MY LAST THREE POSTS have covered my recent exploration of the Canal Saint-Denis and its sounds.
In Part 1, I walked along the western side of the canal from its starting point in the Parc de la Villette to the end of the Quai de la Gironde in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. In Part 2, I crossed over the Pont MacDonald, left the Paris city limits, and walked along the eastern side of the canal to the swing bridge, the Pont Tournant du Canal Saint-Denis, in the commune of Aubervilliers. In Part 3, I left Aubervilliers and continued walking along the eastern side of the canal until I reached the heart of Saint-Denis where I had to cross over to the western side again in order to continue to the end of the canal at L’Écluse de la Briche where the canal discharges into la Seine. As I walked along the canal I stopped from time to time to capture the sights and sounds of the canal and I made several detours to look at and to listen to other things that caught my interest.
I’ve included some of the sights and sounds I captured along the canal in my previous three posts but now I want to add something else I captured, something that I think captures the very essence of the Canal Saint-Denis.
As I passed the penultimate lock on the canal, Lock N°6, L’Écluse Saint-Denis, I discovered that my way was barred because of renovation work to the walls of the quay and so I had to cross over the Passerelle de la Gare to the other side. As I crossed over this footbridge I had no idea that it would be a further hour before I continued my journey along the canal.
My diversion over the Passerelle de la Gare, across the Place de la Gare, then over the Pont de la Gare Saint-Denis and back again to the western quay
Saint-Denis; Place de la Gare
I crossed the footbridge and entered the Place de la Gare, the concourse outside Saint-Denis railway station, when I came upon something completely unexpected and something that occupied me for the next hour or so.
I found that I was in the midst of an African street market complete with its colourful sights and sounds.
Street Market in the Place de la Gare – Saint-Denis:
The market stretched across the Place de la Gare and over the Pont de la Gare Saint-Denis but it’s not an official market, on the contrary, it’s an ad hoc and technically illegal market that appears most days of the week. The police though seem to tolerate it, they patrol the area regularly, always in groups of three, whereupon the vendors hastily pack their goods away and wait until the police leave before they get back to work.
Of course, the police haven’t always been so tolerant and I was reminded of this when I saw a sign attached to lamppost with an alternative name for this space – Place des Victimes du 17 October 1961.
October 1961 was a particularly inglorious time for the police as the two memorial plaques I found explain.
Memorial plaque in the Place de la Gare
Memorial plaque on the Pont de la Gare Saint-Denis
I’ve referred to these events elsewhere in this blog so here I’ll just leave the plaques to tell their own story.
In my walk along the entire length of the Canal Saint-Denis, I photographed many images and recorded many sounds but, for me, it is the sounds of this market that capture the real essence of the Canal Saint-Denis.
At the end of Part 3 of my exploration of the canal I said:
“My walk along the canal made me think not only about my immediate surroundings but also about history; the medieval history of the fertile Plaine Saint-Denis, the industrial revolution in the nineteenth-century and the more recent de-industrialisation with the urban decline and attempts at renewal that have followed in its wake.”
With a little imagination, I think the contemporary sounds I discovered in the Place de la Gare illustrate some of that history.
At first glance, it might not be obvious how to connect these sounds with a medieval past but markets and their sounds are nothing new to Saint-Denis or to the surrounding area.
The first market hereabouts, la foire de la Saint-Denis, the Fair of Saint-Denis, dates back to the seventh century when an autumn fair was held beginning on October 9th each year, the anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint-Denis and the date of the annual pilgrimage to his tomb. The fair was held at the Place Panetière and in covered markets, but also in the main cemetery of the Abbeye de Saint-Denis. It lasted for seven-weeks, from October 9th to November 29th, Saint Andrew’s Day, and since it was held well after the harvest and during grape-picking it allowed the abbey to sell its grain and surplus wine produced by its extensive vineyards.
The subsequent arrival of the Vikings interrupted this annual fair but the monks of Saint-Denis revived it again in 1053 with the Lendit Fair. In the early twelfth century, the market was moved to the La Plaine Saint-Denis, halfway between Paris and Saint-Denis, where it began on the second Wednesday in June and lasted until June 23, the eve of the feast of Saint John the Baptist. The market returned to the Place Panetière in 1556.
Today, as well as the ad hoc street market in the Place de la Gare, Saint-Denis is well-known for its thriving indoor and street markets clustered around the former Place Panetière, now the Place Victor Hugo.
When it was opened in 1821, the Canal Saint-Denis created a ribbon of water cutting through the edge of the 19th arrondissement of Paris and stretching across the agricultural Plaine Saint-Denis and through medieval Aubervilliers as far as Saint-Denis. In its wake came the railway and a wave of industrialisation. The canal became a major artery feeding the burgeoning industries; it became the lifeblood of the communities along its banks.
Today, save for the stretch along the Quai de la Gironde in the 19th arrondissement, a walk along the Canal Saint-Denis reveals little of the sonic environment that might have existed in the nineteenth century. Of course, barges still pass up and down the canal and trains cross it, there is mechanical activity – trucks take on loads of ready-mix concrete and JCB’s load and off-load construction materials, but there is little of the bustle of human activity that would have characterised the canal during the hundred years from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century.
The sounds I came upon in the Place de la Gare reminded me that this canal, in its hey-day, would have had a pulse reflecting the heartbeat of the human communities along its banks.
After industrialisation came de-industrialisation along with its bedfellows, increased unemployment, increased poverty, the flight of the wealthiest part of the population and increased immigration.
Issues around immigration seem to make big headlines today but immigration is nothing new along the Canal Saint-Denis. Nineteenth century industrialisation saw waves of immigrants arrive just as de-industrialisation has. The sounds I found in the Place de la Gare seemed to me to reflect the ebb and flow of these populations.
I’ve said that the sounds I happened upon in the Place de la Gare were sounds that for me at least captured the very essence of the Canal Saint-Denis. Out of context they are simply the sounds of yet another street market but in the context that they are the sounds of human activity lying alongside and straddling the Canal Saint-Denis they seem to me to represent a series of footprints stretching from the present day to the distant past.
The essence of the Canal Saint-Denis surely rests with its location, its history and the activity on and around it. The sounds of this ad hoc market in the Place de la Gare with accents from the Maghreb, sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere may represent this stretch of the Canal Saint-Denis today but I would argue that they are also a reflection of the medieval markets in the Plaine Saint-Denis which themselves were not attended exclusively by the French.
The modern-day sounds I think also represent a similar heartbeat to that which might have been found alongside the canal at the height of industrialisation – bustling activity against a background of competing accents. The period of de-industrialisation, of course, is to some extent represented by the very people I found in the Place de la Gare.
The one piece of history that is perhaps not represented by these sounds is the retrieval of the dead bodies from the canal in October 1961. Maybe that’s appropriate though because I suspect that they would have been treated with a respectful silence.
Place de la Gare – Place des Victimes du 17 October 1961
In my exploration of the Canal Saint-Denis I recorded many sounds all of which are a faithful record of the canal as it is today. But, for me, none of them conjure up as much of the essence of the canal as the sounds in the Place de la Gare.
IN MY PREVIOUS POST I recounted how I went to the Marché aux Fleurs last Saturday shortly after the visit by Queen Elizabeth II and how the market had been renamed in her honour as the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II.
The next day I returned to this flower market to witness its transformation into the Marché aux Oiseaux, a bird market.
The main part of the Marché aux Fleurs comprises two iron pavilions filled with a cornucopia of plants, shrubs, flowers and garden accessories. But on Sundays the road between the two pavilions is taken over by temporary stalls selling a wide variety of birds, from the rare and exotic to the more prosaic, together with a selection bird related accessories.
When I went there on Sunday, the road between the iron pavilions of the flower market was awash with people who, as with most markets, obviously come here not only to buy and sell but also to meet friends and other like-minded people.
Marché aux Oiseaux – A Soundwalk:
I found the soundscape in the Marché aux Oiseaux fascinating – an intriguing interweaving of sounds from two different species in close proximity, the avian and the human, with both speaking to themselves but not to each other. It seemed as though the air was filled with a cacophony of conversation.
At the end of my Sunday morning walk through the Marché aux Oiseaux this cacophony of avian and human conversation seemed to be reconciled by the unifying, man-made sounds of the distant bells of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris drifting across the market on the warm, summer air.
Here are some more sights of the Marché aux Oiseaux:
THE FRENCH SELDOM name places after living people but in the case of the Marché aux Fleurs in Paris they’ve made an exception.
Last Saturday, at the end of a three-day State Visit to France which included attending the 70th anniversary commemoration of the D-Day landings in Normandy, Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, Anne Hidalgo, the newly elected Mayor of Paris, and the French Président, François Hollande, visited the Marché aux Fleurs, which has been renamed the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II in her honour.
It’s quite a while since I’ve been to the Marché aux Fleurs so I thought I would go along on Saturday and reaquaint myself with this renowned Parisian flower market.
Close to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris and bordering La Seine, the Marché aux Fleurs, in the Place Louis Lépine, has been here since 1808. Housed in iron pavilions each with a glass roof, the market offers a wide range of flowers, plants, shrubs and garden accessories as well as other hidden treasures.
Sounds of the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II:
I arrived at the market shortly after the Queen had left and so, on this beautiful sunny day, I was able to walk around unencumbered by the restrictions surrounding Royal visits.
I spoke to some of the stallholders and they seemed delighted with the Queen’s visit and with the new name of the market. I also came upon two young ladies clutching an iPhone who were particularly excited since they had just found a photograph of themselves meeting the Queen on a French Television website.
Not everyone is happy with the new name though. Some on the Left said it was ‘ridiculous’ that an unelected monarch was getting such an accolade in a republic that executed most of its royals more than 200 years ago.
At the entrance to the market next to the Paris Préfecture de Police, where earlier the Queen had unveiled a street sign with the new name of the market, I discovered that work was well underway deconstructing the paraphernalia that had been erected for the unveiling ceremony. The four white, padded chairs that moments ago had hosted distinguished bottoms were now stacked on top of each other looking rather forlorn as if contemplating their fate.
In my next blog piece I will reveal what happens to the Marché aux Fleurs on Sunday mornings when the flowers and plants take a back seat and the market is transformed into the Marché aux Oiseaux, the bird market.
In the meantime, here are some more sights of the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II.
The Queen visiting the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II
Image via PA
WHEN I PUBLISHED my previous blog piece I thought that I’d said everything I needed to say about my local Christmas market – but it turns out there is a post-script.
When I went to get bread from my local boulangerie last Saturday afternoon I discovered a different Jazz band playing in the Christmas market, the Gibsy Quartet. They were very good and so I decided to record them for my Paris Soundscapes Archive.
The Gibsy Quartet
Over the years I’ve learned many lessons about how to record the sounds of urban life around me and one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is never to turn my sound recorder off as soon as I think I have a recording in the bag. Urban sounds can often be quite unpredictable and fascinating sounds can sometimes turn up when you least expect them. Another lesson is that what you might think are fairly ordinary sounds can suddenly become quite extraordinary.
One could argue that recording a jazz band playing in a Parisian street is nothing out of the ordinary, once you’ve heard one you’ve heard them all some might say. But when events have a twist in the tail then the ordinary becomes extraordinary.
I recorded the Gibsy Quartet on Saturday afternoon. They were going to be at the Christmas market for much longer than I was so I recorded them playing two pieces and then I was about to head off for home. As is my practice, after they finished their second piece I left my sound recorder running and then, as I turned to walk away, this astonishing man appeared.
From his lofty perch he began singing and playing his concertina and I, the jazz band and several other people began to gather round him.
He spied the band beneath him and without hesitation he began to sing the Neapolitan song, O Sole Mio, an open invitation to the jazz musicians so used to improvising.
And improvise they did turning the ordinary into something quite extraordinary.
The Gibsy Quartet … and friend:
I’ve never lost my enthusiasm for recording the soundscapes of Paris, but if I ever do I shall listen to this recording and remind myself of why I do it. Capturing unexpected and unrepeatable sounds like this always gives me a buzz and listening to these sounds will always remind me of my local Christmas market, the infectious enthusiasm of musicians and the delicious smell of freshly baked bread in my local boulangerie.
AT THIS TIME OF THE YEAR the Marchés de Noël, or Christmas markets, spring up all over Paris and I have three of them within easy reach of me. To the west is the very large one at La Défense with its 350 châlets standing in the shadow of la Grande Arche, to the east is the most visited Christmas market in Paris stretching along the Champs Elysées and then, at the bottom of my little street, is the one closest to home.
The Christmas markets at La Défense and along the Champs Elysées are very big, mostly swamped with visitors and quite impersonal whereas my local Christmas market is tiny in comparison but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in congeniality.
My local Christmas market is now open for business so I’ve been to have a look, to savour the atmosphere and to capture the sights and sounds.
Contrary to what you might think, the sounds in the big Christmas markets can often be quite bland but in my local Christmas market I enjoyed a sonic treat – two different bands, a street organ and singer, electronic music accompanying butterfly elves on stilts, a balloon sculptress with enormous boots and, of course, the sounds of lots of excited small children.
My local Christmas market in sound:
Alexandre l’Agodas: Le colporteur de rêves et son orgue de barbarie
(The pedlar of dreams and his barrel organ)
Les Elfes-papillons des pôles
(Butterfly elves on stilts)
Sculpture sur ballons avec Bibindum
Swing Connection – New Orleans Jazz
WHEN THINKING ABOUT which sounds of Paris I might publish here on this Christmas Eve it became obvious that I needed to look no further than the bottom of my little street and what is still my favourite Christmas market in Paris. I went to it this afternoon.
Paris is full of fabulously rich sounds but sometimes the most intimate sounds are to be found closest to home, like the sound of this man singing on the parvis of my local Hôtel de Ville.
Singer at my local Christmas market:
This man on his unicycle provided an interesting diversion.
And then I found this man playing a most extraordinary accordion.
LA DÉFENSE IS A MAJOR business district in the far west of Paris. It lies at the extreme western end of the axis that begins at the Louvre and continues along the Champs Elysées beyond the Arc de Triomphe to La Défense.
At this time each year, La Défense is host to a large Christmas market built in front of La Grande Arche, one of François Mitterrand’s Grands Projets. Designed by Danish architect Johann Otto von Spreckelsen and Danish engineer Erik Reitzel, La Grande Arche was built as a monument to humanity and humanitarian ideals.
Standing in front of La Grande Arche last Saturday afternoon, I was struck by the contrast between the 350 tiny wooden châlets and the giant office blocks that surround them. I was also struck by the stark contrast of the traders in the châlets trying to sell their wares to ordinary punters like me with some of the madness associated with these giant buildings.
Take the building on the left for example, Coeur Défense. At the height of the financial madness in 2008, Coeur Défense became the most expensive piece of real estate on the planet when it was bought by Lehman Brothers for an astonishing €2.1bn. They bought it just as the property market peaked and we know what happened next. Property prices fell, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and disposing of Coeur Défense become Europe’s largest distressed property sale.
I was also thinking about Société Générale, France’s second largest bank, whose offices are a short walk from the Christmas Market in La Défense. On January 24, 2008, the bank announced that a single futures trader had fraudulently lost the bank €4.9 billion, the largest such loss in history.
All this stands in stark contrast to the individual stallholders at the Christmas market trying to make a living and bringing some Christmas cheer in the process.
Music at the Christmas market:
Christmas markets in Paris are always enjoyable to visit even if you do tend to see the same stalls in more or less the same places each year selling more or less the same things. Each year, I set off to capture the sounds of the Christmas markets but, as each year passes, I find it more difficult to find something different to record. These musicians for example, good as they are, are always at the Christmas market in La Défense, in the same place and often playing the same music.
So this year, even though the sounds I found at La Défense were pretty much the same as every year, I’ve tried to capture a different emphasis by putting the individual stallholders centre stage as they go about selling their wares.
Consider it a poke in the eye to the ‘suits’ who plundered the pension funds of the unsuspecting public to the tune of billions!
La Défense Christmas Market – A Soundwalk:
I WENT TO THE Marché aux Puces at Porte de Clignancourt on Saturday, the largest flea market in the world so they say. I was on a mission, hunting for sounds and particularly for the sound of a rag and bone man.
In the late nineteenth-century, the area around Porte de Clignancourt was awash with rag and bone men, known as chiffoniers in French or sometimes, more poetically as, pêcheurs de lune, moonlight fishermen. Why I need the sound of a rag and bone man is a long story but let’s just say that it wasn’t my most successful sound hunting day. Not surprisingly, there wasn’t a rag and bone man to be found.
Nevertheless, the day was far from wasted. On my travels I came upon what appeared to be an ordinary café in the Rue des Rosiers.
I should have known better. Few things in this city are ordinary.
This is the celebrated Chope des Puces de Saint Ouen, a restaurant, a concert hall, a music school, a recording studio, a shop selling musical instruments and above all, a temple to jazz manouche, gypsy swing or hot club jazz, inspired by the magic of Django Reinhardt.
Espace Django Reinhardt:
If you happen to be in Paris between the 22nd and 25th June this would be a good place to visit since the Festival Jazz Musette des Puces is taking place.
Also taking place at the moment is a wonderful exhibition in the Marché Daupine.
“Hifi Génies” is an exhibition specifically designed to send sound nuts like me into a state of rapture. It includes a selection of equipment covering the history of sound reproduction. As always, it was the tape recorders that captivated me, ones like these studio models from Ampex and Studer.
And this one made by the French company Bordereau and used by the French national broadcaster RTF (Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française) in the 1950’s.
There were other tape recorders on show including Revox, Pioneer and some cassette recorders as well as some other Hi-Fi equipment but undoubtedly, for me at any rate, the stars of the show were these three beauties from Nagra.
Nagra II c (First introduced in 1955)
Nagra III (First introduced in 1961)
Nagra 4.2 (First introduced in 1972)
The Marché aux Puces comprises fourteen individual markets with around three thousand individual shops and stalls. It sells everything from complete junk to eye-wateringly expensive antiques. In every narrow alleyway and round every corner a surprise lies in wait. But few surprises could please me more than finding the Espace Django Reinhardt and three classic Nagra’s on the same day. I think the search for a rag and bone man can safely wait for another day.
For those of you who wonder what all the fuss is about when it comes to tape recorders, thank you for getting this far and I hope you at least enjoyed the music from the Espace Django Reinhardt.
For those slightly crazy people like me who find reel to reel tape recorders, and especially Nagra tape recorders, things of wonder and endless enjoyment you can find more Nagra recorders here … and here. Enjoy!
IT’S DECEMBER AND SO it must be the Christmas market season and Paris seems to be awash with Christmas markets this year. During my travels this week I’ve seen four of the Christmas markets that Paris has to offer. I seldom travel without a microphone and sound recorder to hand and so I was able to catch snatches of sound at each of them.
This week I’ve seen the most glamorous Christmas market that Paris has to offer, along with the biggest, the most intimate (for me at any rate), and what I think might be the smallest.
Sounds from four Christmas markets in Paris:
With it’s white painted châlets stretching from the Rond-Point to the Place de la Concorde, Le Marché de Noël in the Champs Elysées has to be the most glamorous Christmas market in Paris.
With some fifteen million visitors each year this is the most visited Christmas market within the Paris city limits and, like most Christmas markets, it offers the usual fare of mulled wine, gingerbread, sausages and specialties from various regions of France together with countless gift items and more woolly hats than you could shake a stick at.
The largest Christmas market in the Ile de France is to be found on the Parvis of La Défense. With its three hundred and fifty châlets, I’ve watched this market being erected in late November every year for the last twelve years and I admit to a tinge of disappointment when it’s demolished every January.
For me, the Christmas market in La Défense sells the best food of any Christmas market in and around Paris.
Not surprisingly, the most intimate Christmas market for me is the one closest to home. Turn right at the bottom of my little street and voila, there it is. I always associate this market with two things; it’s very friendly, intimate atmosphere and the children. The market sits either side of an Ecole Maternelle, a primary school, and so as the school empties each day the children all drift towards the market on what always seems to me to be a wide-eyed, voyage of discovery. Their excited chatter says it all.
The smallest Christmas market I’ve seen so far I came across completely by chance. I emerged from the Metro at Nation at the Boulevard Voltaire exit to find the station entrance surrounded by a tiny market.
In some ways I found this market very different from the others I’d seen. The inflatable rubber Santa seemed to provide a compass point to the Christian festive season amid the stalls below, which served largely Arabic fare. A Christmas carol sung in Chinese added wonderfully to the multi-cultural dimension.
And, as a final note, I was reminded when I was in La Défense to post early for Christmas to avoid disappointment. Is it possible that Father Christmas, or Père Noël as he’s known here in France, really does exist? I like to think so!
CLOSE TO NOTRE-DAME cathedral and bordering La Seine, the Marché aux Fleurs – the Paris Flower Market – in the Place Louis Lépine, has been here since 1808.
The market is housed in iron pavilions each with a glass roof and it offers a wide range of flowers, plants, shrubs and garden accessories.
Like most places in Paris, the Marché aux Fleurs winds down during the August holidays and, whilst some of the shops and stalls are closed, there is still some activity although much less so than at other times of the year.
This proved to be a plus for your sound hunter. I went to the market on Saturday and without the usual bustle of the crowds I was able to capture sounds that otherwise would have probably gone unnoticed.
Sounds in le Marché aux Fleurs:
Despite its name, the Marché aux Fleurs is not just about flowers. It’s also a flea market as the shop pictured below illustrates … a wonderful cornucopia of hidden treasures.
I especially liked the lanterns.
On Sundays, the Marché aux Fleurs takes on an additional guise when it also becomes the Marché aux Oiseaux – the bird market, where you can find colourful and exotic birds and all the accoutrements to go with them.
The Marché aux Fleurs is open every day from 8 am to 7 pm. The nearest Metro station is Cité on Line 4.
Click here to see a short video about the Marché aux Fleurs and …