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Posts from the ‘Fêtes’ Category

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Sep

La Fête de Ganesh 2014

LA FÊTE DE GANESH, along with the celebrations for the Chinese New Year and the Carnaval Tropical, bring an annual wave of colour and spectacle to the streets of Paris highlighting the city’s cultural diversity.

Indian communities across the world celebrate la Fête de Ganesh at this time of the year and yesterday I went to join the celebrations in Paris.

Fête de Ganesh 2014

The Sri Manicka Vinayakar Alayam temple, in rue Pajol

Genesha, the Hindu deity of wisdom, propriety and good fortune, has a temple dedicated to him in Paris, the Sri Manicka Vinayakar Alayam temple, in rue Pajol in the 18th arrondissement. It was from here that a colourful procession set off yesterday on its tour of the surrounding area.

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Strands of jasmine were on sale everywhere

To experience la Fête de Ganesh is to experience a multi-sensory feast with the colourful costumes and the equally colourful sounds overlayed with wonderfully exotic smells.

Unfortunately, I can’t recreate the exotic smells for you to enjoy but I can share with you this year’s Fête de Ganesh in sounds and pictures and let them tell their own story.

La Fête de Ganesh 2014 in sound:

 

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The Deity Ganesha has been represented with the head of an elephant since the early stages of his appearance in Indian art

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Fête de Ganesh 2014

This is the pile of coconuts that you can hear being smashed in my recording

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Lunch after the parade …  if you can find a seat!  Then the clean up begins …

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Jul

La Fête National 2014

LA FÊTE NATIONAL forms the centrepiece of the Parisian summer. It’s the French National Day and it commemorates the 1790 Fete de la Federation, held on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. It also marks the start of the French holiday season. In Paris the day starts with the défilé, the parade of military and civilian services, marching down the Champs Elysées to be reviewed by the Président de la République and his army of guests.

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The Défilé at a glance courtesy of RTL

In the Champs Elysées this year the défilé comprised 3,752 men and women from the military and civilian services, 285 vehicles, 82 motorcycles, 76 dogs and 241 horses from the Garde Républicain. This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and among those taking part in the défilé were representatives of 80 countries who fought in that conflict.

This year also marks the 80th anniversary of the founding of l’armée de l’Air, the French Air Force and, in a spectacular display of precision flying, 54 aircraft led by nine Alpha Jets of the Patrouille de France, the French aerobatic display team, approached over La Défense in the west of Paris and flew along the Avenue Charles de Gaulle, the Avenue de la Grand Armée and into the Champs Elysées.

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Being both a sound and an aircraft enthusiast I record this fly-past each year and this year I decided to record it from the Esplanade de la Défense.

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The green arrow indicates the direction in which the aircraft fly and the yellow arrow indicates the position from which I chose to record

The aircraft fly-past:

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The green arrow indicates the fly-past route from la Grande Arche de la Défense to the Presidential review stand at Place de la Concorde

Getting 54 aircraft of different sizes, weights and speeds into exactly the right place at exactly the right time is a complex business but each year the French Air Force accomplishes it faultlessly.

If the défilé in the Champs Elysées is to proceed seamlessly, the first aircraft, the Patrouille de France, have to appear over the plus belle avenue du monde trailing their bleu-blanc-rouge, blue, white and red smoke, at exactly 10.36 am and the last aircraft must arrive 8 minutes and 30 seconds later. For this to happen, the aircraft have to arrive at la Grande Arche de la Défense at precisely the right time, at the right speed and with exactly the right separation between each aircraft or groups of aircraft even though they are all flying in from different places.

The way they do it is similar to the way that air traffic controllers bring commercial airliners in to land at busy airports. The aircraft are directed to fly a given route at a given speed and then at a pre-determined point they are fed from different directions into a single stream taking into account their size, speed and wake turbulence.

For a military fly-past like this one over the Champs Elysées though there is a further complication. Some of the aircraft fly in clusters; the Patrouille de France for example flew in a formation of nine aircraft, the large E3F aircraft with its flying radar dome had three fighter aircraft flying close behind it and the KC135 tanker aircraft had two fighter aircraft flying either side of its tail. These clusters of aircraft have to get into formation and effectively fly as one aircraft as they turn into the stream.

Once in the stream and heading for the Champs Elysées the pilots, as well as keeping a constant height and compensating for the wind speed and direction, must maintain their allotted separation from each other. While it’s just about acceptable for an experienced fast-jet pilot to fly a relatively small fighter aircraft dangerously close to a much larger four-engine tanker aircraft for example, it would be catastrophic for a smaller propeller-driven aircraft to try to do the same, the wake turbulence from the larger aircraft could overturn the smaller aircraft in the blink of an eye.

It was with all these things in mind that I settled down to record the aircraft fly-past.

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The Patrouille de France passing over my recording position in La Défense

I was fascinated to watch how all the aircraft entered the stream. The turning point was just beyond la Grande Arche de la Défense and just as with the approach to commercial airports, they approached from the left, the right and from straight ahead.

The Patrouille de France were the first to appear from the far distance. Nine Alpha Jets in perfect formation with their landing lights blazing from the front and blue, white and red smoke issuing from behind. Alpha Jets have a very special sound and by the time they passed me the next cluster of aggressive fast jets were approaching.

From then on it was pure theatre – clusters of aircraft turning in from the left followed by more coming from the right punctuated by those coming from directly ahead, all with perfect timing, perfect separation and all culminating in a faultless display of military might over the Champs Elysées.

If you listen to the sounds I recorded you will probably notice several things. Of course, you will hear the distinctive voices of each aircraft as they pass overhead but you will also hear the subtle differences in the critical separation of the aircraft clusters. In the relatively quiet separation pauses you will hear the sound of young children. As with my recording of the same event last year, I find that the juxtaposition of the voices of innocent young children on the ground and the mighty war machines flying overhead speaks volumes. For those of you with an eye for detail, you will also find that the time taken from the first aircraft passing overhead to the last is exactly 8 minutes and 30 seconds, exactly as it should be.

All these aircraft passing in what I call a fly-past, is officially known as the Défilé arien d’ouverture (the opening aerial parade would be a rough translation) but that implies that more was to follow. And indeed there was.

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At 11.20 precisely, a stream of 36 helicopters was scheduled to pass over the Champs Elysées in what is called the Défilé arien de cloture. Still at my recording position on the Esplanade de La Défense I waited until they appeared.

Getting the helicopters into a stream is much less complicated than with the aircraft. All 36 helicopters approached me from over la Grande Arche in a single line and I could see all of them as they passed over me and headed to the Champs Elysées.

Défilé arien de cloture – The helicopter fly-past

The stream of 36 helicopters included 21 from l’aviation légère de l’armée de Terre, 6 from l’armée de l’Air, 3 from la Marine nationale, 3 from la Gendarmerie nationale and 3 from la sécurité civile.

La Fête National 2014

In previous years I’ve spent the afternoon of la Fête Nationale visiting the Franciliens accueillent leur soldats displays that pop up around Paris. But this year I came upon something a little different.

Bearing in mind that this year is the centenary anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War I went to the Jardin des Tuileries where I came upon a display of First World War vehicles and memorabilia including men and women dressed in costumes of the period.

La Fête National 2014

But what really caught my eye were two magnificent examples of original Taxis de la Marne, Marne Taxis.

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What we now refer to as Marne Taxis were originally the Renault Type AG Parisian taxicabs designed by Louis Renault and built between 1905 and 1910.

The 1,205 cc, two-cylinder, 12 horsepower, Renault AG was a robust motor car for its time but it became really popular during these years thanks to a car-rental company who ordered 1,500 of them to which they attached a new invention, the taximétre or, taximeter, which automatically calculated how much the passenger had to pay.

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But this little taxicab was about to achieve a fame far beyond that which could be imagined.

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By the beginning of September 1914 Paris had lost its glitter. War had been declared, the Germans were approaching the capital at an alarming pace and the French Government had decamped to Bordeaux leaving the defence of Paris to its military governor, General Joseph Simon Gallieni. Retiring from the army in April 1914, Gallieni was recalled in August to oversee the defence of Paris. His only directive: to defend Paris to the last.

With the German army perilously close to the city, fate took a hand. Confusion on the German side, almost inevitable in the fog of war, together with a stroke of good fortune for the French revealed that there appeared to be a gap in the German defences. In order to take advantage of this, Gallieni needed to move his troops quickly. With the rail lines nearly crippled and few army motorised vehicles to hand, Gallieni instructed his staff to commission all of Paris’ taxis to drive French troops to the front.

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On the evening of 6th September, hundreds of taxicabs assembled on the Esplanade des Invalides and by morning they were heading off for the front. By the end of the following day some 600 taxis, each making several runs, had delivered over 3,000 troops. The taxi drivers, like taxi drivers the world over, insisted on being paid for their efforts but, after some hasty negotiations and in a spirit of patriotism, they finally settled for 27% of the full fare for each trip.

The troops that the taxi drivers delivered became engaged in what we now know as the First Battle of the Marne, often known because of its significance as the Miracle of the Marne. It was fought from the 5th to the 12th September and it resulted in an Allied victory against the German army commanded by Chief of Staff, Helmuth von Moltke. It was also the prelude to the stalemate that was to ensue for most of the next four years.

La Fête National 2014

Looking at these two original Marne Taxis in the Jardin des Tuileries it was hard to imagine that they had actually taken part in this momentous event.

But both were obviously well loved, well cared for and in pristine condition: a fitting tribute to their contribution to the Miracle of the Marne.

La Fête National 2014

4
May

La Fête du Travail – The Marching Season Begins

THE FIRST OF MAY is a public holiday in France, La Fête du Travail or Labour Day as it’s known in some countries.

Traditionally, the First of May is also the day when Lily of the Valley, or Muguet, is sold everywhere on streets across France as a of the symbol of springtime and of good luck.

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Muguet (Lily of the Valley) being distributed in rue de Rivoli

La Fête du Travail is primarily an opportunity to campaign for and to celebrate workers’ rights and in Paris many people take to the streets to make their voices heard.

For me, as a sonic journalist and dedicated collector of the sounds of Paris, the First of May always marks the start of the Parisian marching season. I know that over the next few months I will spend many hours on the streets capturing the sounds of marches, demonstrations and protests covering every shade of political opinion.

In Paris it’s become traditional for the two extremes of political opinion to take to the streets on the First of May. In the morning the right-wing Front National march from the Palais-Royal to Place de l’Opéra and in the afternoon the left-wing Socialists and Trades Unions march from Place de la Bastille to Place de la Nation. I used to record both of these marches each year but latterly I’ve taken to recording them alternately, the left one year and the right the next.

This year it was the turn of the Front National and so an hour before the march was due to begin I arrived in the Place des Pyramides in front of Emmanuel Frémiet’s gilded statue of Jeanne d’Arc, heroine to the far right, and jostled with the seasoned TV and Radio crews and the press photographers to get the best vantage point.

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I recorded the march as it approached along the rue de Rivoli and then passed the statue of Jeanne d’Arc and then I followed it to the Place de l’Opéra.

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Front National March:

Two things struck me about this year’s march. First, the last time I recorded this Front National march was in 2012 and my impression was that there were more marchers then than there were this year. I have no statistical evidence to base that on but it was just my impression. And second, although this year’s marchers were vociferous, they seemed to me to be a little more subdued than in 2012.

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If, like me, you are a seasoned observer of Parisian political marches and demonstrations from whatever part of the political spectrum, you cannot fail to be impressed by the importance that sound plays. I believe that the rhythm and constant repetition of the chants not only gives everyone a voice but it also acts as a means of discipline.

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As an outside observer on the street, you can see that the rhythm and repetition of the chanting has an almost hypnotic effect on the marchers – although I doubt that they would probably accept that. In any of these political marches there are leaders who dictate what the chant should be, the pace and the rhythm of the chant and how many times it should be repeated and then there are the followers who do exactly that, follow the leader’s command.

It seems to me that through this constant chanting the marchers not only have a voice but they feel that their voice is being heard.

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I am convinced that the power of sound through rhythm and constant repetition is the main reason why marches like this seldom become unruly or descend into mindless violence.

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I followed the march to Place de l’Opéra but, unlike in 2012, I didn’t stay to record the speeches. Instead I had a fascinating chat with a French radio reporter who gave me a guided tour of her Nagra ARES C sound recorder before she went off to file her report for the lunchtime news bulletin.

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Feb

Paris Celebrates The Year of the Wooden Horse

IT’S THAT TIME OF the year again, Chinese New Year. Last year was the year of the water snake and this year it’s the year of the wooden horse.

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On Sunday, the 13th arrondissement was awash with people participating in and watching the glittering annual parade to celebrate Chinese New Year. The parade began in the Avenue d’Ivry and wound its way along Avenue de Choisy, Place d’Italie, Avenue d’Italie, Rue de Tolbiac, Boulevard Massena and back to Avenue d’Ivry in south-central Paris. I along with thousands of others lined the streets to listen to and watch the spectacle. As always, it was a magnificent cavalcade of sound and colour.

Sounds of the year of the wooden horse:

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Sep

Quartier des Célestins and the Garde Républicaine

LAST WEEKEND WAS the annual Journées du Patrimoine, the wonderful weekend in September when it’s possible to visit a wide variety of well-known but usually off-limits places in Paris and indeed in the rest of France. Places like the Elysées Palace, the French Senate, or the Assemblée Nationale as well as a wide variety of theatres, museums, historical monuments and public buildings open their doors to the public for this weekend in September and entry is free. Even my local mayor opened up his office and was there to greet visitors from my neck of the woods as they passed through.

And my choice of place to visit …

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I went here to the Quartier des Célestins the home of the cavalry regiment of the Garde Républicaine. The barracks occupy a rather grand building on Boulevard Henry IV in the 4th arrondissement, a short walk from Bastille.

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It’s called the Quartier des Célestins because it stands of the site of the former Couvent des Célestins, the Convent of the Celestines. Philip the Fair introduced the Celestines into France in 1300 and the convent was built in 1352 on the site of what was a former Carmelite convent. The convent was closely associated the French Royal family and it became the second most important burial site for royalty after the Basilique Saint-Denis, albeit for minor Royals. By the 18th century the convent was in decline and it’s demise came in 1778.  The buildings were demolished in 1847 and the Célestins barracks of the Garde Républicaine, designed by French architect Jacques Hermant, was built on the site of the convent gardens and opened in 1901.

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Picture via Wikipedia

The Garde Républicaine, formed in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte as the Municipal Guard of Paris, is part of the French Gendarmerie. Today, it comprises two infantry regiments, including a motorcycle squadron, and a cavalry regiment. It also has several musical formations including a mounted band and fanfare trumpeters as well as an eighty – piece orchestra.

As well as it’s State ceremonial duties, including representing France at international events abroad and receiving important dignitaries at home, the Garde Républicaine is responsible for guarding important public buildings and supporting other law enforcement forces with intervention groups or horseback patrols. It also has responsibility for transporting and escorting organs for transplant.

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The cavalry regiment of the Garde Républicaine is the last unit in the French Army to have horses. It comprises around 500 men and women along with some 550 horses. The regiment includes a training school based at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, three squadrons of cavalry, one of which is based at the Quartier des Célestins and a squadron hors rang, also based at the Quartier des Célestins, which includes the musicians, farriers and veterinary services .

And so to my visit to the Quartier des Célestins …

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Passing through the cluster of rather burly but not at all unfriendly Gendarmerie at the main gate, my first port of call was the Salle de Traditions, the museum.

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It’s a small museum but I found it really fascinating. It covers the history of the Garde Républicaine from its inception to the present day and it includes an array of exhibits covering every aspect of the life and work of the regiment both from its service at home and overseas.

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From the museum, I walked to the exercise yard – this is a cavalry barracks after all and horses need plenty of exercise.

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I also had a look at the stables …

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… and the enormous riding school.

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I never go anywhere without my sound recorder and I’m always on the hunt for fascinating sounds to capture. I did record the sounds inside the museum and in the riding school and later on I recorded the man responsible for making the hats for the infantry regiments of the Garde Républicaine explaining how it’s done. But the sounds I want to share with you are sounds that tell a story – the sounds of the farriers at work shoeing a cavalry horse.

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The first thing you need to shoe a horse is a horseshoe, a fer à cheval in French, and the Garde Républicaine make their own – lots of them.

The farriers making horseshoes:

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Once the horseshoe is made to approximately the right size the process of shoeing the horse can begin. Here are the sounds of the entire process which I recorded standing in the rain sans umbrella amidst a group of inquisitive children who were fascinated by it all.

Shoeing a cavalry horse:

First, you have to remove the old shoe …

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Then you have to tidy up the horse’s hoof with lots of scraping and filing. Next, you present the new shoe to the hoof and see what adjustments need to be made to ensure an exact fit. This involves heating the shoe in the forge and then shaping it by hitting it with a hammer. Once the shoe is tailored to the right size it’s edges, in the best military tradition, are ground down to make them bright and shiny.  The shoe is then heated again and presented to the horse’s hoof while the shoe is still hot.

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It’s a very steamy process!

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Once the shoe is fitted, special nails are hammered in to fix the shoe in place. The points of these nails penetrate the hoof and come out the other side. Some of the exposed parts of the nails are pinched off and then a clinch block is set under each nail on the outer hoof wall and the nail head is hit with yet another hammer and the nail is set into the hoof.

All that remains is a final pedicure and the horse is good to go to a round of applause.

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I didn’t know any of this until my visit to the Quartier des Célestins. I’d never seen a horse being shod before so not only did I learn a lot, I also recorded it for posterity – and it made my day.

Here are some more sights of the Quartier des Célestins …

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I’m sorry madam, candyfloss does not pass muster as a cavalry plume!

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Sep

La Fête de Ganesh 2013

IN PARIS, THE SUMMER SEASON of colourful celebrations and processions came to an end yesterday with the annual Fête de Ganesh. Organised by the temple de Ganesh de Paris Sri Manicka Vinayakar Alayam, this Chariot Festival as its known has taken place in Paris each year since 1996.

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Genesha is the Hindu deity of wisdom, propriety and good fortune as well as the destroyer of evils and obstacles.

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The Fête de Ganesh begins with a religious ceremony at the temple de Ganesh de Paris Sri Manicka Vinayakar Alayam in rue Pajol after which a colourful procession sets off and meanders through the 10th and 18th arrondissements. I caught up with them in rue Marx Dormoy.

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Sounds of the Fête de Ganesh 2013:

I’m afraid that I’m not up to speed with all the symbolism of the Fête de Ganesh but I do know that elephants and coconuts are important.

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Piles of coconuts are erected at various points along the procession route and when the procession arrives at each pile the coconuts are picked up and then smashed into the ground.

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You can hear the sound of the coconuts being smashed in my sound piece although you might be forgiven for mistaking it for the sound of gunfire or fireworks.

To go with the sounds, here are some more sights of my visit to the Fête de Ganesh 2013.

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Jul

La Fête Nationale 2013

LA FÊTE NATIONALE on 14th July is the centrepiece of the Parisian summer. It’s the French National Day and it commemorates the 1790 Fete de la Federation, held on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. It also marks the start of the French holiday season. In Paris the day starts with the défilé, the parade of military and civilian services, marching down the Champs Elysées to be reviewed by the Président de la République and his army of guests.

Before the défilé gets under way there is an opening ceremony at the end of which comes the opening fly-past by the French Air Force, the Armée de l’Air led by nine Alpha jets of the Patrouille de France, the French aerobatic display team who celebrate their 60th anniversary this year.

Patrouille de France

Here I have to confess that I’m an aircraft enthusiast and so each year my viewing of the fly-past takes the same form. Half of me is inside watching on the TV and half of me is outside on my balcony watching and recording the aircraft as they fly overhead so close that I can almost reach up and touch them. At least that’s what I’ve done each year for the last fifteen years but this year I was forced into a last-minute change of plan.

With about half an hour to go before the aircraft were due directly overhead with a wonderful sense of timing my next-door neighbours emerged onto their balcony to, rather over-enthusiastically I thought, tuck into a late breakfast. It was quite clear that my plans to record the fly-past free of the clatter of cutlery and minus a running commentary of the event about to unfold was a hopeless cause. What to do?

Not being in the mood for one of those endless arguments that the French seem to enjoy so much I decided to implement Plan B.

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My recording position close to home: Photo by julietinparis

I hastily grabbed my sound recorder and a microphone (Nagra LB and Rode NT4), left my apartment and set off up the street to a place close by where I knew I would get an excellent view of the fly-past and from where I could expect to get a good sound recording. From here I could see La Grande Arche de la Défense in one direction and the Arc de Triomphe in the other, the exact flight path of the aircraft.  This is a place I pass every day so I know it well. The fact that it’s a bus station and the buses run during La Fête Nationale, and it was full of people, could have been seen as somewhat of a flaw in Plan B but I pressed on undeterred.

I must say, it was well worth it. The view of the aircraft was simply spectacular even though in my hurry to implement Plan B I had left home without my camera.

Défilé aérien d’ouverture - the aircraft fly-past:

Apart from La Patrouille de France who are always good value, the star of the show for me was the appearance of the Airbus A400M, the multi-national four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft designed as a tactical airlifter with strategic capabilities.

For those of you interested in these things the running order is listed below.

defile-aerien-ouverture JPEG

As I said, I recorded these sounds from a bus station with lots of people around but I think that has added to the recording rather than detracting from it. For me, the sound of small, innocent children playing happily whilst war machines each costing millions pass overhead has a certain poignancy to it and the sound of a Paris bus starting its engine just ahead of five interceptor fighters passing overhead seems to be a sort of ‘poke in the eye’ to this extravagant display of military muscle.

This year some aircraft from the Luftwaffe were invited to take part in the défilé aérien. The last time German aircraft flew over Paris it was in very different circumstances, which thank goodness are long behind us.

While the aircraft appear at the beginning of the défilé in the Champs Elysées, the helicopter fly-past comes towards the end, some ninety minutes later. I decided not to stay at my bus stop location to record the helicopters, instead, it being a glorious sunny day, I decided to go home and record them from my garden. Well, it’s not actually my garden but it is the garden of my apartment building and I’ve been here so long that it feels as though it’s mine.

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It takes much less time for the helicopters to pass but their sounds are none the less dramatic.

Défilé aérien de clôture – the helicopter fly-past:

 And here is the helicopter running order:

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So that was my aircraft fix for yet another year. I always look forward to it and, despite my balcony drama, it didn’t disappoint.

After a quick lunch I set off again to savour more of La Fête Nationale, this time ”Les Parisiens et les franciliens accueillent leurs soldats”.

After the morning’s pageantry in the Champs Elysées some of the forces that took part in the défilé set up static displays in seven different places in and around Paris. It’s a chance for the public to meet the military face to face. I went to the event at Les Invalides. I went there last year and amongst the displays of military vehicles and hardware I was able to capture the sounds of le Bagad Lann-Bihoué, the very popular French Navy musical ensemble who specialise in playing distinctive Bretonne and Celtic music and a French Army Male Voice Choir. You can hear these sounds here.

This year I came upon another male voice choir, this time from the choir school of the French Navy.

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French Navy Male Voice Choir:

These sounds were recorded without the aid of the public address system. The French Navy knob-twiddler-in-chief was clearly out of his depth trying to manage the public address system so, despite the appearance of a couple of blasts of feedback early on, he gave up and retreated to his hutch. Let’s hope he never becomes knob-twiddler-in-chief  in a nuclear submarine!

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This year’s Fête Nationale came to a wonderful climax with a brilliant late-night concert in the Champs des Mars at the foot of Le Tour Eiffel which I watched on TV followed by an equally brilliant firework display which I also watched on TV but listened to from the balcony of my apartment. Le Tour Eiffel is in a direct line from my apartment balcony and I could get a perfect view of it – if it wasn’t for the houses in between!

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Jul

Carnaval Tropical de Paris 2013

PARIS IN JULY means that it must be summer – and summer means that it must be Carnival time.

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Yesterday, the annual Carnaval Tropical de Paris took place around place de la Nation.  Some 4,000 dancers in colourful costumes, dozens of floats and a cornucopia of drummers paraded through place de la Nation and then meandered for some 4.5 km through the 11th arrondissement.  This is one of the highlights of the Parisian summer and there is little to compete with it for colour, sound and cultural diversity.

I was there yesterday to savour it all.

Carnaval Tropical de Paris 2013:

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May

Marche Citoyenne pour la 6éme République

ONE YEAR AGO I stood in place de la Bastille amongst a jubilant crowd as they received the news that François Holland had been elected Président de la République, the first French socialist president to have been elected since François Mitterand back in 1981.  I produced a piece for this blog about that evening in which I said, “As 8.00 pm approached the excitement became palpable and when the result became clear the party began.” 

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Place de la Bastille – 5th May 2012

One year on and the party’s over, the excitement has evaporated and the opinion polls show that François Hollande is now the most unpopular president in modern French history.

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Place de la Bastille – 5th May 2013

On Sunday crowds once again filled place de la Bastille, not to celebrate but to protest at what they see as betrayal. In a nutshell, their argument is that François Hollande was elected last May on the back of a promise to spare France the austerity measures imposed elsewhere in Europe. Instead, the French government has cut spending, increased taxes, reduced hiring in the public sector and introduced plans to allow companies to cut workers’ hours during economic downturns.  Meanwhile, France’s economy has continued to deteriorate, with growth stagnating and unemployment rising above 10%.

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Tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets on Sunday. According to the police they numbered 30,000 while the organisers, Le Front de Gauche, put the figure at 180,000. How the police and demonstration organisers always come up with such widely varying estimates of crowd numbers continues to baffle me. All I can say is that I was in place de la Bastille when the demonstration moved off on its march to place de la Nation and I was there three hours later as the tail end of the march was just setting off.

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This demonstration was the brainchild of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the Front de Gauche coalition. One time government minister and member of the French Senate, Mélenchon has been a member of the European Parliament since 2009. He now heads the Front de Gauche comprising the Unitarian Left (Gauche Unitaire), the Federation for a Social and Ecological Alternative (Fédération pour une alternative sociale et écologique, FASE), Republic and Socialism (République et socialisme), Convergences and Alternative (Convergences et alternative), the Anticapitalist Left (Gauche anticapitaliste), the Workers’ Communist Party of France (Parti communiste des ouvriers de France, PCOF) and The Alternative (Les alternatifs).

Jean-Luc Mélenchon came to national prominence in 2010 during the huge demonstrations against pension reform and in 2012 he represented Le Front de Gauche in the French presidential election where he came in fourth place with 11.05% of the vote.

Marching under the banner Marche citoyenne pour la 6e République, the Front de Gauche want to see, according to one of the leaflets handed to me, a sweeping away of the current constitution and fundamental change to the way things are done – an end to the dominance of the financial markets, a democratisation of the institutions, more power to the people, new and greater rights to employees, a democratisation of elections with proportional representation and genuine independence of justice without conflicts of interest.

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Marche citoyenne pour la 6éme République:

These street demonstrations are always colourful and loud and for the most part good-natured, although I will have something to say about that in a moment.

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On Sunday there was the usual mix of serious minded protestors, occasional eccentrics and endless loudspeaker vans blasting out slogans and music at full volume often drowning out the chants of the marchers. The cacophony of sound can be overpowering especially to promiscuous microphones that pick up anything and everything. So for the sound hunter, capturing the atmosphere of such large demonstrations is a challenge.

In the sound piece above I’ve tried to give you a flavour of the atmosphere and to highlight some of the distinctive sounds. In the next piece, I will give you a flavour of what it’s like to walk amongst a crowd of tens of thousands of people. It’s a walk from the Opéra Bastille to rue de la Roquette, which on a normal day takes about two minutes. On Sunday it took me closer to twenty minutes (and I was lucky to do it that quickly) as I weaved my way through the throngs of people.

Walking from Opéra Bastille to rue de la Roquette:

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My final sound piece though tells a different story.

As I said earlier, street demonstrations in Paris are usually pretty good-natured and pass off without any trouble. The largest demonstration I’ve attended was the massive protest against pension reform in 2010 when one million people took to the streets. Even with a demonstration of that size and with passions running very high, I saw nothing that could be described as trouble. On Sunday though, I saw something I’ve never seen before and I also learned something about the Front de Gauche.

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This group of Africans were at the very back of the demonstration and it was them that I joined some three hours after the leading demonstrators had left place de la Bastille. True, unlike most of the other demonstrators, they were not protesting specifically about la finance et l’austérité although they all professed sympathy with the aims of the demonstration.

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Their specific concern was for the situation in Côte d’Ivoire. They were demonstrating for the release of political prisoners in that country and in particular for the release of Simone Gbagbo.  You can find out more about the former French colony of Côte d’Ivoire here.

To be honest, I know very little about Côte d’Ivoire other than what I occasionally glimpse on French TV news and, until Sunday, I wasn’t at all sure who Simone Gbagbo was. But these people clearly felt they had a point to make and they were doing it peacefully and with enthusiasm. In my experience it is quite usual for minority groups with off-piste interests to meld into large demonstrations.

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All was well until the time came for them to move off and follow the tail end of the larger demonstration. I had moved slightly ahead of them when I was aware of a scuffle taking place behind me. I turned round to see three or four young white men all sporting Front de Gauche stickers trying to break up the African group. The African stewards were brilliant. They responded swiftly by shepherding the African group away from the trouble and calm ensued. What happened next I simply found beyond belief.

When I turned round to look towards the larger demonstration about twenty or thirty Front de Gauche people, men and women, all white, had linked arms and facing the African group had formed a double cordon to prevent the Africans getting close to the main demonstration. Not only that, but when the Africans remonstrated, the language from the all white cordon was, how shall I say … provocative.

Here’s how events unfolded:

What seemed to have escaped the attention of the all French, all white, cordon was, as one of the Africans told me with passion in her voice, We are all French citizens!”

I must say that for me, the man in charge of the African group  – the man in the orange cap, white trousers and holding the microphone in the picture above, was the hero of the hour. He showed real leadership, not by responding as vocally as some of his group but by exerting the sheer force of his personality, calmly talking to people and getting the music and the chanting going again.

I must also say, that having seen what I did, any sympathy I may have had for Le Front de Gauche, and I did have some, melted away in an instant as their darker side revealed itself.

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The all white, all French, cordon clearly believed that Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité is a wonderful thing … so long as you’re white and French. If you’re black and African then it seems to be quite a different story.

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Feb

Chinese New Year – L’Année du Serpent

IT’S THAT TIME of the year again, Chinese New Year and it’s goodbye to the year of the dragon and welcome to the year of the snake.

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The Chinese New Year is a moveable feast. In the Gregorian calendar it falls somewhere between 21st January and the 20th February but the precise date is determined by the lunisolar Chinese calendar and the date when the second new moon after the winter solstice occurs.

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Each year in the Chinese calendar is associated with one of the 12-year cycle of animals which appear in the Chinese zodiac. This year is the year of the snake.

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Chinese communities the world over celebrate their new year with tremendous enthusiasm and the Chinese community in Paris is no exception. The streets are decorated with red Chinese lanterns, wonderful colours abound and the air is filled with the magical sounds of drums and cymbals accompanying the magnificent lion dances.

I went to Place d’Italie in the 13th arrondissement to watch and listen to the celebrations.

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The Year of the Snake in Sound:

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