The music of France, far from being represented by any single style, actually consists of several regional tributaries, some older than others. And most of these traditions still maintain a separate accent all their own. The survival of French music is ensured by the Exception Culturelle Française, a quota policy that guarantees that at least 40 percent of radio airplay be devoted to French-language artists. But the definition of precisely what constitutes French music is changing day by day, as the children of postcolonial immigrants begin to explore and express their parents' heritages, adding African, Arabic, Asian, Gitane (Gypsy/Roma) and Caribbean flavors to the dominant culture.
The most iconic French sound is the accordion-driven bal-musette, which originated in Paris in the 19th century, when homesick musicians from the Auvergne region began to hold dances where bagpipes (called musettes) were the primary accompaniment. The pipes were eventually superseded by the accordion, which had been introduced by Italian immigrants. Modern bal-musette variants can range from a single squeezebox to a big-band, but these gently melodic two-steps, waltzes and javas seem destined to go on so long as there is a Paris. Chanson, another venerable Parisian genre, translates simply to "song" but the term encompasses French popular music, from novelty songs to high art. The genre originated in music halls during the interwar years as a local form of vaudeville; legendary performers Mistinguett and Maurice Chevalier emerged from this background. Although other sounds come in and of vogue, chanson's eloquently bitter-sweet sophistication, as exemplified by legendary singers Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour and Jacques Brel, has never gone out of style.
Jazz, popularized by expatriate American performers such as Sidney Bechet and Josephine Baker, developed in parallel to chanson, eventually taking on a Gallic flavor all its own. Big bands and manouche or "gypsy swing" combos like the Hot Club of France, which boasted guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grapelli, helped give French jazz a distinct identity. French pop, too, often draws on Anglo-American sources, with the early '60s Gallic rock 'n' roll of Johnny Halliday maturing into the ironic "le rock Française" of late '70s new-wave outfits like Plastic Bertrand and Telephone. The '60s also saw the rise of Francoise Hardy and other mini-skirted yé-yé girls. Meanwhile, punk rock, reggae and rap found footholds in France's large immigrant communities, inspiring bands like Carte de Séjour, Mano Negra, Les Negresses Vertes and Messalia Sound System, and such homegrown rappers as MC Solaar, IAM and Alliance Ethnik.
Obviously, every region has its own traditions, but it wasn't until the mid-to-late 20th century that France experienced a major folk and folk-rock revival. Young musicians fanned out into the countryside to explore their roots, avidly collecting songs in the field and learning the intricacies of notoriously difficult instruments. Among the oldest and most ubiquitous of the latter are cornemuses, a large and varied family of bagpipes which exist in several sizes and tuningsvirtually every province boasts one or more variant. Another hardy survivor is the vielle-à-roue or hurdy-gurdy. These can be heard alone or with assorted members of the oboe and shawm family of double-reeds, transverse and vertical wooden flutes, descendants of medieval instruments like plucked harps, lutes and guitars, plus bowed rebecs and fiddles.
Central France (Berry, Nivernais, Morvan, Auvergne, Bourbonnais) is famous for raucous yet graceful country dances like the bourrée, which, depending on where it is found, trips along in either double or triple time. This is ancestral vielle-à-roue territory; indeed, one town, Jenzat in the Auvergne, was once entirely devoted to the instrument's manufacture. The bagpipes also flourish here, and the region is noted for its many modern virtuosi, such as Eric Montbel (Limousin), Phillippe Priere (Bourbon) and Raphaêl Thiery (Morvan). Auvergnat players are devoted to a bellows-driven droneless pipe called the cabrette; Michel Isbelin and Jean Bona are two of its best-known exponents. Limousin is also home to a notable style of fiddling, and Olivier Dorif and Françoise Etay are a pair of respected performers. Reissues of albums by 1970s-era groups like Malicorne, La Bamboche and Le Grand Rouge are also well worth seeking out.
The Southern provinces (Gascony, Languedoc, Béarn, Rousillon, Provence, Pays Basque) are redolent of a musky romance derived from the legacy of the troubadours, 12th-century poets and musicians whose lushly passionate, frank and topical songs were composed in a Latin-based language called Provençal. Today's dialects, including Occitan, Gascon and Béarnaise, roll off the tongue and flavor the area's tunes with a languid yet tartly virile sensuality. As in the Central areas, the bagpipe is commonly heard as is the hurdy-gurdy, along with woodwinds, plucked and bowed strings and percussion. Gascony is well represented by a group called Perlinpinpin Fole, which later evolved into a more experimental outfit called Ténarèze. Languedoc's local bagpipe, the bodega, is often paired with oboes and instruments imported from nearby cultures.
Marilis Orianaa is the undisputed queen of the Béarnaise-language singers. Rousillon, or French Catalonia, is where the sardana is the favorite dance and oboelike woodwinds like the tible, tarota and tenora predominate, although old-style shawm and bagpipe ensembles are gaining ground. In Provence, Rosina de Peira and Jean-Luc Madier are among the singers who perform in Occitan, the latter-day version of the Provençal language of the troubadours. But while music of the historically embattled Pays Basque has its charms, that of the adjoining Spanish-held region is more varied and authentic.
The French island of Corsica, like the nearby Italian island of Sardinia, has developed a dazzlingly complex form of polyphonic vocalizing. Sung by small groups of men, the pieces are comprised of bass (bassu), melody (secunda) and ornamentation (terza) parts, which can clash into dissonance but ultimately resolve into an interlocking chorale.
Meanwhile, Brittany, the maritime, Western-most part of France, boasts a Celtic heritage and a resurgent Celtic language. The harp, bagpipes and a particularly rowdy shawm called the bombarde are in wide use here, whether alone or in concert with other instruments. The most popular band is a stadium-filling powerhouse called Tri Yann but the bourgeoning threads of Breton culture, nourished by the people's strong sense of identity, a handful of die-hard specialist record labels and some of France's largest annual music festivals, are proving to be sturdy beyond all expectations. Christina Roden