30 Ans Qu’on Fait la Fête

(Another installment in a series on Fête de la Musique worldwide)

It’s been hard not to harp on the cultural policy questions that are troubling the arts these days, especially when chatting with festival organizers in cities less concerned with permits and more concerned with playing than US cities can allow themselves to be. It isn’t news that the climate for the arts on this side of the pond is, well, bleak. And complicated. There’s former National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Bill Ivey calling for a more thorough and, importantly, present arts policy (an East Wing vs.West Wing thing, in his own words here) as current NEA Chairman Rocco Landsman stirs heated debates on the idea of supply and demand (read some of the fallout here and here). The NEA found itself on the chopping block earlier this year (cut, though not entirely, thankfully), as did state arts councils, some of which were eliminated entirely. Even Alec Baldwin can’t seem to make much headway on the Hill (for some comic relief, here he is on Letterman with what he really thinks about the whole Hill experience …) The list of available parks for this year’s Make Music New York is impressive, but you know it comes at a price.

It’s kind of a mess.

Meanwhile in Paris, unlike NYC, there’s no need for an official permit to play music on June 21. “Declaring” one’s intention to the French Ministry of Culture is sufficient and, if you forget or change your mind or are last-minute-inspired, no problem. Play anyways.  No one shuts you down. No one complains that the arts are getting in the way. And this has been going on for thirty years now. Thirty years.

Fête de la Musique celebrates its thirtieth festival in France this June 21, which is as much a cause for celebration there as it is cause for reflection here. Reagan was sworn in as President of the United States in 1981, the same year the idea of La Fête de la Musique was born (and it’s worth remembering how the arts fared under Reagan.)

What is it that made the Paris of 1981 such a different place from the New York of 1981? And how does that translate to the Fête, both in Paris and abroad? Is it a … cultural thing? Do we chalk it up to the Ministry of Culture? Could the Fête have come to be in a different context, a different country? Or, is it a uniquely French expression? And if it’s uniquely French, how is it that this June 21, 2011, the festival will be celebrated in more than 300 cities and 60 countries world-wide? (Joining the ranks this year: Chicago, Lisbon, Shanghai and Montreal.)

The why France is a big question. Too big for one conversation. So despite the policy questions knocking around in my head, let’s focus on the celebration, for now. How did the Fête come to be, anyways? (Mythical beginnings are always fun). I caught up with Sylvie Canal and David Millier, half of the staff charged with General Coordination of the Fête both in France and Internationally (yes, four people do all that work …), and asked them this very question (along with the why France question, though I wasn’t expecting an answer for that one).

Sylvie started with the beginning, and the first festival, in 1982: “There was a survey on amateur musicians in France, and in this survey the Ministry happened to learn that there were more than 4 million people who played music …” she began. “At the time, there was the new government that had arrived in France in 1981, and there was a new cultural policy, so the Fête was launched to emphasize this policy and to develop it. The idea was born inside the Ministry – it was the consular Jack Lang who had this idea to make a call to every amateur musician in France and tell them to gather in the streets with their instruments and have the biggest concert ever organized in the world. We had the help of the national radio; RadioFrance had a promotion spot where they told people to come into the streets at 8:30pm [on June 21] and to play until 9pm. In fact millions of people were in the street and they played not for half an hour but all night! It was a huge success.”

“For the second year, in 1983,” Sylvie continued, “it was more organized by the Ministry. In Paris especially there were so many musicians who wanted to take part in the event that the Ministry had to coordinate all these people. They had to organize the public space. I remember very well the second one. I was on the street listening. It was great; it was the biggest event I had ever seen!”

(David wasn’t around for the early festivals, but he remembers being a teenager, in the late 80s, and participating in the Fête for the first time: “it was a really good memory, there was this feeling of something special” he said.)

The ‘new government’ in 1981 was that of François Mitterrand, and he and Jack Lang had much to do with how the Fête took hold in the public imagination. As Sylvie put it, “when [the Fête] was first created, it was after many years of a right-wing government. When the left-wing and François Mitterrand came to the government there was like a feeling of freedom, that’s why I think it was so successful the first time. After that, the political reasons have disappeared and now the Fête is just a very popular event, a way of sharing music and sharing a very free day.”

Much can change in thirty years, especially in the political arena. And yet, despite subsequent presidents and policies, the Fête de la Musique has “become like a national day … The policy has changed but all the succeeding ministries have wanted to maintain La Fête because it is such a popular event and also a very good image for France outside France; none of them wanted to see the Fête disappear. The ministry is still supporting the Fête but it is a small budget for them. Not a big budget but a very, very big event.”

People and cultures change over time, too. Does the Fête still have that sense of freedom, of spontaneity, that it had in 1981?

“There are no barriers to La Fête in France. Every year we have 400 or 500 concerts in Paris, but there are all the others that we don’t know about it. People go out spontaneously and there are many concerts we don’t know about.” That impetus to take the streets, and to linger there, is still a defining characteristic of the festival. It’s Sylvie’s favorite part, to this day: “For me, my favorite moment is when it is very late in Paris and normally all the concerts should stop at 12:30 [am] and if we are hanging out in the street later on we can see many small concerts on the terraces of restaurants, and more. I like this moment particularly.”

Can you imagine millions of people playing all night in New York? NYC gets close, to be sure – Sylvie herself acknowledges that Make Music New York is looking more and more like Paris. But as veteran organizer Evan Hammer pointed out in a previous interview, and I can attest, the work that goes into making it “look” like Paris is significant. So how does the Fête stay Fête-like when celebrated outside France? And should it, even? And does France take the lead, here, as a bit of successful cultural diplomacy (which brings up more big questions, for another day)?

A good part of Sylvie and David’s job includes such international coordination. “At the beginning” explained Sylvie, “we worked a lot with the French cultural network – the French institutes, French embassies, Alliance Française. They were the port-parole, the promoters of the event. The Ministry sent a letter to all the Ministries of Culture all over the world to invite them to participate. Jack Lang also wrote to the mayors of big cities and so on. Now we don’t have to do this job because the cities are coming to us to ask how to take part. They come to Paris to see how it is going on and to talk to us, and then they organize it in their city.”

“We can give examples, or some basic advice” added David, “and we get the spirit of the Fête across, but then you have to let it go to the specificity of the city, of the national culture and work with existing networks.”

“The spirit is the same” Sylvie emphasized, “but it really is different everywhere because cities are so different.”

You know something’s big when it gets put on currency. In the US, looking at our currency would show a foreigner that we care about our history – presidents, states, monuments.

This year, the French 2€ coin will have … yes, La Fête. Incroyable!

(I say we aim for Make Music New York on metrocards, which are as good as currency here, to be sure.)

So, a tip of the hat to Mitterrand and Lang, and another to Sylvie and David and their Parisian staff; one to the French Consular Generals and their port-paroles, and another to Aaron Friedman and the folks here in New York. Whatever the reasons, and despite some considerable odds, 2011 is cause for celebration. Thirty years in France, five years in New York, and many more Fêtes to faire in the future.



(an aside)

fait: third person singular, present tense of the verb faire, meaning ‘to make’

— Faites de la musique: make music

fête: noun, meaning ‘festival’

— Fête de la musique:  music festival.

One pronunciation, two meanings. A play on words that makes it possible to export to non-French speaking lands. Clever.