Musée du quai Branly has a remarkable music collection. Aaron Coultate meets some of the artists it has inspired.
"This view, it's one of the best views of Paris," he whispers as we walk through the library. Three floors up, big windows offer a panorama that takes in the Grand Palais, boats on the Seine, the Palais de Tokyo and, on the horizon, Sacré-Cœur on the top of Montmartre. A dozen or so bookish types sit at tables reading or tapping away at computers. The museum's music archive is underneath the building in a nondescript room containing roughly 6,000 CDs, and has been digitised for use in the library. As collections go, it's nowhere near as big as, say, that of Radio France, whose archive of 1.5 million records is just a few miles away. But when it comes to folk music and ethnographic work, it's exceptional. The music, which is mostly non-European, spans traditional music, pop music and field recordings from most corners of the globe.
I ask Brizard to tell me about his favourite parts of the archive. He says the catalogue of Indian music is formidable. (Indian music is his speciality.) He mentions music from Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, and unreleased recordings from people like Francis Corpataux, who recorded children's music from across the globe, Gilbert Rouget, the pioneering French ethnomusicologist, and Geneviève Dournon, who worked mainly in India and Africa. Then there's the wealth of polyrhythmic music, like xylophone ensembles from Central African Republic, batuque music from Cape Verde and cumbia music from Colombia.
Brizard tells me about an Indian folk musician called Karna Ram Bheel. As well as being a splendid player of the när, a long flute used in Rajasthan, Bheel was in the Guinness Book Of Records for having the world's longest moustache. (It was 6.5 feet long in its pomp.) He was also jailed for murder. When released from prison, he was decapitated in an alleged revenge attack. "His flute style was very strong—he could play a drone while also doing a melody," Brizard says.
For the past four years Brizard has been working on an event series at Musée du quai Branly called Les Siestes Electroniques. The series' premise is to hand over the keys of the museum's audio collection to artists, who then play live shows, DJ sets or hybrid performances inspired by the archive. Whenever someone is booked for the series, they meet Brizard. If they're based in Paris he'll show them around the museum, pausing at the amphitheatre where Les Siestes Electroniques performances take place, before taking them up in an elevator to the media library.
"Some musicians are already experts, in African music for example, and they want to deepen their knowledge in that area," Brizard says. "Some are not really into world music but have personal interests or family origins they want to explore. My job is to help them work on their creation. If someone wants to explore drone music or string instruments or voices, I give him or her CDs where they can find something. It's a dialogue."
The 2015 season saw more than 5,000 people attend a series of ten events throughout summer. Admission is free, but to keep numbers in check the museum requires attendees to register online. The registration system was set up after the series proved so popular that the number of attendees threatened to exceed the museum's capacity. When the registration opened each Monday, tickets were usually gone within an hour or so.
The amphitheatre is surrounded by lush greenery, with plenty of space to sit or lie down. The series' name translates to "electronic nap." Many attendees take this seriously, turning up to the museum armed with pillows and settling in for a snooze, letting the music seep into their subconscious.
This June, Les Siestes Electroniques is returning to Musée du quai Branly for its sixth year. A typically broad cast of acts will perform, from grime artist Mr. Mitch to string trio Vacarme to French pop band Isaac Delusion to L.I.E.S. affiliate Voiski. They'll follow previous participants like Bambounou, Awesome Tapes From Africa, Aïsha Devi, Ron Morelli, Heatsick, Zaltan, Joakim, Kangding Ray and Stephen O'Malley in putting their own spin on the museum's audio collection.
The man behind Les Siestes Electroniques is Samuel Aubert, a 35-year-old Frenchman who comes across as both cheery and driven. In addition to the series at Musée du quai Branly, Aubert has been running Les Siestes Electroniques festival in Toulouse since 2002. In March of 2015 he revealed that the lineup for the upcoming festival in the south of France would remain secret. The likes of SOPHIE, Vessel, Holly Herndon and DJ Nigga Fox all played unannounced in Toulouse. Speaking to RA at the time, Aubert said: "Do you remember when you were 15 years old and you discovered a massive piece of modern music? I will always remember when I first listened to Autechre. I was one of those indie-pop kids and it blew my mind. I suddenly became obsessed with IDM. I wanna feel that again and again, all my life. And I want to share that very moment. That's how I see my work as a curator and this is what Les Siestes Electroniques is about."
This lifelong quest for musical discovery makes Aubert the perfect promoter for an event series at Musée du quai Branly. When he's putting together lineups he'll search for artists who share his inquisitive nature. The other thing that underpins Les Siestes Electroniques is Aubert's desire to connect with audiences in a meaningful way—something that was evident in the decision to withhold lineup details in Toulouse. "Music is a social need for us, not a product," he says. "Of course, we need money to get things done, but we would rather be part of the social economy than the musical business. We're not selling products to customers, we're building events where music is defining social interactions."
Aubert says taking Les Siestes Electroniques on the road to places like Vietnam and the Congo made him think differently about the social need for music. "We were forced to think in terms of social events and not in terms of gigs," he explains. Aubert's plans to hold "normal events" in these countries, where people turn up to a fit-for-purpose venue to listen to a band or a DJ, didn't work. "We ended up putting on music at block parties, birthday celebrations, and for people hanging out in public parks," he says. "When we came back, it was clear that our purpose at Les Siestes Electroniques would be to reconnect with the social need for music."
One of the standout sets from the 2015 season at Musée du quai Branly came from Quentin Vandewalle, AKA Zaltan, the founder of Paris's Antinote label. "I decided to go over the collection in the same way I would have done for a disco or house collection from an old discotheque," he says. "I listened to as many records as I could to make my own opinions and I tried to build a personal sound. This wasn't easy because I've already built my own sound around a very specific type of music—electronic music from the 1970s until now—which is a small amount compared to music from all over the world dating back decades and decades."
Confronted with so many options, he decided not to specialise. "I am not an ethnomusicologist, and there's no way I would have the pretention to do a set of, say, Malian percussive music from 1945 until 1960," Vandewalle says. "I did it like a proper DJ set, without looping or filters or any effects. I tried to keep the sound as raw as I could." He incorporated party music from Mali, Inuit throat singing and various field recordings into his DJ set, using three CDJs, usually with at least two tracks playing at a time. "I tried to make it a very personal collage so I could erase any potential scientific approach to my work. I was more interested in creating an imaginary journey around the globe, allowing the people, and myself, to build our own vision and dream a little bit. Maybe to get a bit of distance from a big institution like quai Branly."
Vandewalle played on a warm day in August of 2015. "I've never played in front of that many people," he tells me, "but everyone was quiet, they were really listening to the music. It was one of my best musical experiences and one of my best gigs ever."
Whereas Vandewalle sought to remove himself from the academic side of things, some artists throw themselves into it. Sunn O)))'s Stephen O'Malley, who has been living in Paris for nine years, used his performance at Les Siestes Electroniques as an opportunity to explore his interest in dhrupad, a centuries-old form of raga music that originates from the north of India. "There's a musician called Zia Mohiuddin Dagar who I love," he tells me in a café near the Gare de Paris-Est. "I just got obsessed with his sections of alap, playing rudra veena, an instrument that's more in the bass area, because it's always really slow and resonant and the notes are really long. He passed away in the '90s, but he was like the 30th generation in his family of musicians."
Much of the knowledge O'Malley shares with me was learned from Brizard and the Musée du quai Branly library. "I hadn't been in a physical library space for ages," he says. "Where I was growing up, and through my 20s, libraries were really important, and I had kind of forgot about that. For me, and probably most people, it's more about accumulating everything for your home or on your computer these days. But actually I rediscovered that the library system allows you to go there and focus and discover in a much more cohesive way. That part of the project was really nice to get back into."
For his performance, O'Malley played a set that wove together dhrupad with other sounds, including tribal recordings from Ecuador and traditional music from the Amazonian Achuar community. "When I was DJing I wasn't just playing tracks," he says. "I was using my original electronics, too. I had some parallel beating and rhythm happening, which I don't do a lot—not live anyway. But I had a sense from the audience they were totally satisfied because it had kind of a backstory. It was like, you go into someone's house and you open up the closets and get to see what's in there, or you look at the bookshelf, look at the record collection. And it's, 'Oh! That kind of makes sense.'"
Aïsha Devi, another 2015 highlight, decided to explore her family's Tibetan background. Devi's live set drew from folk and traditional songs from Nepal, Buddhist chanting from Tibet and Bhutan and some vedic recitations from India, with an overarching focus on vocals. "I built it from scratch like an entirely new piece, a live show with some space to add my own voice," she tells me. "After gathering the pieces, I realized none of them were based on the diatonic scale and they had this trance-inducing quality. I tried to transcend the static disposition of the archive, the observer-object relationship, and go further than the representation in order to reveal these pieces as intemporal spiritual matter. I wanted to go beyond exoticism to translate this material into a contemporary structure and media, a reappropriation of our ancestral knowledge," she says. "Rituality through modern semantics."
Some of the most informative Les Siestes Electroniques performances have come from people steeped in the scholarly side of music. Aubert invited Keith Fullerton Whitman to take part in Les Siestes Electroniques' 2012 season. The Australian-based artist had been spending a lot of time in Paris, working at the famous GRM, the centre of musical learning co-founded by Pierre Schaeffer. On his first visit to Musée du quai Branly, he scoured the database and eventually settled on the recordings of Hugh Tracey, a celebrated ethnomusicologist who documented sounds on his extensive travels through Africa. He put together what he calls a "mix-collage" for his performance.
"I was particularly drawn to Hugh as he seemed to steer clear of any of the colonialist connotations of ethnographic field work, preferring to live among whichever group of people he was documenting for some time before recording them," Whitman says. "This went against the prevailing tropes of the era in which he operated." In his set, Whitman provides context and historical detail in addition to his selections.
Ahead of each Les Siestes Electroniques event, museum staff compile information sheets for attendees. These include details on the kind of music that the artist has selected for that day, with an additional list of recommended films, music and reading material. Sandy Pasquarelli, who works for the museum's department of education, is involved in this process. "Les Siestes Electroniques is focused on showing the audio collection to the public," she says. "It's unusual for a museum to hold an event like this. Success for us is seeing people discovering music from around the world they wouldn't have heard if they didn't come to Musée du quai Branly." She adds: "We try to link the events to the collection, so people have other ways to continue their visit—so maybe after they hear a set they can look at some of the instruments we have here on display. The aim is to go beyond the idea of art and explore the living elements of the collection."
Musée du quai Branly is celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2016. Though the museum's aim is to celebrate a range of different cultures, it's difficult to untangle the collection from France's colonial past. The museum is the legacy of Jacques Chirac, the French president from 1995 until 2007. Chirac once wrote in the museum's guidebook that the museum is "the debt we owe to the peoples and countries" of the former French empire. But to its critics, the museum's attempt to showcase the work of other cultures is clumsy, and not free of postcolonial overtones. When it opened in 2006, the New York Times ran a piece in which they said of the museum: "Old, new, good, bad are all jumbled together without much reason or explanation, save for visual theatrics."
A decade on, it remains a tricky subject. What in one person's eyes is a monument to French multiculturalism is for someone else a painful reminder of invasion and plunder. The museum's position at the intersection of art, ethnology and politics has placed it at the centre of wider debates. In 2012, 20 mummified Maori heads, which had been taken by European sailors in the 18th and 19th centuries, were returned from Musée du quai Branly to their homeland following years of campaigning in New Zealand. The following year, a collective representing French black communities went on a tour of "stolen art" displayed in the museum and the French newspaper Le Monde called for their return to their original countries.
France's history of ethnomusicology is also tied to the country's colonial past. As Etienne Menu noted in a piece for VICE, the French government used music—and, more specifically, radio stations—as a tool for politically managing its exit from Africa in 1960. The French state also funded record labels like SORAFOM (later OCORA) that were used as an outlet for academics to capture sounds from across African and Asia. In these situations, the interests of music academics and politicians overlapped.
O'Malley considered these issues before performing at the museum. "There are a lot of ethical and moral question marks with these kind of places, and these topics are in a complexity beyond my ability to politicise," he says. "With the music collection, I think it is more of a verbal history, but there are so many politics around that world as well, like field recordings of a tribe and how they are presented. It's very sensitive to many people on many sides of the topics. But my opinion is that in our modern society, a more-or-less neutral place of knowledge like the museum is generally a good thing."
Bambounou, real name Jéremy Guindo-Zegiestowski, who's performed twice at Les Siestes Electroniques, brushes off these complexities. "Learning from other cultures is the basis of humanity," he says. "You know, you travel somewhere, you learn something and you try to show it to other people. Maybe I'm saying this because I'm mixed race"—Guindo-Zegiestowski's father was Malian, his mother is Polish—"but I think people should mix more, and what better way to do that than through music?"
When invited to perform at Les Siestes Electroniques in the summer of 2014, Guindo-Zegiestowski took one track from his father's homeland, but he mostly chose to look elsewhere. "I took some Uruguayan music, some Iranian music, some Pakistani music—lots of different stuff." He found the experience inspiring but also overwhelming. "I wanted to listen to everything," he says. "The archive actually made me really scared. There's so much music in the world I need to listen to, and I'm not going to have the time. I'm gonna die one day and I'll probably miss the best song."
Guindo-Zegiestowski's set was essentially an album. He took 15 songs from the archive and reworked every one with effects, pads and chords. He's not the only artist to use the library as a starting point for a record. In 2014 Low Jack released an album on L.I.E.S. that was inspired by his live performance at Musée du quai Branly, when he dove into the music of the Garifuna people of Honduras.
Mr. Mitch, AKA Miles Mitchell, the founder of Gobstopper Records and co-founder of Boxed, is taking his five-year-old son along from London to hear his performance on July 10th. "It's going to be the first time he's seen me DJ so I'm dedicating the set to him," he says. In recent months, Mitchell has been exploring the museum's collection of children's music from places like Senegal, France, Russia and the West Indies.
"I'm planning to remix the tracks in a way that they will make sense to my son, and myself," Mitchell says. "I think children's music doesn't really exist in the same sense anymore. My son listens to everything I listen to and I know it's the same for a lot of other children his age.'"
I ask Mitchell what he's hoping to gain from his experience at Musée du quai Branly. "I want to have a greater understanding of what people consider children's music around the world," he says. "And I want a chance to meet the kind of people who go to shows like this. I'm used to playing in really dark rooms with a bunch of sweaty people, so this will be a new experience."