Paris, the city of lights. Many things come to mind when I think of Paris: baguettes, crepes and croissants. Wine and brie. Cafés and boulangeries. The Eiffel Tower. The Louvre. The Arc de Triomphe. Monuments and landmarks and museums.
And, now, the blues.
There’s a square (a circle, actually) in Paris called Place de la Bastille. The square marks the location of the site of the Bastille prison. The prison was used by the kings of the ancien régime to punish dissenters. If you disagreed with the king, you likely ended up in the Bastille prison. No judge, no jury. You were carried off straight to Bastille prison. Such was the way of things under the old French monarchies.
In the 18th century, the commoners learned to read and they learned of this new style of government called a democracy, where powers were given to everyday folk like themselves. Enlightened, they became unsatisfied with the oppressive monarchies that they’d suffered under for so long. On July 14, 1789, the commoners stormed the Bastille prison and freed its prisoners as a symbolic gesture of power and a need for change. That day is now known as Bastille Day and it is the French equivalent to our Independence Day.
Just up the street from Place de la Bastille is a much more modest monument, a monument that only I know about. There’s no obelisk, no arch. Just a neon sign of a face stylized like bad 80s art. The sign hangs over the entrance to L’Angora, a French bar. It marks the spot where I later overcame my fears, prejudices and anxieties about Paris and began to relax and enjoy my time there. But as I walked towards L’Angora with my guitar strapped to my back* and my wife Pam at my side, I wish I could say that I was ready to storm L’Angora just like the commoners did just a block south. But I can’t say that. I was a nervous wreck.
I’m an ignorant American. I’d never left the states except to visit the U.S. Virgin Islands. Everything I knew about France was from TV, movies and, worst of all, friends and family who also have not been to France. So, I had the typical preconception that the French were rude, that they were impatient with those who spoke French poorly and that they didn’t like Americans. These were the thoughts that were running through my mind as I walked into L’Angora. Not only would I have to talk with these people, I was about to play music with the most imperfect of all strangers. They were French strangers.
I was going to play the blues at a blues jam in Paris.
Pam and I entered L’Angora and found an empty table near the stage. The chairs were mismatched, the hardwood floor had not been refinished in decades and the tables were wobbly. Apparently, no matter where you are in the world, blues jams are held in dive bars. Just my style. I was beginning to feel more comfortable already.
We spotted a tall French man wearing a trilby and the air of authority and we approached him. As was typical, Pam started the conversation. Her French is much better than mine.
“Bonjour. Nous sommes ici pour le blues jam.” (“Hello. We are here for the blues jam.”)
“Ouais,” the Frenchman responded with a smile and a glint of recognition. Her French sounded distinctly American. “Parlez-vous anglais?”
“Yes, thank you. I’m Pam.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Jean-Luc. Where are you from?”
“Baltimore, Maryland, United States. Near Washington, D.C.,” Pam said.
“Ah, d’accord” (“Ah, okay”) Jean-Luc slipped back into French for a moment. “I see you have a guitar.”
“Yes, I’d like to play. Is that alright? I don’t sing and I don’t have an amplifier.”
“Of course!” Jean-Luc grinned. “What kind of blues do you know?”
“All of it, I think, unless there’s a Paris style that I’m not aware of.”
“Non, we play American and British blues.” Jean-Luc, like many Parisians, knows English very well, but always says “no” with a distinctive nasal conclusion.
“Great! So, is there a list that I have to put my name on?”
“Non, I have it up here.” He tapped his temple with his finger. “Earle, right?”
“Yes, thanks so much!”
Pam and I went back to our seats and watched the guys set up the gear for the jam. We were very early. Pam offered to go to the bar and get us the beer. I say “the” beer because there was one unlabeled tap of beer. Paris is more of a wine city and we are beer people, so we had no choice in the matter: we were going to drink mystery beer.
For the next hour, Pam and I watched and chatted about the people trickling in to the bar. We were clearly the only tourists in the place. I guess blues jams in dive bars don’t make it into Rick Steves’ guidebooks. Everyone we saw was warm, friendly and happy to be spending a Sunday evening at the bar listening to music. They greeted each other with “faire la bise,” the French act of air-kissing an acquaintance’s cheeks. Besides that, these weren’t the French people that I imagined I would meet. They didn’t scowl. They weren’t aloof. They weren’t uber chic. They wore jeans. One dude had sideburns. They laughed and smiled. They were just like the people I’d met at countless blues jams back home, except they spoke French.
The host band, which included Jean-Luc, began their opening set with “Hoochie Coochie Man,” a Muddy Waters tune. They sounded great. They didn’t sound like a French band trying, but failing, to capture the true essence of the blues, as I thought they might. They sounded like any American blues band playing a Muddy Waters tune. I know that sounds elitist, but I’m just being honest. I wondered how well the the blues would be played in Paris. I got my answer: just like home.
Well, not exactly. But I can’t blame the French musicians any more than they could blame me for my poor French pronunciations. See, the French never pronounce the letter “H.” So when they were supposed to sing, “Well, you know I’m the hoochie-coochie man …” it sounded like, “Well, you know I’m the oochie-coochie man …” But unlike their treatment of the burger, this French-ification of an American icon was not only palatable, but downright charming.
After the host band’s opening set, my name was called along with several others. I grabbed my guitar and plugged it into an amp in the corner at Jean-Luc’s direction. After tuning up and turning my gaze to the other guest musicians, I was greeted by a friendly grin from the bass player. He introduced himself as Sylvain. He spoke in English right from the start; he could just tell I was American. All Parisians could tell, and I’m still not sure how.
After everyone was situated, Jean-Luc told the band (first in French, than in English to me) that the first song was actually not a 12-bar blues, but rather a Bob Dylan song. He reassured us that it was easy to learn the chord changes and began explaining the chord changes in solfège. The French use “Do-Ré-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Si-Do” for their notes, not “C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C.”
This is one time that being a worry-wart and a planner a paid off. A few days before the jam I researched musical words en français to be sure that I wouldn’t be caught unaware of some French musical vernacular that I wouldn’t understand. So when Jean-Luc explained that the first chord was “Sol” I felt a tinge of pride that I knew that Sol was G. I didn’t even need the cheat sheet that I tucked into my breast pocket.
I always thought music was a universal language, and it is. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t local dialects. I’m glad I checked.
Once I got past the unexpected language barrier, I started to groove. The music was familiar and comfortable, like my bed back home in Baltimore. I began to relax and play. With a mind now clear of anxieties, I had a chance to look around and take in everything happening around me. I saw Sylvain nodding his head in time with the beat and Jean-Luc growling into the microphone, “You ain’t nothing but a ‘ound dog.” I saw the crowd clapping along, hootin’ and hollerin’. I suddenly felt grateful. Grateful for everything that made that moment what it was. Grateful for the opportunities given to me by my parents to learn and to grow. Grateful for the support of my wife when I decided I wanted to teach guitar for a living. Grateful for the means to save enough money to go to Paris. Grateful for the encouragement of my wife to trying something outside of my comfort zone. And most of all, grateful to be wrong. Wrong about the people of Paris.
As I played music with these fleeting new friends of mine, I realized that just a few short days before, I would have considered this moment an impossibility. No. Rather, I wouldn’t have considered it at all. I’m playing the blues in a Paris dive bar and having the time of my life. Who knew this could ever happen to a Dundalk boy like me?
When I finished my three song set, Jean-Luc introduced the guest musicians to the crowd. “À la guitare, de Baltimore, U.S.A.: Earle!” I shook some hands, said “merci” to the other musicians and found my seat next to Pam. I was playing it cool, but I was incredibly happy. An amazing experience.
We sat and watched the other musicians play. There was one particularly memorable saxophone player who would gesticulate wildly when he wasn’t playing a solo and jump up and down when he was. He was a character. There was nothing chic, hip or aloof about this guy. Just your average crazy blues jammer.
I was proud to see American culture celebrated in a city that has so much of its own culture to be proud of. Pam remarked as we leaned back into our creaky chairs and scanned the crowd around us that this was the most comfortable she’d felt since arriving in Paris. I agreed. It was just like home.
Paris is a beautiful city. It is so beautiful that its beauty can be intimidating to an outsider. Do I belong in such a pristine place? I’m just a Baltimore kid. The blues jam offered a different look at Paris. We could see that Paris is not just a picturesque postcard waiting to happen. That if you know where to look, you can find the lived-in Paris where the wood is worn and cushions are torn. These little imperfections make it approachable. Much like the blues itself, where the more perfectly you play it, the worse you sound. The beauty is in the passion and the flaws that it brings.
After a long night, Pam and I left L’Angora and stepped out onto the street, under the neon sign of the face. We looked south, towards Place de la Bastille, then north towards our Metro station, and started walking. I turned and looked at my monument one last time.
As I stood on the subway train, heading back to our rental apartment with one hand gripping the metal handle still warm from the last Parisian passenger who used it, I could feel my ignorance eroding. Underneath, I could start to see the faint impression of truth: people are people. We may speak a different languages but ultimately, we cherish the same things: camaraderie, good drinks, crazy saxophone players and most of all, making music.
*Special thanks goes to Paris guitar teacher Tom Shemesh for not only renting me one of his guitars, but for also being friendly and helpful.
For more information about me and the guitar lessons that I give in and around Baltimore, visit www.ewguitar.com.