an enormous production of albums of Gypsy music."
(Les primitifs at Globalfest, 2007)
In the 1960s, he said, "we had the arrival of our French version of pop rock 'n' roll: what they called Les Yeh Yeh. The musette style, like many other styles, was considered corny - oldie but not goodie - and was swept away. Added to that, accordion players - to resist the flood - started to play really corny. It took 25 years before audiences turned their ears again to what could be considered their own roots. And accordion is back again in the different French fields of music, even in rap or hiphop."
In 1985, he met a fellow nostalgist in Robert Crumb, the iconic American underground cartoonist who created the ubiquitous "Keep on Truckin'" poster and the character Mr. Natural. Crumb, who played mandolin and banjo, was a longtime fan of old jazz and blues.
Crumb and Cravic hunted down old 78s and found like-minded musicians to create Les Primitifs du Futur. They released an EP in 1986, then a full-length album in 1995. Now their 2000 album, World Musette, was reissued in North America in 2007.
"We like to play some songs close to the way they were played, to keep that tradition alive and we love that sound," Cravic said, "but what we prefer is writing new songs with a personal approach. It's like traveling through time. We love to create songs that present meetings of different cultures: an accordion player from Auvergne in the center of France playing along an Algerian oud player [as in] the song that gave its title to World Musette. Anyway, we think that there is more in common with the different musics of the world than differences."
The Primitifs are reverent without being too serious, swinging but always lovely; even Fay Lovsky's playing of the musical saw is hauntingly pretty despite its being a touch absurd, which might be a pretty good description of the band as a whole. - Marty Lipp
Photos by Marty Lipp, 2007
Read our 2000 review of World Musette
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