Careful, “Let’s not get angry” suggests Spartaco Sax, the famed song accompanying French daily paper FRANCE-SOIR’s campaign against road violence: music isn’t that serious, often times really not. In any case, it is with this not so serious ear that one should listen to this selection of chachacha, mambo and other genres to twist and madison to, as music-lovers pinch their noses and block their ears. And yet, these breezy and light songs under their false airs of effortlessness draw out an astonishing analysis of late 1950s France with its partying baby boomers. Put on your dancing shoes, everyone on the dancefloor, let’s go baby.
The record starts out with an esoteric organ, a guitar straight out of a western, a vibey rhythm section, a speeding saxophone, a glamorous voice, a curious keyboard, a slightly panicky tempo… “Please Mr Hitchock!” calls out a voice from the unknown, on an arrangement that’s about to lose control.
The tone is set. Eins Zwei Drei, cries out Spartaco Andreoli, creator of the Chachacha for tunas, lyrics that are absurd accompanying music that isn’t so much so. And this is just the beginning. I can already see those making fun of it, and yes, I admit it does sound a bit comically-tragic, but more often than not, a persistent riff or melody will get stuck in your head, a chorus that you’ll start unintentionally humming, your foot that starts beating unbeknownst to you. “C’est bon ça dis donc !” (This is pretty good), suggest the Los Goragueros, at the start of their Mambo Miam Miam (Yum Yum). A smooth sax, a double bass that sways and shattering percussions, this song anonymously written by Alain Goraguer (there is often an “os” (bone), added to the band name for a little authenticity, i.e Los Chiquitos and Los Albinos) is actually quite tasty. This arranger and pianist who went on to write the indispensable Planète Sauvage (Wild Planet) is not the only one to have advanced half-masked in these tropical times. Just as Michel Legrand devoted himself to rock music, for better or worst.
Tropical music and France go way back. Indeed, this tropism for exotic music, not without the mannerisms that go with it, has been around. Just think of the period between both world wars, when the Paris of the roaring twenties fluttered to the sound of Latin-American orchestras. The influential Brazilian musician Pixinguinha came through in 1922, the charismatic Cuban singer Rita Montaner triumphed a few years later at the famed Palace and the brilliant clarinettist Stellio from Martinique had everyone dancing through the night to the beguine (a dance style from Martinique)… Seedy cabarets and fishy clubs mixing up different peoples and music until the early hours. From Montparnasse to Montmartre, dancing clubs bloomed throughout the capital while the World Exhibition sold a rather uncertain idea of the other tropics: a discounted and fantasized exotic dream of island life. It’s in bars like Jimmy’s, by La Coupole, or the Melody’s nestled in the heights of Pigalle, where Don Marino Barreto’s (Cuban pianist and singer who emigrated to Paris in the 1920s) orchestra made the heyday of a surreal and carefree Paris. Parisian Ray Ventura and his band Les Collégiens, quite the breeding ground for funny songs, at times almost delirious, were always a big part of the party.
And after the Second World War, it started all over again. Rico’s Creole Band was one of the great Creole orchestras to sway all of Paris, the Blomet Ball brought together the Afro-Caribbean communities, L’Escale became an essential dancing ground for lovers of Latin music, the pianist Eddie Warner was one of these pillars, accompanied by his “rhythms”, a “witty orchestra with 85% of French musicians, only the percussionists were South American”. Another jazzman, Henri Rossotti, also navigated in the warm waters of these gentle tropical shores. They covered sambas and mambos, adapting Benny Moré and Pérez Prado. Hot, like the hard-hitting Benny Bennett and his orchestra of Latin American music, which ended up being the training grounds of many apprentice improvisers. On the menu: calypso, merengue… and of course chachacha. Shortly after, the Los Machucambos, a South American band created in the Latin Quarter performed music between guajira and flamenco and its song Pepito marked the start of the trio’s success.
At the time, Latin-style combos were all the rage in France such as the chachacha which was officially invented in the early 1950s by Enrique Jorrin, soon followed by the pachanga, becoming a staple of black-and-white films. In the long run, this music has become a sort of French standard, adapted by many: Boris Vian oftentimes, Bourvil, Bob Azzam, Gainsbourg, Carlos (jokingly), Louis Chedid, Vanessa Paradis… Taking it a little far, you could even detect the beginnings of the french touch. This Chachacha affair is emblematic of the atypical history of popular music, that of back-alleys, far from the paths and furrows of glory. Music, raised from the grave and dusted off by the Born Bad record label. In terms of latin music, these records that were patiently found in flea markets are becoming a rarity, even if most are worth three euros and six cents: this low cost hobby is underestimated by licensed collectors, who run like lunatics towards triple-zero rarities.
Chachacha Transistor, predicted the unlikely Jacky Ary, known for his less digestible Mange des tomates (Eat tomatoes). With the approach of the 1960s, typical music styles were found all over the country, from the northern plains to the southern sea. Never failing to cheer up dances, nor to whet the appetite of a burgeoning industry, which often seized it by opportunism, not without a tinge of cynicism. After all, one must sell records to the desolate youth, at all costs and any price. These 7-inch vinyl records were therefore recorded at Barclay, Vogue and co. Low-consumption products intended to supply the shelves of budding suburban supermarkets. The idea was to convert a North-American trend in the studio, by summoning old geezers (Paul Mauriat under the pseudonym of Eduardo Ruo, at the top of the list…) who would play young and interpret these rhythms with a distorted vision. All for just one season and all this before summer hits were a thing. It was already the same idea though, but in more of a D.I.Y fashion. A quick fix, just enough time for the producers to get some juicy revenue, the same ones who recruited teams to perform these “inferior” works. Most were flops, but a few made it big such as Jean Yanne answering to Henri Salvador for Allo Brigitte, a classic of the “comic-musical” genre. It’s author Norma Maine went on to write quite a few of these quirky songs.
Most had improbable dialogue, as well as senseless adaptations such as the Marchand de melons (The Melon Merchant) distorting Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man, a result of automatic writing in order to come up with ridiculous lyrics. What can be said about Tarte à la nana (Girl Pie), and how about Ça c’est du poulet ? (This is Chicken?) Or the terrible Soukou Soukou, on the limit of bad taste, words of a colonist… When it comes to reappropriating foreign know-how, the results can turn out strange like a surreal shock of cultures. Improbable mixes, like chacha bebop, latino tempo and scat jazz… It all definitely swings and is sometimes even quite impressive. Because magical loose moments are to be found in these records made to order, records that were just trying to recreate a successful pre-existing North American formula. They recorded them on the line, in the original spirit, or inconspicuously modified them, not only for fun, but also for the pleasure of adding on a chorus which would take the song a little further, or a well adjusted rhyme that would denote a touch of derision, a French tradition that was to be repeated in rock as in punk, and even bossa nova. The key often being explosive arrangements, occasionally beautiful choruses, radiant mishaps, confusing mistakes, not necessarily off-topic, all in all some sweet musical trips that always have an effect on the dancefloor when it’s time to boogie. Try it out, you’ll see, it works every time, if you don’t abuse of it. Moderation is recommended for this music that should be served either at cocktail hour or after midnight…