On 21st June, it is the summer solstice, the longest day. In France, the traditional festival of Saint John (the Baptist), featuring fire, music and dance (“les feux de la Saint-Jean”) has been replaced by the modern Fête de la Musique.
In 1981, the newly-elected Minister for Culture, Jack Lang (my mother definitely has a soft spot for him), launched the new festival. Every year, on 21st June, the streets are filled with music. All genres are represented, all ages, and all levels of competence.
On this day, school choirs put up a performance, teenage groups come out of their garage, markets are filled with echoes of brass bands. In parks, several stages ensure there is always something to listen to. Concert halls and opera houses obviously take part. In recent years there has been a shift away from amateurs in the streets towards big concerts by well-known bands and artists, which is a bit of a shame. But long into the (short) night, in squares and on pavements, musicians of all stripes (“de tout poil”) share their sound with all who want to listen. It is beautiful.
This year, the context for Fête de la Musique was challenging. First of all, the covid health crisis. Town halls were not allowed to give the normal authorisations for bands to play in public places. Concert halls had to abide by strict gauges and social distancing rules. The police were on hand to disperse big gatherings. 2021 would never be the year for a normal Fête de la Musique.
Second, 21st June was a Monday, not ideal for a party. Villages and small towns faced a dilemma, respect the traditional date, or plan the celebrations for the Saturday before. In the end, some took the first option, some the second, and people enjoyed different events on different days. Perhaps it helped mitigate the spread of covid, perhaps it doubled it. Who knows?
The third challenge was the weather. After almost a month of heat and sunshine, it turned close and muggy (“Il fait lourd”) the week before the Fête. Near Paris, we had several spectacular thunderstorms and downpours, and the forecasters were predicting more.
The Saturday afternoon concerts in my hometown were indeed washed out; disheartening for the musicians but mostly for town technicians, who had worked hard to prepare their first event since last autumn. Only the children were happy; as everything was wet, parents let them splash and play on the park’s lawn, turned lake. In the end, the water drained enough for the electricity to be put back on. We warmed up dancing to the tunes of a Bob Marley cover band, joined impromptu by a saxophonist who happened to be walking past, in true Fête de la Musique spirit.
On the Monday, I braved the weather forecast once more, and went to Paris. Terrasses were heaving with people, clearly delighted to be socialising once again. Very few facemasks, even less social distancing; clearly the young and urban have decided to enjoy their summer to the full, and together. No bands on the pavements, as would be normal, but bars and terrasses had installed sound systems. Boy, did it feel good to throw caution to the wind, lose myself in the music, and dance with strangers!!! Long live Fête de la Musique!
PS Capable Explorers, if you would like to hear more about Fête de la Musique, I recommend this (in French).