Since the end of the 19th century – with the emergence of avant-garde thinking, France has issued among the most remarkable sophisticated sonic realities and contexts – each historically met by broad audiences, willing to rise to their challenges. Unlike so many others, it is a country and culture which recognizes the significance of the arts occupying the every day – supporting them, and understanding change and progress as necessary. For all of their dynamics and achievement, the histories France’s avant-garde, counter-cultural, and underground musics remain some of the most under-recognized – resting silently behind its borders.
Among those making great strides in remedying the condition of neglect – culling and distributing their country’s remarkable sonic history, is the Paris based imprint Souffle Sontinu. Regular readers will know their work well. They are among my favorite labels on the planet. Since embarking on their work in 2013, I have owed them an ever increasing debt – bringing an incredible stream of treasures to my ears.
Historically, Souffle Sontinu has focused their efforts on the remarkable and obscure depths of French prog, jazz, and avant-garde music, with particular attention offered to the incredible output of the Futura and Saravah imprints. Their latest offerings – hot on the heals of three stunning reissues by the Cohelmec Ensemble and Barney Wilen’s legendary LP Moshi, represents an important shift, and a lens into the forces and ideas which drive the label’s efforts – delving into the world of folk – pointing towards that music’s framework within the larger body of counter-cultural and underground music.
The most attended to narrative of counter-cultural folk music, centers around the paradigm which grew from America – first in the 1930’s, then rising again in the 50’s and stretching across the 60’s and 70’s. It began largely as vehicle for left-wing political concerns – an extension of a Marxist romance with the proletariat, and a means to reach and give voice to that social position. From seeds planted by Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, and a number of others, flowered a movement of great social change, rippling out across the globe. While it’s impossible to overstate the importance of folk music – whether the role it played in the civil rights and anti-war movements, or its activation of the psychedelic counter-culture which rose during the second half of the 1960’s, a number of its significant contributions are often neglected. The folk revival of the 50’s and 60’s, was the original DIY – long before punk. It placed music back into the hands of everyday people, during an era which saw its ever increasing industrialization. Equally important, it pushed listeners and practitioners to search for their cultural histories within sound – to look back, archive, and carry on.
In part due to the efforts of figures like Alan Lomax, across the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s – particularity in America and Europe, there was growing movement to elevate, adopt, and preserve indigenous folk traditions. Fascinatingly, givien its remarkable traditions tracing back thousands of years, France – looking forward from the shadows of Second World War, was relatively late to enter the fold, but during the late 1960’s early 70’s, astounding sounds began to emerge – much of which was cradled in the hands of the legendary imprint Le Chant Du Monde and across their sub-labels – Spécial Folk, Spécial Instrumental, Anthologie De La Musique Traditionnelle Française – efforts by those who carried France’s folk musics from the past, and a younger generation taking them to the future.
The French folk revival, though small, was incredibly singular and unique – in part due to the history which proceeded it. When “song collectors” began working in Britain and America the end of the 19th century, with their work carried further in future decades by new recordings technologies, researchers found that many of the songs were not as old, or as pure, as previously thought. Many had been introduced or altered by primitive iterations of the music industry – sheet music sellers, etc, during previous centuries. In France, this was less the case – unveiling sounds and structures which stretched back further, in a less corrupted form. When faced with them, they often feel strange, unfamiliar and challenging in a way that few musics do – modal, with sounds and structures which predate the introduction of key into the Western intervallic system. Rather with Europe, they imply connection to a diverse range of musics from across the globe, or iterations of the 20th century avant-garde which looked further afield.
Of all the stunning members of the French Folk revival, few command the respect and adoration of Emmanuelle Parrenin. Graced with a voice of shimmering beauty, and a curious historical mind, for decades she has pushed France’s indigenous musics through the lens of the avant-garde. Beginning her activity at the end of the 60’s, Parrenin’s first recordings began to emerge in the mid 70’s, the first being La Maumariée – Folk Français, a blend of traditionals and original compositions made with Phil Fromont. Over remainder of the decade, she released a small handful of works – working with others, and largely drawing on France’s more ancient musical traditions, until in 1977, she recorded and released her first solo effort – the legendary Maison Rose.
Emmanuelle Parrenin – Maison Rose (1977/ 2017)
If ever there was a iconic emblem of the French folk scene, it is Emmanuelle Parrenin’s Maison Rose. Though a longtime cult favorite, the album began to gather attention during the very early 2000’s – part of wider appraisal of neglected folk musics which swept the globe, returning treasures by Vashti Bunyan, Anne Briggs, Linda Perhacs, Bridget St. John, and countless others, to our ears. For many during that era – myself included, Maison Rose was the completion of a triangle begun by the revaluations of Parallelograms, and Just another Diamond Day – entering an near endless cycle of plays.
Maison Rose, quite simply put, is a stunning piece of work – remarkably unique – at once more complex and accessible than nearly any artifact of the global folk revival. Hauntingly beautiful and intimate – like nearly all of Parrenin’s output, resting within a careful balance of instrumental and accompanied vocal works – looking to the past for a way to the future. Whispers of rural ballad traditions, medieval chant, droning repetitive modes, shattered rhythms and sonorities which reference free-improvisation and the sounds of North Africa, delivered within a vision of total artistic singularity, it is one of the most adventurous, mesmerizing, and inclusive realizations of folk music that can be called to mind. No words are needed, beyond the simple statement that it is a masterpiece. Long out of print, and marking the fortieth adversary of its original release, this edition by Souffle Sontinu is well overdue – delivered with the love and care that marks every one of their efforts. If ever there was a place to start an exploration of French folk music, this is it. You can check it out below and pick it up from the label direct, or from a record store near you.
Emmanuelle Parrenin – Pérélandra (2017)
Upon my first listen to Pérélandra, after scraping my jaw off the floor, a single word fell from my tongue – fuck! Perhaps the best way to summate the experience of this astounding work – a revelation, and kick to the gut.
Most of us who discovered Emmanuelle Parrenin during the late 90’s and early 2000’s – with nothing more to go on than her discography, assumed, with the changing cultural tide occurring at the end of the 70’s, that she had simply disappeared. As far as we could tell, Maison Rose was her last recorded body of work. Not only has this turned out to be false, a fact which Pérélandra – comprised of recording made in the years directly following the release of Maison Rose, quickly reveals, but this period seems to have been one of her most creatively ambitious and remarkable. To put it frankly, I am so startled, overwhelmed, and moved by Pérélandra, that I am at a loss for words – fully aware that nothing I can say could possible do it justice.
Across the two sides of the LP, folk music as it is commonly known, evolves before the ear – beginning with the overwhelmingly beautiful raga jam of it’s title track, before taking a hard turn toward uncharted realms. Just under five minutes in, with the outset of Nomade, the ear is pushed to the future. Decades ahead of it time, its looping vocals and sonorous rhythms could have been recorded yesterday, as could have the experimental scrapping ambiences of Phosphène, Parasomnie, and which thread in and out of raga like Céleste et les nuages. Perhaps the greatest revelation is the album’s final work – Le Sablier. Blending washes of synthesizer, spoken text, and heavy breath, it anticipates the current efforts of avant-garde artist’s like Felicia Atkinson, while presenting conceits as radical as anything of its day – Meredith Monk, etc. The cherry on an absolutely stunning body of work, and a profound insight into an artist who, unknown to most, stayed far into wild and experimental realms.
Pérélandra, emerging nearly 40 years after it was recorded, remains as fresh as the day it was made. Unquestionably one of my favorite releases of the year, I can not thank Souffle Sontinu enough for all their hard work bringing it to light. As highly recommended as it gets. You can check it out below and pick it up from the label direct, or from a record store near you.