I have just come back from a five week adventure in Marseille. It was a combination of a business trip, a holiday, a writing retreat, working (a few solo concerts) and meeting friends I haven’t seen for years. So I call it an adventure.
Why Marseille? I find it hard to justify five weeks lazing about. I have to have a ‘project’ otherwise I feel guilty. And as I’m sure you can guess, it’s about Chico Chica. In my head I drew this complicated Venn diagram. French people, I discovered, are unfamiliar with Venn diagrams. I tried to explain with a napkin and biro but, judging from the look on their faces, I don’t think I did a good job.
Though the band have toured around the UK, we have decided that it is easier and more lucrative to focus on London and the South East. But we wanted to expand our horizons especially for August when so much of our fanbase goes on holiday. I wanted a place where:
1) they speak the languages we sing in: English, Spanish, Arabic (one song: Majda Al Han) and French.
2) they speak a language where I can at least order a coffee. That leaves France and England.
3) I wanted somewhere warm. Sorry England.
4) I wanted a mode of transport which doesn’t force me to put my instrument in the hold and turn up three hours before departure so I have to stare at billboards while drinking over-priced coffee.
So when I saw a bus drive past with an advert saying Marseille non-stop Eurostar for £80, my mind was made up. I also happen to know a Marseillaise who used to live in London years ago.
Chico Chica have been writing and performing songs in French:
C’est Ta Chanson,
Pense à Moi
and Mon Oiseau S’est Enfui. So the idea emerged of recording a French mini-album in France.
Marseille is a marvel. New arrivals to a city tend to look up to take in the architecture and vistas. It’s a hilly city with the church of Notre Dame occupying the top slot the same way the Cristo Redentor does in Rio. Walking through the street I come across vistas I never imagined: the iron bridge over Rue D’Aubagne has a curvaceous elegance unlike those found in England. L’Hotel de Ville. L’Opera and the Bourse are exceptional buildings that rival anything else Europe. If the monument at Longchamp has a London equivalent it would be the Albert Memorial. But Longchamp has more. It is a rococo expression of La Gloire that only the French can do.
But the eye starts to take in the tall houses. They are primarily Napoleon III 1860s. These were built on a grand Haussman scale – bourgeois with wooden shutters, wrought iron balustrades and countless statues of Madonnas on corner alcoves. The evident decay is charming, and in many other cities these areas would be ripe for gentrification.
Lowering the eye further still and we realise why Marseille is so exceptional. The first thing we notice is it’s covered in graffiti. But the graffitti blends into the local artwork. Many businesses paint murals so it’s hard to know where one stops and the other starts. There are things we see which exist in London but with the help of strict laws and generous welfare, we keep hidden: prostitution, rats, migrant families rummaging in bins, homeless men bedding down on the city’s ornate bandstands, countless beggars, hawkers and street musicians. The less talented the musicians the more aggressive they tend to be. There were some great buskers in the tourist area of the Vieux Port. The music venues tend to close for the holiday season because everyone likes to eat outside. This makes it difficult to promote concerts. I did a few gigs using the ‘chapeau’ means of payment. I am not used to this way of working but, with the help of my friends Celia and Amar, it worked really well.
And yet. There is something which I really loved. The people are warm, open and it’s easy to make friends. Tourists are rare compared to Nice and Provence in fact I only met one English person in my whole visit (yes you Emily). My AirBnB flat was near Cours Julien. This is the true Marseille, away from the yachts and over-priced food of the Vieux Port. Cours Julien is, among other things, home to a community of homeless Africans. I noticed a different attitude to low life. In England, there is a separation from normality. We pass them by privately cursing the state for failing to keep misfortune out of sight and out of mind. Marseille is different. For example, the prostitutes, as they sit in their doorways, are greeted by passers-by and pleasantries are exchanged. One character who was obviously severely mentally deranged, was allowed to sit with the locals at coffee tables, not joining in the conversation but somehow feeling part of communal life.
The Marseillaises love pizza and for good reason – it’s better that ours. There pizza tends to be rectangular rather than circular, I don’t know why that should make a difference but it does. For a change I would go to Cours Jus, run by two Nathalies, one, ‘le patron’, is tall and serious the other is the big hearted chef helped by the silent, ever-smiling Senegalese Baba. The Nathalies prevented my stay becoming too cheesy. And then, at Cafe St Julien there’s the lovely Leila. She has invited me to play Facebook Soda Crush which obviously means she fancies me.
What I admired more than anything is the free spirit of Marseille. They do really naughty stuff like smoke indoors. I saw twelve year olds riding motor cycles on pavement without helmets (naturellement) and many of the motor cyclists make their way around the town using the rear wheel only. I think it’s a courting ritual.
I made trips to Nice, Cannes, Nîmes, Frejus and Aix and have made some enough contacts to put in place a Chico Chica tour culminating in a studio date with Henry Frampton at his studio in Provence.