Monday, February 23, 2009

Caribbean Music in Paris’ Metro (?!) : A Dreamy New Yorker’s Reality Check

I will begin this response by reminding my audience, as is my unintentional now-made-intentional habit every time, that I am a native New Yorker. As such, I grew up with an urban subway system. Gritty, dirty, and rat-infested as they are, they form the backbone to any large city. The subway was an everyday part of my existence commuting to school and around the city, so I saw all sorts of public space music. Performances ranged from Chinese guzheng to classical Western violinists, from Latin American wooden windpipes to hip hop that blared from boom boxes surrounded by somersaulting break-dancers in silver suits. Colorful, right? Diversity was assumed. New York is a melting pot and its subways performances are melting pots too.

But for some strange dreamy reason, I expected to hear nothing but accordion music in Parisian metros. Not just any type of accordion music, mind you, but accordion music just like Yann Tiersen’s compositions for the soundtrack for the movie Amelie. Maybe because I absolutely that movie and have watched it many times over, I have come to regard that and only that music as quintessentially Parisian public space / metro music.

Indeed, I lived happily in that illusion for quite a while. Before my arrival, I took care to upload the Amelie soundtrack on my iPod. The first thing I did when I arrived was drop off my bags at the hostel and immediately go out for a walk with my iPod. I wandered over to the Siene, crossed the bridge, and walked to Notre Dame, all while listening to that soundtrack. It was perfect. It was so… Paris. I was so excited. I could hardly believe my eyes and ears. It was a long anticipated dream come true. I was such a romantic.

Slowly, however, I realized that Paris is not a one-dimensional-accordion-music-everywhere city, but a multicultural and diverse city. Opera singers replaced accordion music in the metro. Ok, I said to myself, this is still quite European, I can still deal with this. I’ve certainly never seen opera singers in New York subways, so it’s different enough to still be “Paris”. Opera singers were then replaced by sad-looking violinists and somber-looking cellists. I do see them sometimes in New York, but not quite as often as other sorts of performers. So, I could still deal with that. It was still “Paris”.

Then, for this response, Aleema wanted to write about a Caribbean band that she kept seeing in Chatelet between Lines 1 and 4. We had been excited to write about metro music since literally Week 1, but had never talked about exactly what type of metro music. I didn’t have the heart/guts to push, “But why not do something more Parisian?” (a.k.a. accordion music! Like, duh!) After all, her group is also Paris. With that, my Parisian accordion dreams were shattered.

…It was a large group, the largest band I have seen in the Paris subways thus far. Music from the marimba, wooden flutes, and drums echoed off the tile walls, filling the metro hall with heady flavor. The musicians’ energy radiated onto the audience. I’m not knowledgeable enough to identify the exact genre- was it Caribbean but also with some Latin American influences? At any rate, it was all so vibrant and so alive, quite different from the sad violinists and lonely opera singers I have seen, whose music makes the metro seem empty rather than full! As I watched and listened, entranced, my thoughts began to wander. This music sounds like something I would hear in a big subway station in New York, such as Union Square, Grand Central, or Times Square. Then it struck me: wait, Chatelet is the Parisian equivalent of those stations -- it’s one of the biggest Metro/RER transfer stations in the city. Oh the parallels! Oh wait- did I just feel like I was back in New York City? Was I just, ever so slightly, kind of homesick?

Thus, this Caribbean band has led me full circle. For a brief moment I forgot that I was in Paris. That brief moment made me realized that Paris is more similar to New York and other cosmopolitan cities than I had wanted to believe. This is a theme Mark had mentioned in class, but only now do I fully understand what Mark meant.

I still have some more questions though. How far away can we really get from a world cosmopolitan culture then? How diverse is Paris, exactly? I’m still trying to figure this one out. Is it a melting pot just like New York is? No, it can’t be AS much as New York, for historical, political, and geographical reasons… and also because I still haven’t seen my hip-hop blaring boom boxes and somersaulting break-dancers in silver suits. When I do, maybe I will reconsider that New York statement.

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