Resurrecting Les Négresses Vertes

November 9, 2017 § Leave a comment

One of the wonderful things about growing up in Canada was official bilingualism.  This meant, for example, that growing up in Vancouver, I could see my beloved Habs every Saturday night on La Soirée du Hockey on Radio-Canada.  It also meant that the French-language version of MuchMusic, MusiquePlus, was broadcast across cable in Vancouver, direct from Montréal.

For the adventuresome young music fan, there was this whole other world out there from France, Belgium, Québec, and French Africa.  Musiqueplus is how I first heard a whole raft of great French artists, from Youssou N’Dour to Noir Désire to Jean Leloup to Niagara to Serge Gainsbourg, and beyond.  It is also how I first heard Céline Dion, so there’s that to take into account.  But it is also how I first came across the great Parisienne band, Les Négresses Vertes.

In high school, French music wasn’t exactly something I could share with my friends. Sure, I was part of the alternative music crowd, but that only extended to the Anglophone world.  I hunt out with some of the theatre kids, but this was a bridge too far even for them.  It wasn’t until I moved to Ottawa, with its proximity to Montréal, that I found the freedom to enjoy French music publicly.

Most of the Anglo world first came across Les Négresses Vertes through their presence on the Red Hot + Blue album in 1990.  They covered Cole Porter’s ‘I Love Paris.’  But, by then, I had already dug on their début album, Mlah, which came out in 1988.  They were unlike anything I had ever heard in English.  They mixed French traditional music with world beat and punk.  They were complicated.  Their melodies and beats owed more to the French Empire than France.  And they had a strong sense of musicality, which bubbled up to the surface in surprising ways sometimes.  Front man Noël Rota, better known as Helno, sounded a bit like Joe Strummer of the Clash, at least sometimes (this also made Strummer’s late life foray into acoustic punks and Latin beats somewhat bizarre to me, since it sounded more like Helno fronting Mano Negra).

The Vertes were a collection of misfits and punks from Paris, originating around Les Halles.  They were a united nation of the former French empire; their name came from an insult hurled at them at one of their earliest.  I don’t get romantic about the past and locations often, but, c’mon, this is Paris.  Paris in the 80s must’ve been an amazing place.  And Les Négresses Vertes arose out of this, the cosmopolitan nature of the French metropole, plus the distinct French qualities of the city, and the inner city at that.  And the music!  Aside from Les Négresses Vertes there was Noir Désir, Bérurier Noir, Mano Negra, amongst others.

Their first two albums, Mlah and Famille Nombreuse, teetered on complete chaos, an eight-piece orchestra.  Helno was this tiny, kind of funny looking freak.  He had a pompadour and looked like something that stepped out of the 1950s.  But, in front of his band, he became something else.  He held this chaos together.  He was both the primary song writer and the vocalist.  He sounded a bit like Strummer, yes, but he also sounded world-weary.  All of this when he was in his late 20s.  He’d done copious amounts of drugs, but he still more or less lived in his mother’s flat in a poor part of northern Paris.  People all around him were dying, of suicide, drug overdoses, and AIDs.  He once told a journalist that he through that if there was a Hell, it was on Earth.  He also claimed that he wrote his lyrics whilst riding his bike around Paris, singing out loud as he rode.  Hindsight says he was damned from the getgo.  But I doubt it looked that way at the time.

His lyrics were riddled with slang and dark humour, stories of love and the gritty city (”Zobi La Mouche‘ and ‘Voila l’été‘) mixed with the occasional beautiful love song (‘Homme de marais‘, seriously one of my favourite songs ever) and dirge (‘Face à la mer‘). ‘Face à la mer’ was remixed by Massive Attack and became a huge club hit after Helno’s death (perhaps the most unlikely club raver ever).

It’s been a long time since I listened to the Vertes, probably close to a decade.  But for some reason, I put them on last weekend.  Nothing has changed, even though their first album was released almost 30 years ago.  Helno himself has been dead for almost 25 years; he died of a heroin overdose in January 1993, at the age of 29.  Their music is still immediate, still that beautiful concoction of chaos, danger, and beauty.

Les Négresses Vertes carried on after Helno’s death, eventually evolving more into a dub fusion band.  But something was lost.  Helno seemed to be the one who kept the chaos from falling off the rails, from ensuring the danger remained in the background.  After his death, the band was never as exuberant and full of life again.  They mellowed.  And as much as I like the post-Helno era, for me, Les Négresses Vertes were at their best between 1987 and 1993.

As far as I know, they’ve never broken up, but they haven’t released any new music since 2001.  They don’t have a web page.  They don’t have a Twitter or a Facebook page.  And career-spanning retrospectives were released in the early 2000s.

 

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The Centre Of The Universe?

December 2, 2016 § 2 Comments

An interesting thing has occurred in the realm of Canadian sports journalism in the past few weeks.  For those of you who don’t know, the English-language Canadian media is centred in Toronto, which every media outlet will remind you is “Canada’s largest city.”  The much smaller French-language media is centred in Montréal, which is Canada’s second largest city.  Toronto’s got a population of around 4.7 million, compared to Montréal’s 3.8 million.  Vancouver is third, closing in on 2 million.  And Edmonton, Calgary, and Ottawa are all around 1 million.  So we’re not looking at the situation in the UK, where London is the largest city and about 5 times larger than the second city, Birmingham.

But, reading Canadian sports media these days, and you’d be convinced that Toronto is the only city in Canada and that its sports teams are all wondrous, virtuous conquering heroes.  Never mind the fact that Toronto teams don’t really win much of anything ever.  The basketball Raptors and soccer Toronto FC have never won anything.  The hockey Maple Leafs last won the Stanley Cup in 1967.  And the Blue Jays last won in 1993.  The Argonauts of the Canadian Football League are the really the only continually successful Toronto sports team, having last won the Grey Cup in 2012 (but, the CFL is a 9-team league, so law of averages…).

Toronto FC was engaged in a tense two-leg Eastern Conference final in the MLS Cup Playoffs against the Impact de Montréal, or IMFC.  An all-Canadian conference final should be one of those things that grip the nation, or at least get the media to recognize its import.  And while Sportsnet, the second of Canada’s sports networks, largely has, TSN, the largest sports network and MLS rights holder, has not.  It has openly and blatantly cheered for a TFC victory, and its coverage has exclusively treated IMFC as an interloper in TFC’s eventual, wondrous assent to the top of the North American soccer world.  On Wednesday afternoon, in advance of the second leg of the series, to be played at BMO Field in Toronto, TSN posted this article about the five keys to the match as its headline on TSN.ca.  Note that it’s all about what TFC needs to do to win.  This is just the most egregious example.  The rest of the coverage on TSN.ca Wednesday afternoon was all slanted towards TFC: its mindset heading into the match, which players it needs to excel, and so on.  Not a word from IMFC’s perspective, except for a feel-good story about the club’s 38-year old captain, and Montréal native, Patrice Bernier.

In the aftermath of the TFC’s victory Wednesday night, in a tense 5-2 match that went to Extra Time, allowing TFC to advance 7-5 on aggregate, TSN’s homepage was a torrent of TFC.  And while this is a good thing, and deserved, TFC won, it’s also still one-sided.  This was especially true of the headline that said “TFC MAKES CANADIAN SOCCER HISTORY.”  Factually, yes, it did.  It made the finals of the MLS Cup for the first time and is the first Canadian club to do so.  But, it did so after making history in an all-Canadian conference final.  And there was not a single story about IMFC and its own very improbable run to the conference finals.  TSN has continually picked against IMFC all season.  It predicted the Montréal side would miss the playoffs.  Then it wouldn’t get past DC United in the first round, or New York Red Bulls in the second round.  And so on.

On Thursday morning, TSN.ca’s home page featured no fewer than 12 features and stories about TFC out of the 28 in total.  Of the remaining 16 stories and features, 10 were about the Maples Leafs (7), Raptors (2), and Blue Jays (1).  One story was about how the Calgary Flames pummeled the Maple Leafs Wednesday night and another mocked Montréal Canadiens winger Andrew Shaw and his bad temper.  There’s a reason why Canadians in the Rest of Canada tend to dismiss TSN as Toronto’s Sports Network.

Meanwhile: Hockey.  The top team in the NHL right now is the Montréal Canadiens.  But, TSN’s coverage is almost exclusively about the amazing, wondrous Toronto Maple Leafs, who have a collection of burgeoning young stars and actually look like they might be a good team again one day.  There are also, you might note, five more Canadian teams in the NHL.  Sucks to be a fan of one of them: TSN just doesn’t care, other than to note the ways in which they’re failing.

And then Sportsnet.  Sportsnet is the rights holder for the NHL in Canada.  And while its coverage tends to be more national in nature, in that it notes that there are indeed teams in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Montréal, besides Toronto, how about them kids in the T-Dot, y’all?  But Sportsnet can even out-do TSN.  On Wednesday, the American-based Forbes published its annual list of NHL teams ranked by value.  As always, the New York Rangers are the most valuable hockey team.  The Rangers are worth $1.25 billion USD.  But Sportsnet’s headline reads: “Maple Leafs Rank Third in Forbes’ Annual Most Valuable Team List.”  So, you think, well, that makes sense.  But, wait, what’s the second most valuable team in the National Hockey League?  Chicago?  Los Angeles?  The New York Islanders?  Nope.  It’s the Montréal Canadiens.

Now, I know we Quebecers had ourselves a couple of referenda on leaving the country, and we still harbour a pretty strong separatist movement; at any given time, around 35% of us want out of Canada.  But, in both 1980 and 1995, we chose to stay.  And 65% of us at any given time want to stick around in Canada.  And we keep giving Canada Prime Ministers.  In my lifetime, five of 9 prime ministers have been Quebecers.

So, in other words, my dear TSN and Sportsnet, Québec is part of Canada.  And Montréal remains one of the largest cities in North America, and also remains a major centre of global commerce.  And its soccer team isn’t that bad, even if its appearance in the Conference Finals is a surprise.  And its hockey team, which is, after all, the most decorated hockey team in the world, is the most valuable Canadian team.

And, if you just so happen to be one of those provincials from the rest of the country, well, as we say back home, tant pis.

The Five Foot Assassin

March 24, 2016 § Leave a comment

Phife Dawg, also known as Malik Taylor, died a couple of days ago.  He was only 45.  Phife is a hip hop legend, one of my favourite MCs of all-time.  His music as a member of A Tribe Called Quest and his single solo album from 2000 have long been part of the soundtrack of my life.  The Five-Foot Assassin was a perfect foil to Q-Tip’s smooth delivery, with his guttural growl and ability to drop a patois.  He also wrote wicked rhymes, tougher and more menacing than Tip.

Tip was the unquestioned leader of Tribe.  And eventually, egos got in the way of old friends.  Phife always said that he felt especially excluded because both Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the DJ, had both converted to Islam and he had not.  And he was largely absent from the 1996 album, Beats, Rhymes, and Life as Tip’s cousin, Consequence, was featured (why, I have no idea, he couldn’t hold a flame to Phife’s abilities).  I remember buying Midnight Marauders in the fall of 1993 at Zulu Records on West 4th Avenue in Vancouver.  I was with my friend, Tanya.  It was one of the first CDs I ever bought.  I still have it.  The fall of 1993 was when I moved back to Vancouver from Ottawa, transferring to the University of British Columbia.  I lived in the Mötördöme, with three other guys I didn’t know all that well. I worked with Steve at the Cactus Club (or the Carcass Club, as we called it) on Robson St.  We also lived with Skippy, who had a law degree, but preferred to play in punk bands, and J., who was also in a punk band.  That was the fall when I took the #22 bus to work on weekend mornings, I rode with Chi-Pig, legendary front-man of SNFU.  Punk was the regular soundtrack at the Mötördöme; Fugazi and Jesus Lizard were our favourites.  But we also played a lot of Fishbone and Faith No More.  And when we were in reflective moods, we dropped some Tom Waits on.  Skip, Steve, and J. were not fans of hip hop.  But I insisted on playing Midnight Marauders as well.  And when me and my main man Mike rode around Vancouver and its environs in the Mikemobile, a 1982 Mercury Lynx, Midnight Marauders was amongst the albums we rotated.  I listened to the album on my long bus ride to UBC on the #9 Broadway bus.

Everytime I listen to that album, I am immediately dropped back into Vancouver in 1993.  Similarly, their last album, 1998’s The Love Movement came out the year Christine and I moved to Ottawa, so she could begin law school.  I had just graduated from Simon Fraser with my MA in History and would soon begin a long run at Public History Inc., which launched me back into academia.  I got to Ottawa a month earlier than her.  And in a small flat, in a very hot Ottawa summer, I listened to The Love Movement almost obsessively.  It’s generally not regarded as Tribe’s best, but Phife’s rhymes, especially on “Find A Way” and “Da Booty,” made the album.

I got backstage at a couple of Tribe shows back in the day.  I got to meet them.  Phife was unfailingly the nicest, most polite dude you could imagine.  He was just a genuinely nice guy.  He was always humble, he also seemed kind of surprised he was a big deal.

I am listening to Midnight Marauders right now.  Hip hop has lost one of the greatest MCs of all-time.  And he was too young to go.

Place and Mobility

January 8, 2016 § 7 Comments

I’m reading a bit about theories of place right now.  And I’m struck by geographers who bemoan the mobility of the world we live, as it degrades place in their eyes. It makes our connections to place inauthentic and not real.  We spend all this time in what they call un-places: airports, highways, trains, cars, waiting rooms.  And we move around, we travel, we relocate.  All of this, they say, is degrading the idea of place, which is a location we are attached to and inhabit in an authentic manner.

I see where these kinds of geographers come from. I have spent a fair amount of my adult life in un-places.  I have moved around a lot.  In my adult life, I have lived in Vancouver, Ottawa, Vancouver again, Ottawa again, Montreal, Western Massachusetts, Boston, and now, Alabama.  If I were to count the number of flats I have called home, I would probably get dizzy.

And yet, I have a strong connection to place.  I am writing this in my living room, which is the room I occupy the most (at least whilst awake and conscious) in my home.  It is my favourite room and it is carefully curated to make it a comfortable, inviting place for me.  It is indeed a place. And yet, I have only lived here for six months.  In fact, today is six months sine I moved into this house.  I have a similar connection to the small college town I live in.  And the same goes for my university campus.

So am I different than the people these geographers imagine flitting about the world in all these un-places, experiencing inauthentic connections to their locales?  Am I fooled into an inauthentic connection to my places? I don’t think so.  And I think I am like most people.  Place can be a transferrable idea, it can be mobile.  Our place is not necessarily sterile.  It seems to me that a lot of these geographers are also overlooking the things that make a place a place: our belongings, our personal relationships to those who surround us, or own selves and our orientation to the world.

Sure, place is mobile in our world, but that does not mean that place is becoming irrelevant as these geographers seem to be saying.  Rather, it means that place is mobile.  Place is by nature a mutable space.  Someone else called this house home before me. This house has been here since 1948.  But that doesn’t mean that this is any less a place to me.

Memory and the Screaming Trees.

January 26, 2015 § 4 Comments

Memory works in odd ways. So this course on space, place, landscape & memory.  Last Thursday, in addition to that article on Western Mass, we read Doreen Massey’s article “Places and Their Pasts,” from way ‘back in 1995.  And, this got me thinking.  About music.  I’m currently in a hard rock phase, where everything I’m listening to has loud, very loud guitars.  And inevitably, when I am in one of these phases, I come back to the Screaming Trees’ 1992 album, “Sweet Oblivion.”  My favourite Trees’ song, “Nearly Lost You” is on this album.  But, the album as a whole is one of my favourites of all-time.  I first bought it on cassette tape, back when it came out in the fall of 1992.  I bought it at the Record Runner, a legendary record store on Rideau Street in Ottawa, that closed in January 2006, after 31 years in business due to gentrification and condofication.  When I moved back to Vancouver the following spring, 1993, my best friend, Mike, had the album on CD.

We spent a lot of time driving around the Vancouver region that summer and fall, in his 1982 Mercury Lynx, which I had dubbed the Mikemobile. Mike had a Sony Discman, which he plugged into the cassette player of his car to listen to CDs.  It was incredibly moody and jumped when the car hit bumps.  Nonetheless, “Sweet Oblivion” was in constant rotation that year.  There is, however, a difference between the cassette and CD (and now, digital) versions of the album, however.  Track 6, “For Celebrations Past” was not on the cassette version.  I listened to the cassette version of the album a lot, but I’ve listened to the CD and digital versions of the album even more.  I’ve listened to this album hundreds of times, and I’d estimate at least 80% of those plays are either the CD or digital version.  And yet, every time I hear “For Celebrations Past,” it feels like a rude interlude into a classic album of my youth, even though I like this song, too.

I find it interesting that my initial memories of this album trump the memories of the version of the album I’ve heard many more times over the years.  I’m not sure what to make of this, really.  My memories of Ottawa in 1992-3 are not all that happy, though there was the diversion of Montreal and the Habs’ last Stanley Cup victory, but by the time Guy Carbonneau lifted Lord Stanley’s mug that spring, I was back in Vancouver.  So it is bizarre, I think that, my initial memories of the album trump the happier ones, back in Vancouver.  And yet, listening to the album, as I did last night, doesn’t transport me back the sub-Arctic cold of Ottawa anymore than it puts me back in the passenger seat of the Mikemobile.  Unlike a lot of the music of the early 90s, it’s not evocative of that time and place.  Maybe because I’ve continued to listen to the album in the years since.    Yet, for me, the proper version of the album lacks “For Celebrations Past” and goes straight from the organs and guitars of “Butterfly” into the vicious punk-inflected “The Secret Kind.”

Alienation and Belonging

March 28, 2014 § 2 Comments

An old friend visited us this weekend, and as he and I drove up the Massachusetts coast to hunt down the best pizza in the Commonwealth (Riverview in Ipswich, if you’re wondering), we got to talking about New England.  Despite having lived in New England, he always feels like he could never penetrate the insularity of New England culture, and he always feels alienated here.  I found that interesting, given I don’t feel that way at all, despite obviously being a transplant.

This might be the advantage of being an Anglo from Montréal. Anglo Montrealers are always at least slightly alienated from the city and dominant culture.  We are a (small) minority, and we speak a minority language.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you.

I’ve always felt alienated from my surroundings. I grew up in British Columbia, very aware of the fact I didn’t belong, which came out in everything from my distaste of the wet, soggy climate to continuing to cheer for the Montréal Canadiens, Expos, and, when they existed, the Concorde or Alouettes of the CFL, as opposed to my friends who cheered for the Vancouver Canucks, the BC Lions and either the Toronto Blue Jays or Seattle Mariners.  I felt similarly alienated in Ottawa.  It was only when I moved back to Montréal I finally felt comfortable in my surroundings.  But I still felt alienated from the larger culture, mostly due to language, even as my French language skills improved.

But, as with all things Montréal, it was never this simple.  My Anglo friends and family dismissed any suggestion I might be a Montrealer, by continually reminding me I grew up out west.  On the other hand, my francophone and allophone friends made no such distinction, and this is also true of my separatist friends.  Go figure.  Anglo mythology would have it the other way round.  One of the most amazing moments of my life in Montréal came during the 2000 federal election campaign when I answered a knock on my door and found Gilles Duceppe, the leader of the Bloc québécois, with Amir Khadir, who was the BQ’s candidate in my riding (Khadir has since gone on to be the co-leader of the sovereigntist provincial party, Québec solidaire, and is currently the MNA for the Montréal riding of Mercier).  Duceppe, Khadir, and I spent a good 15-20 minutes talking about place, identity, and belonging in Québec.  Largely in English.  Even the leader of a separatist party and the candidate for my riding didn’t dispute my bona fides as a Montrealer and a Quebecer (maybe, in part, because I assured them the BQ had my vote).

Since 2006, I have spent a lot of time in New England, before moving here in 2012, on account of my wife being American.  She lived in Western Massachusetts when we met, so we did our best to split our time between Montréal and Western Mass.  After all those years spending time out there, I came to feel like it was Home.  Sure, I was never going to fully fit in, be a part of the scenery, but that was ok by me.  And, even now, living at the other end of the Commonwealth, in the massive urban sprawl that is Boston, I feel similarly at home.  The ways I feel alienated here are mostly due being Canadian.  But I don’t find myself feeling excluded by New Englanders, or, really, Americans as a whole. In other words, I can deal with my alienation, it has kind of become my default way of being.

No doubt this is due to being an Anglo Montrealer and experiencing some degree of discomfort and alienation my entire life in my hometown and anywhere else I lived in Canada, tainted as I was, so to speak, by being from Montréal.

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