Modern Bal-Musette: Le Balluche de la Saugrenue and More!

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Modern Bal-Musette: Le Balluche de la Saugrenue and More!
The classic Parisian scene is an indelible one and whether your Paris experience is down-to earth or the ultimate illusion, the music brought to mind by cobbled streets, sidewalk cafes or strolls by the Seine is likely to be bal-musette, an ever-so-romantic waltz-style of music featuring the accordion. As Paris evolves, bal-musette is rarely heard, however some traditionalists are keeping this genre of street music alive with the addition of modern beats and picaresque players. First gaining popularity in the 1880s, bal-musette is a style of French music and dance that features a variety of waltzes, polkas and other rhythms played on the accordion. The much-maligned accordion that defines this style of music is called the musette, although it has been called less-than-flattering names over the years: La Boîte à Frissons (the Trembling Box), Le Piano du Pauvre (the Poor People’s Piano) and Le Piano aux Bretelles, (the Piano with Suspenders.) Whatever your opinion, from its first wheezy breath, the musette sends you back in time. Etymologically speaking, musette refers to a small backpack or kitbag. In the late 19th century, newcomers from the Auvergne region introduced a small bagpipe called the musette to the outskirts of Paris. Later, the Italian immigrants who joined them in the same neighborhoods brought the accordion with them as part of their own musical tradition. The bagpipes gave way to the squeezebox, which became the main instrument for bal-musette but the name remained the same. The musette accompanied polkas, mazurkas, and gavottes and fast waltzes called javas, a word derived from the Auvergnat pronunciation of “Ça va?” With industrial advances came the railway and a gateway to actual leisure time. The guinguettes – public dance halls in the banlieue of Paris – became popular outdoor drinking establishments. Crowds were drawn to the venues highlighting the entertaining musette bands. It would take a few decades before the accordion arrived in central Paris. The popularity of bal-musette grew through the first half of the 20th century and by 1945, it was the most popular style of dance in France. Josephine Baker and Edith Piaf sang to this style of music. Well-known names like Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grapelli started their careers in Paris musette bands. The popularity of this style of music declined drastically in the early ‘60s.  The oldest bal-musette location was demolished in 1989. Le Petit Balcon, tucked away in Bastille, had survived from the 1930s by staging clichéd, low-life l’apache performances. A revival of bal-musette has begun, especially in larger cities, where a more modern form of musette is establishing itself. The stalwarts of this style are Le Balluche de la Saugrenue, Le Petit Bal de Poche and Les Balochiens. Le Balluche de la Saugrenue The zippy, saucy melodies of Le Balluche de la Saugrenue are the soundtrack in my head. This pirate ensemble is made of up of talented bunch of musicians dressed up in an assortment of banded Bretons and striped trousers. Originating from Tours circa 2006, Le Balluche is just one element of the city’s wildly innovative La Saugrenue Collectif, a group of musicians whose name means “The Absurd.” The band has not picked up and moved to Paris but their sound will transport you straight back to a Paris speakeasy.
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Lead photo credit : courtesy of Le Balluche de la Saugrenue

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A freelance writer and amateur historian, Hazel knew she wanted to focus on the lives of French artists and femme fatales after an epiphany at the Musée d'Orsay. A life-long learner, she is a recent graduate of Art History from the University of Toronto. Now she is searching for a real-life art history mystery to solve.