Various Artists

The Rough Guide to Paris Cafe Music

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Paris is more than the city of romance. It's also the city of cafes -- the famous sidewalk places of beautiful women, and existential philosophers linger over dark coffee. But over the last century those cafes have also given Paris a musical identity, that of the bals musette, its songs and melodies powered by the accordion. The great chanteuse Edith Piaf was tangentially a part of that scene -- and quite rightly she appears here -- as were the Quintette du Hot Club de France, the fabulous jazz group fronted by Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli (Reinhardt's son led a new Hot Club, who has a track here). Those are the internationally famous names, but others, like Emile Vacher and singer Fréhel, developed the whole scene, which was allegedly begun when Antonin Bouscatel paired his Auvergnat smallpipes with accordion -- and the scratchy 1920 recording of "Para La Lop" makes a strong case for him as the genre's founder. This disc actually does an excellent job of showing the links between the old and new, starting with one of the most powerful bands of the modern chanson scene, Ramses, who integrates some heavy guitar perfectly with accordion, and then slipping backward and forward through time -- accordionist Jo Privat next to the acoustic punk chanson of Bell Oeil, for example, or Les Primitifs du Futur (including famed cartoonist Robert Crumb, and whose track sounds more Bonzo Dog Band than utterly serious) next to the traditional "Lo Mometto" -- to slowly paint a complete picture of café music. And it makes for a fascinating glimpse into a subculture that's barely known outside the country.

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