Various Artists

The Sound of Paris

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The sultry-sad strains of an accordion waltz are as much a symbol of Paris, especially to foreigners, as the Eiffel Tower, Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings, and cafe-sitting with a tiny cup of bitter coffee or a pearly, anise-flavored infusion of Pernod. The tunes are seldom heard outside France except in fragments and in passing, mostly to establish a hackneyed sense of time or place in movies and documentaries. But the tradition known as bal-musette (originally named for the musette, a bagpipe found in the Auvergne, which was thankfully replaced by various types of squeezebox fairly early on) is more than a century old and definitely deserves a fair hearing. The style is based primarily upon a dialogue between guitar and accordion, but drums, banjos, double basses, and vocals are also employed in both acoustic and amplified forms. What stands out under closer scrutiny is the degree of sophistication the musicians are capable of. They fearlessly mix Italian, Argentinean, and gypsy themes and the arrangements toss in an occasional daring dissonance or unexpected rhythm. The result is not the expected blandly cheerful background music, but a sensual, jazzy, and even subtly intellectual groove. It is multi-leveled and can also be interpreted as lighthearted and tourist-friendly, but the point is that there is much more to it than that. It is also becoming trendy with younger Parisians who are flocking to modern bal-musettes, where they dance the night away much as their grandparents probably did. The guitar of Didi Duprat, a much-revered old-timer, is heard on ten of the 15 tracks.

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