This post is for the buskers. Over the past five years I’ve spent some time on street corners and at farmers’ markets yelling and picking away at my guitar. It’s a tough way to earn money, but maybe the most enjoyable I’ve experienced.
Pause for me to go google search good spots to busk in Fort Worth.
Pause for sadness upon learning that Fort Worth police are tough on buskers.
…and back to the actual article. This week I’m writing about former street performers and grand purveyors of French chanson music, La Rue Kétanou.
I first heard La Rue Kétanou during a phase in which I had to listen to as much chanson as possible as quickly as possible. While it’s not tough to find great bands that fit the bill of the seductive French genre that blends folk, gypsy music, pop, and maybe a bit of reggae, La Rue Kétanou stood out. Their music is more energetic, more lively than the usually-sedate tunes that thechanson chanteuses typically churn out. It’s still bohemian street music, but more the sort to jump and skip down the road than to stroll leisurely while holding a romantic partner’s hand.
The core of La Rue Kétanou is the trio of Parisians Mourad Musset, Olivier Leite and Florent Vintrigner, all former students of the Théâtre du fil. As street performers the three began performing in 1996, living and breathing with the streets they played on. The band took their name, in fact, from a play on the phrase “C’est pas nous qui sommes à la rue, c’est la rue qui est à nous”, implying that they are not of the street, but the street takes its life from them (the performers). The late 90s saw the group connecting with members of established chanson act Tryo, who invited the young La Rue Kétanou on a leg of their tour as an opener. By 2001 La Rue Kétanou had produced their debut album, and have since released four more, and continue to tour, bringing their personal style of freewheeling street music indoors and onto the stage.
Most of what I know about La Rue Kétanou comes from their 2009 release, A Contresens. The album is really quite polished, as could be expected from the fourth studio output of a band that had been playing together for thirteen years, though the free spirit that seems to define the group is still recognizably present. Each member of the group sings, and the standard lineup features Vintrigner on accordion and Leite and Musset on guitar. True to their bohemian roots, however, each member is liable to trade his guitar out for another stringed instrument or any element of percussion. The album A Contresens itself boasts instrumentation as wide as to feature upright bells, strings, and electric guitar, though none of these ever takes precedent over the acoustic forefront that La Rue Kétanou has defined itself by from the beginning.
The songs of A Contresens bounce from the lighthearted to the plaintive and back again. The album’s opener is “Todas las Mujeres”, a French romp with a Spanish title that pulses from a cajón and loosely strummed guitars. The reggae-tinged “Germaine” follows, and the album continues a musical world tour with chanson interpretations of cabaret, tango, and bossa nova songs (“Ton Cabaret”, “Elle est Belle”, and “Sao Paolo”, respectively). Numbers such as “Je Peux pas te Promettre” take a turn for the dramatic, but lighthearted and playful moments such as the jawharp solo to lead off the folksy “Prenons la Vie” are never far off. La Rue Kétanou always seem to be joking, but when more closely examined, the songs often have much to say about life as the artists see it. The aggressive and powerful roll of “Maître Corbeau” is led by a descending accordion line and percussive rap-like lyrics that muse on life’s winners and losers (and a crow character? maybe lyrical analysis of a language I don’t speak is a bit unwarranted). In any case, the songs that fill A Contresens are at once worldly and quintessentially French, compounding the duality of a successful band of bohemian street performers that reflect the tragic and the comic in their words and their melodies.
The philosophy that La Rue Kétanou puts forth is a fascinating one, albeit not the most unique: that the individual doesn’t behave one way or another because he comes “from the streets”, but rather that individual makes the streets what they are. To this band, such is life; out in the public domain where the marginalized and the elite pass each other there is a vitality that the slinky rhythms and gang vocals encapsulate well. And this is especially well taken from a group that has come literally from performances on street corners to accompaniment by full orchestra. Along this journey the band has released five full-length albums, and has continued to tour, though largely within French borders. La Rue Kétanou can be found most easily online through their twitter handle and a French music-only Myspace takeoff. For the second week in a row I’ve managed to profile a group that doesn’t have an official website per se, as following a link directed to www.larueketanou.com only takes the user to the associated act Tryo’s page. Web problems aside, La Rue Kétanou deserves to be listened to for both their folksy fun sound and their urban-organic ethos. Nobody is listening to La Rue Kétanou at the moment, but the accordion-and-acoustic-guitar-driven act that sprang from Paris’ streets makes for a great listen that is improved with every toe tapped and head shaken.
Long live the buskers.