Friday, July 3, 2009

Friday Listening: Les Négresses Vertes

(My top five most-listened-to artists this week: Bauhaus, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Les Négresses Vertes, Dead Can Dance, and Tommy Johnson.)

͑Back in the year 2000, typing a search like "the pogues" would take you immediately to a host of fan pages of varying quality rather than one (The Wake of the Medusa, still easily the best) and a host of ad-filled lyrics archives and commercial websites. It was during this time that such a search led me toward a description of Les Négresses Vertes, who were frequently compared to The Pogues during the high point of their career (88-93). In terms of spirit and approach, the comparison makes a certain sense even if it was overused for energetic young folk acts of the time.

(lyrics and translation)

Both bands pulled members out of punk and new wave scenes and tried to apply that rebellious DIY attitude to the folk music of their region. Both bands also revealed familiarity and fondness for their source material while adding something of modern lyric style over it. From the start, LNV's music wasn't an update of French drinking songs (or at least not solely this) but a blend of Mediterranean styles. They selected instrumentation to support this: hand percussion, the mingling rhythms of two or more classical guitars, a scattering of horns, and an ever-present accordion. On their debut album Mlah, LNV slip in a drum set on only a few songs toward the end (Marcelle Ratafia, La Danse de Négresses Vertes, La Pére Magloire).

LNV weren't lyrical or musical geniuses. They were still learning to use their instrumentation and voices when lead singer Helno passed away, and their later career found them tempted by eletronic dance genres. They were "the French Pogues," afterall, not "the French Pentangle." But still, their first two albums display a lot of promise and a creative touch of something different than had come before.

Right away, then, they pass my test for any folk rock/punk act: do they do more than tack one or two traditional instruments onto an otherwise ordinary rock/punk band (with othewise ordinary rock/punk songs)? Back in 2000, I still would have found that appealing (Real McKenzies, Flogging Molly, and Dropkick Murphies were all high on my playlist at the time), but I've grown to find that disrespectful and, worse, boring. Folk music, in my opinion, should be about resisting monoculture.

But therein lies the problem. Mainstream or underground, we understand monoculture. Unlike The Pogues (who enjoy near-unanimous love among my close friends), not one Anglophone whom I've introduced to LNV have liked them. I know a number of people who flat-out refuse to listen to anything in another language. As much as Once Upon a Time in Mexico led to guitarists playing rhythmic snatches of "Malagueña Salerosa," few ended up listening to Jose Feliciano or Lydia Mendoza as a result.


I don't believe there's some list of bands that everyone should like/admire/worship nor do I think LNV would necessarily be on it if there were. Everyone's entitled to their tastes and opinions. Maybe it's the former literature student in me talking, but whenever I see top 10 lists, I'm always amazed at how Anglocentric our collective preferences are. Michael Jackson and The Beatles top lists all over the world. Why can't the reverse happen here?

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