France post-November 13: Musicians shocked but defiant

26 November 2015


The massacre at the Bataclan concert hall spreads fear and generates financial losses but also determination to carry on. Daniel Brown reports from Paris two weeks after the attacks

“Vive la musique, vive la liberté, vive la France, and vive EODM.”

Eagles of Death Metal

By what eerie twist of fate did the three assaillants launch their massacre in the renowned Paris concert hall Bataclan as the Californian band Eagles of Death Metal (EODM) were ratcheting up their hit song Kiss the Devil?

Who’ll love the Devil?
Who’ll sing his song?
I will live the Devil
and sing his song

Those concluding lyrics belted out by lead singer Jesse Hughes are words the 1,500 spectators never heard as band and Parisians fled the bullets and 90 spectators perished in two murderous hours.

Brandishing their trademark mix of blues rock-pop, humour and irreverency, EODM seemed to fit everything the Islamic State publicly abhor.

In the communiqué IS transmitted on 14 November, via Twitter, they wrote: “[The attackers targetted] the Bataclan Conference Center (sic.), where hundreds of apostates had gathered in a profligate prostitution party. This attack,” the communiqué concluded chillingly, “is the first of the storm and a warning to those who wish to learn.”

Two weeks after IS’s coordinated blitz against the French capital, resulting in almost 500 people dead and wounded, the country’s population remains in a state of shock.

The fear and tension have been fed by a state of emergency extended to three months by the National Assembly on 18 November 2015. This allows for searches without judicial warrants, the arming of municipal policemen, house arrests virtually at will and aggressive questioning of suspects. Within five days, there had been over 1,000 searches, 140 interrogations and 117 arrests.

551 of the 558 parliamentarians voted in these measures. One of the six dissenting voices, Isabelle Attard, said the vote poses a “danger to democracy”.

“Since Friday evening,” she said, “our police forces and intelligence can cast a wide net. And inevitably they are catching innocent people in the middle.”

The Parliamentarian from Calvados warned: “We have a tendency to transform temporary measures like these into permanent ones. During the Algerian war, the Constitution was also modified, in 1962, and it’s not changed since. And we still suffer from the consequences. What do I criticise the government and the president most for? Well, instead of putting aside their emotion they resort to demogaguery by pitting fear against fear… I’m ashamed of my fellow politicians, I’m living days that are totally surrealistic.”

Attard’s anxiety grew after president François Hollande’s proposed in Versailles’ Senate to strip citizens with dual nationality of their French citizenship and to reform the Constitution.

Musician: ‘Interpol positive’
The abuses Attard warned against are already being reported. (See, for example, Le Monde and New York Times). And artists are not being spared. One of music’s most distinguished trumpet players, the French-Lebanese artist Ibrahim Maalouf went from paying homage on prime-time television to the victims of the Paris attacks, to being aggressively questioned by French police and customs officers. His 16 November performance on Canal Plus reflected his profound conviction that the attack goes way beyond the Bataclan butchery:

“The gunmen hit a certain joie de vivre à la française,” he explains to me over the phone. “They went after people enjoying themselves, a mixed crowd revelling in Paris’ nocturnal life. The terrorists are the bitter kind, who’ve never been able to integrate. It’s transformed them into criminal monsters.”

On his way to promote a sold-out concert scheduled for 17 November at the Barbican in London, Maalouf discovered he was ‘Interpol Positive’. The 35-year-old’s passport was confiscated and he was unable to take his Eurostar for a day of promotion.

The next day, customs officer tried to force him off the train before Maalouf was able to reason them into letting him stay onboard and perform in front of 2,000 people.

In a long exchange with Freemuse, the trumpetter plays down the ‘incident’. “We’re in a state of emergency, it’s natural that they check up on people with unusual profiles like myself: born in Beirut, travelling the world, including to countries which are troubled. I just was a victim of over-zealous officials, especially the customs representatives,” Maalouf says.

But what does ‘Interpol positive’ – a term that rhymes eerily with ‘HIV positive’ – mean?

“Well, I’ve since discovered it’s for major criminals or people who’ve lost their passports or had them stolen. That’s where it’s baffling. They said my passport had been invalidated since 2012, but I’ve been using it nonstop in the past three years, no problem. It’s valid until 2017 but now I’ve had to apply for a new one. Maybe it’s a technique to limit trips abroad of people with a “risky” profile…”

Maalouf pauses. “I don’t mind being on their list, or being frisked in airports, that’s okay, I’m used to it, I’ve had that treatment elsewhere for years. But I won’t accept this excessive behaviour by the French customs people. That’s why I spoke out to say: ‘Watch out!’ I was telling them, ‘we’re also keeping an eye out on you.’ France is in a fragile state just now but that doesn’t mean you can put everyone in the same bag.”

The Paris-based artist is the nephew of one of the greatest contemporary writers in the French language, Amin Maalouf. Did he imagine his uncle was also ‘Interpol positive’?

“I really can’t say, but he could well be. I’m constantly re-reading an extract of one of his books ‘Identités meurtrières’ these days. He wrote it in 1998 but it could have been published today. It’s so premonitory and scary, showing how people marginalised and humiliated in our western societies go to extremes to seek revenge. And then you see a how it all descends into war, and parties like the Front National come to power.”

As of writing, Ibrahim Maalouf’s Facebook posting of the extract has reaped close to 26,000 likes and been shared over 12,500 times.



Paris venues hit
France’s state of emergency and new police measures have meant the cancellation or postponement of dozens of concerts and sporting events. They have forced all major cultural and sporting venues to invest heavily in new and costly security measures.

“This will cost us, um,… hold on, let me work this out…”

A long silence as Lili Fisher, deputy director of the Zenith concert hall calculates the price tag that extra security will mean for a venue with a capacity of 6,238 people. She comes back: “Over a year, that’s an extra 700,000€ just for us. So what the government is offering to cover these extra expenses, 4 million euros, for every cultural venue in Paris, is a drop in the ocean.”

However, Fisher is quick to insist this “drop” is vital, both symbolically and as a way of keeping music venues afloat until the end of 2015.

“It’s over a longer period that we’ll see how resilient the French public is in going to concerts again.”

Fisher refers back to the Charlie Hebdo murders of January. “To begin with, there was a real drop, people needed to take stock, gather strength. Then they all came back in a sort of sustained surge, we had a very good year in terms of attendance. So, only time will tell after this latest devastating blow.”

A few days after our exchange, the major trade union for the country’s venues, Prodiss issued a public call for 50 million euros in government aid to compensate lost revenue and growing security needs. The communiqué applauded the emergency funds provided by the Ministry of Culture but insisted the shock to the sector needed “a wide-ranging support plan to attenuate the impact of the attacks.”

Renaud Barillet does not hide his establishment’s fragility after the attacks. His Bellevilloise concert venue was born in the aftermath of the Commune and the bloodbath that cost the lives of 10,000 Parisians in the 1870s. Its reputation as a cultural bastion for independent artists and musicians has been carefully nurtured by Barillet and his two fellow-investors.

Since they bought the huge northeast Paris venue in 2006, they have transformed it into one of the capital’s most endearing multiple-activity poles.

“I won’t pretend it’s going to be easy to overcome this week of lost revenue,” Barillet explains. “The Jazz ‘n’ Klezmer festival decided on Sunday [15 November 2015] to cancel its shows with us, Carmen Consoli, the great Sicilian singer also felt it was too close to the tragedy and pulled out. We also had to drop Gilles Peterson’s show.”

It’s all so contradictory,” he pursues: “We felt the pain of this catastrophic massacre at the Bataclan, almost as if it had been us, we’d be next on their target-list. We stand for everything they abhor, it’s in the very nature of our make-up: this is a place of experimentation, debate, cultural resistance, and that dictates our programming. I’m not only talking about our concerts but also the debates, exhibitions, cinema, theatre plays we host. So there was an initial moment of panic.”

Barillet pauses.

“That didn’t last to long. Then, the feeling of having to fight back swept through the team. Two days after the killings we opened our photo-documentary exhibition and kept our scheduled debate on freedom of expression. On se sert les couilles, as we say rather crudely – we hold tight, we’re not prepared to let fear dictate our reaction. If I want to schedule a controversial artist, or a band from Israel, I will not hesitate.”

Barillet’s vision appears an accurate barometre of general feeling among Paris’ venues. The 42-year-old currently presides the Musique Actuelle de Paris network MAP, representing 30 of the city’s cultural establishments and hundreds of owners and artists.

“Our members have seen a see-saw reaction from audience turn-out. And heightening security in our venues is a major challenge. Body searches are now imposed, some are installing CCTV cameras, we have to search all bags systematically now. Some are doubling the personnel to safeguard the venues. But it will pass. I always think of the saying coined by Graham Greene, something like ‘Hatred is just a deficit of culture’. And our role here is to bring the culture from the streets or even gutters into the public eye.”

French musicians: shocked but defiant
In the aftermath of the killings, musicians appeared to grasp at sayings and history to strengthen their resolve. Sapho performed at the Bataclan three times in her long career as a vocalist. The French-Moroccan artist still appeared shaken in her beautiful old apartment near the Seine river.

“I like to quote what Antoine Leiris wrote in a letter after his wife was killed in the Bataclan attack: “Friday night you took an exceptional life,” he wrote, “but you will not have my hatred. Responding with hatred and anger is falling victim to the same ignorance and hatred that has made you what you are.”

“Leiris is right,” continues the singer who has released 16 albums in her long career. “These are young monsters who killed with no distinction of race, creed or background. Contrary to what happened at Charlie Hebdo where they murdered symbols, this time all of France was attacked.”


Two days after the assault, Sapho performed John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ in front of the Bataclan. She sang it in English and Arabic.

“As a French citizen of Moroccan-Jewish origin, I had to do something,” she says with passion. “This was an attack on music itself because it’s such a strong form of expression. Terrorists are terrified by music because it’s so strong. It can stop young people from joining their crazy projects.”

Reflections of a Syrian-French rapper
Ever since he visited Libya as a journalist in 2011, Ronan Houssein has been acutely aware of the terrible impact of war on civil society and how it can transform people into war machines. His short stay there changed his life, he says. In the past four years, he has devoted his musical career to slams and raps which espouse his ‘Declaration of Soul Rights’ (‘La déclaration des droits de l’âme’ is the more poetic original).

Not surprising then, that on that infamous Friday night, the French-Syrian rapper immediately recognised the rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire as he sat enjoying a drink in the Pouya Cultural Centre. He was only a stone’s throw from where the carnage began, next to the Hôpital Saint-Louis.

“A man staggered into the café, he’d been hit at one of the bars, and he warned us gunmen were on the rampage. We brought down the café’s iron shutters and stayed holed up there for several hours, following the events as best we could.”

How did he react now to the Paris carnage?

“You know, it’s been four years that I’ve been reflecting on how art can fight obscurantist beliefs. These attacks have just amplified my own convictions. By coincidence I am releasing the first song from an EP project called ‘Paris New York Damas’, on 25 November 2015. This project distills my beliefs, it defends the cultural identities I’ve inherited.”

The first of the EP tracks to come out is ‘The World is Yours’. It is released by Apple Music Connect. The song can be seen on Youtube and Hussein’s own website. It has been supplemented by recent pictures he added of Paris, post-13 November – which are the pictures illustrating this article.

Ronan Houssein
Ronan Houssein

“I’m very attached to my double-identity, Syrian and French,” the soft-spoken poet pursues, “and I hope to preserve what is most beautiful in both. It boils down to a battle between two poles, culture and hatred, a hatred born of people who have lost touch with their own community. We have to work on the parents, education, institutions. It will take a long time.”

Did the young rapper think musicians might yield to the temptation of self-censorship to avoid the harder questions posed by the 13 November attacks?

“Since these debates aren’t new to me, I’ve often asked myself that, this question of attenuating my lyrics to avoid brushing people up the wrong way,” Houssein answers firmly. “I hope people are aware it’s a social problem and that much of the youth has been abandoned by the authorities to sort things out by themselves. Politicians have lost touch with the base of this country and we have to say things upfront. So I’ll fight against censorship, especially self-censorship.”

Temple of culture
Malian composer Cheick Tidiane Seck was a spectator at the Bataclan… the day before the massacre. The keyboard wizard who has spent 30 years in self-imposed exile in the French capital was enjoying a concert by Saint Germain in what he calls “the great Temple of Culture in Paris”.

A day later, it was his manager Danielle Krivokuca who found herself on the balcony, this time for the EODM gig. “She survived somehow, but doesn’t want to talk about it. Can you blame her? What a slaughter.”

“They hit the epicentre of musical life in the 11th arrondissement,” Seck pursues. “The Bataclan is a symbol of alternative scene in the capital, open to world music. I used to live just behind it. I played several concerts there, with Coumba Sidibe, Oumou Sangaré, Dee Dee Bridgewater. But also concerts for the homeless, or against racism.”

Cheick Tidiane Seck

The 62-year-old multi-instrumentalist has played alongside some of the greatest artists of recent years – Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Cliff, Carlos Santana, Joe Zawinul, Hank Jones and Salif Keita, with whom he has re-united to bring back Les Ambassadeurs. However, the Paris attacks have made him feel more fragile, and he insists it will hit artists of all stature and notoriety.

“I’m saying yes to all propositions. I’m playing the small clubs Gibus and Petit Bain at the end of the week. It’s not only important because everyone is cutting back on their budgets, but it’s a way of not panicking. The more concerts bring people back together, the better we’ll all feel. Meanwhile, us composers have to create a sacred union, I’m going to compose something to bring us together. We have to show unity and also fight those who are mixing everything up, blaming it on Islam and all that nonsense. It’s getting out-of-hand on the Internet.”

Later that day, Seck the globetrotter sets off for Anglet in the southwest corner of France where Salif Keita and the Ambassadeurs are to dedicate a concert to the victims of the Bamako massacre which has once again devastated the pianist’s homeland.

“It’s all the same, Mali, France, Lebanon – the same struggle between intolerance and enlightenment. Music is at the heart of it all, so we can’t give up, n’est-ce pas, guerrier?”

Passports to understanding the Other
Over the years, few writers have fought the clichés and prejudices Seck referred to with more erudiction and tenacious passion than Frank Tenaille. Back in 1990, this music specialist based in Montpellier founded the Zone Franche association uniting around 200 world music structures in Europe.

Three days after the Paris attacks, Tenaille issued a powerful rallying-cry to his fellow-professionals, called ‘Génération Bataclan’. It is worth quoting at length:

“Musics (sic) are vehicles for emotions, for personal psychology and collective pleasure, for opening out, for relationships that are as sacred as they are profane, within rituals or festivals. These green totalitarian individuals want all this eliminated, physically if possible (…) Faced with this apocalyptic millenarianism, the actors in world music have an over-riding responsibility: they must defend (in concert halls, festivals, acts, on-the-field mediation, popular education, international exchanges) the diversity of cultural expressions and the polyphony of their musical languages, but also the universal values that are part-and-parcel of these values.”

“I had to write something fast, yet go beyond the binary discourse polluting our airwaves,” he explains to me earnestly from his home in southwest France. “We have to manipulate the complexity of our multiple identities and we do this in the field of world music. We have to impose it as a public debate, it goes well beyond music. But the Zone Franche’s founding charter, written back in 1990, has the kernels of this debate.”

On 13 November, Tenaille was in Rabat for the Visa for Music gathering. This is a nascent platform for musical exchanges between Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle-East. He goes on to write: “We (the participants) shared with (each other) the conviction that there could be no compromise on our pluralistic points-of-view, on our heritage which defended hard-earned liberties, on the kind of society we want in which music is one of the passports to understanding the Other.”

I ask him why music-lovers constitute such bridges.

“Music listeners are receptacles. When you are listening you are distilling your own multifarious roots and history. And this combustion goes against everything these young kamikazes believe in. At times, it is a profane and iconoclastic mixture, at others it brings you closer to the divine spirits. That is a ‘religion’ they can never destroy.”

Daniel Brown is a journalist based in France and Vice-chair of Freemuse.


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