Ancient France was a pagan kind of a place. Think Druidic rituals in forests (if you’ve read Astérix, you’ll well picture this) and Celtic chants around bonfires. And then along came King Clovis I, in the fifth century, who decided to convert to Christianity. One way in which he, and various other powers-that-be, successfully converted the country, too, was to cleverly merge the old pagan festivities with the new Catholic ones. And so it was announced that the new feast day of St John the Baptist would fall on June 24, when midsummer had traditionally been celebrated with festivals of wild dancing and abundant wining and dining.
After the revolution, however, France became increasingly secular, and most feast days were eventually forgotten. Perhaps, however, there was something in French people’s DNA that made them yearn to bust a move at midsummer time …
And so, in 1982, culture minister Jack Lang hit upon an idea for how to best commemorate the year’s longest day, which generally falls on June 21. For Fête de la Musique, he decreed that amateur performers could set up anywhere outdoors and serenade their city.
The initiative is now global, but the day remains at its most magical in Paris, where all genres of bands and singers fill the air with a lyrical joy that’s positively infectious. Parisians, usually so careful and controlled in their manner, break out into dance in a gloriously spontaneous way that seems primal — even, perhaps, slightly pagan.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Paris on June 21 one year, set aside the afternoon and evening for walking the streets, and weaving through as many neighbourhoods as possible — it’s the best way to discover an array of musical acts. Oh, and make sure that your walking shoes double well as dancing ones — just in case you too are inspired to channel a pagan ancestor.
There are also official performances that play out in various churches and museums, on the river’s bridges and quays, in the Palais-Royal and Tuileries gardens, and much more. For details of this year’s programme, click here.
Some highlights: The all-female line-up, including the fabulous Brigitte, at the president’s Élysée Palace booked out long ago, but you don’t need to register for the 17h00 show at the Hôtel Matignon, a.k.a the residence of the French prime minister, which opens its magnificent courtyard for a concert of upcoming artists (the photo above is from 2009); and if you’re over in the Marais way later on, head to Place des Vosges where, from 19h30, the old-school sing-along band, Les Tigresses Diatoniques, will have you crooning tunes by the likes of Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour and Serge Gainsbourg. Follow with a feast of a dinner on one of the district’s café terraces, tapping your feet while enjoying the various street performances. It’s surely the perfect way to celebrate a Parisian midsummer (bonfire or no).
It always sounds like a great moment to be in Paris to visit La Fête de la musique. I’ve only made it once and so would love to return to Paris again during that time!