While the borders were still open, Christopher Torpey enjoyed the hospitality of our nearest continental cousins by dropping in at the deceptively vast TRANS MUSICALES festival in northern France. But could he draw himself away from the VIP bar for long enough to listen to some music?
Rennes, FRANCE: I’m having a minor existential crisis on the drive from the airport, as I grope about inside my head for the last vestiges of my A Level French vocab. Rennes, my home for the next few days, unfolds before me, unaware that I’m armed only with d’accord and bien sûr. On first impression, Rennes isn’t very big, and nor is it that different from the majority of northern French cities: wide streets painted in concrete magnolia, brutalist egg crate residential apartment blocks towering over the inner city, plenty of graffiti. The charm of Brittany’s capital city doesn’t reveal itself until a few days later, however, when I’ve become accustomed to the Old Town’s knot of medieval streets, bustling markets and buildings leaning on one another like they’ve drunk a little too much chouchen.
The reason I’m here is the 38th RENCONTRES TRANS MUSICALES, a festival of some stature on the European circuit, and something of a honeypot for festival bookers and agents looking to find the latest hot property. In its format, Trans Musicales isn’t too dissimilar to Primavera: the daytime action centred around a handful of well-appointed venues in the city centre, with the main live action taking place in a venue complex outside of the city, accessed by a rather raucous 25-minute bus journey. Parc Expo, its vast aircraft hangars shrouded in fog, is where all the night time shenanigans take place. It’s here that the pilgrims congregate on three successive nights at the start of December, 10,000-strong at least, and not all of them native Rennais. The city’s large student population turn out in force alongside locals of all ages for their annual highlight, well-oiled and ready to party with whoever and whatever appears in front of them. Trans Musicales is well and truly on.
Thursday, the traditional easing-in day, gives me a chance to get used to the scale of the operation at Parc Expo. The festival takes up five of the site’s 10 hangars, or Halls, each one big enough on its own to hold 10,000 people. The scale is staggering – especially given the relative obscurity of the line-up. Scottish composer and polymath ANNA MEREDITH is nominally this year’s headliner, which seems a bit of a comedown from previous years. London Grammar and Benjamin Clementine headlined in 2013, with M.I.A. playing in 2010, and Rodriguez appearing alongside Major Lazer and Fever Ray in 2009. In fact, a potted history of Trans Musicales’ past acolytes is displayed around the walls of the entrance hall in the form of interviews published by French indie media royalty Les Inrocks. And the legacy here speaks for itself: The Fugees (2005), Beastie Boys (2004), Fatboy Slim and Basement Jaxx (1998), Daft Punk (1996), Portishead and Massive Attack (1994), Nirvana (1992), and even The La’s in 1990. Though it may not be the first festival on the lips of UK musos, this is a festival that flamboyant director Jean-Louis Brossard and his team have worked hard on for more than three decades, and it comes with a pedigree that lots of UK festivals would kill for.
If the rumours are to be believed, old Jean-Louis was so taken by this year’s star turn Meredith when he saw her performing at The Great Escape that he booked here there and then. As the huge whomp of the tuba ramps up for the storming intro to Nautilus – taken from Meredith’s brilliant leftfield album Varmints – everything from my temples down to my shins begins to shake; and Monsieur Brossard looks like he’s pulled another rabbit out of the hat. The satisfyingly loud classical/techno mashup occasionally threatens to break out into a full-on rave, and has no trouble in filling up the vast auditorium. It also has me grinning inanely. Turbo-powered by this huge production, Meredith, tuba et al will be a festival fixture for a while, and you daren’t miss it.
Sowetan band BCUC (Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness) are undoubtedly the hardest working band on show at this year’s Trans, playing three shows in vastly different situations. The explosive nature of their indigenous funky soul has them owning Hall 8, as Jovi Nkosi stalks across the stage and exhorts the crowd to move with him. Their mantra “You are made of peace” is amplified when they visit a local prison to spread their message of tolerance and acceptance, which is delivered so potently through their music that you can’t help but be moved. But, it’s up close and personal in Rennes’ main metro station where the magnetism of BCUC becomes so evident. At close quarters, and in ear-piercing distance of the group’s traditional penny whistles and pounding drums, it’s the passion which hits you most. You just don’t want it to end.
A 15-strong Icelandic rap crew would normally be so far out of my comfort zone as to be laughable; but Trans Musicales has changed me. So, it is with glee and a fair amount of nervous excitement that I await the arrival of REYKJAVÍKURDÆTUR – and these 15 Daughters of Reykjavik have me in the palm of their hands throughout. Apart from the odd song in English, and the liberally employed “fuck”, I can’t understand a word of what they spit out over the next hour, but it doesn’t matter: the conviction with which each of the crew attacks their flows is enough to cross linguistic boundaries. And when one of the group jumps about the stage sporting a strap-on dildo, things don’t exactly need spelling out.
Some things at Trans are less surprising, however, like the locals’ love of hard techno of questionable quality. The largest crowds pile into the vast Hall 9 for some non-stop techno banging from COMAH, while DAS MORTÄL is one of many to hold court in the 360-degree audio Greenroom, while the pleasure-seeking Rennais lose their shit and drink up the bass throbs. And if the reception given to REJJIE SNOW and TIGGS DA AUTHOR is anything to go by, softcore UK rap is still a popular taste on the French palette.
It’s not all hits either – and I’m prepared to forgive Jean-Louis and co. a few bum notes in the programming, even more because of pleasant surprises such as SUPER PARQUET (traditional French psychedelia). But I’m not buying HMLTD; sometimes people get lulled into ‘liking’ a band because they’re talked about so much that they think they ought to. HMLTD just sound like a goth punk version of Duran Duran ‘performed’ by a load of should-know-better hipsters dressed like they’re auditioning for a minor role in the Joker’s entourage. And that’s never good.
Away from Parc Expo there are still some treats to be had. Chroniclers of France’s fertile underground scene, La Souterraine, host a showcase in the gorgeous Theatre du Vieux Saint Etienne, a converted chapel in the north of the city. BARBAGALLO, fronted by percussionist extraordinaire Julien Barbagallo, and AQUASERGE headline each afternoon of these cosy gatherings, doing so with groove and nuance. And then there’s the sixth form theatrics of FISHBACH’s resident show, which is toe-curlingly OTT, even by French standards. Delivered straight I can see how this would work – and I’d be prepared to give it another go as Fishbach definitely has some songs in her armoury.
Les Trans is also big enough to command its own offshoot festival, Bars En Trans, which takes place across about 10 of the smaller bars and venues dotted across Rennes city centre. Admittedly the quality is patchy at best, but all of the (usually sleepy) venues are packed, such is the Rennais’ clamour for live music. And while LAURA CAHEN’s enchanting set at Bars’ opening at Le Gatsby Club draws a packed crowd, the live music sprawl in Rennes isn’t to the taste of all the locals: further up the street, past the infamous ‘Rue de la Soif’ (quirky by day, sleazy by night), there’s a sign in one window saying ‘Bars Off Trans’.
The success of Trans might not have crossed over into our mainstream in the UK, but the ease and professionalism with which they pull it off, year after year, can tell us a lot about the value in building a borderless community. And, with the crossover success of Christine And The Queens reenergising French pop, it is entirely likely that we’ll be consuming more musical Gallic exports in the future. It’s amazing what you can achieve with a continent-wide union all pulling in the same direction, and a system that recognises the value of culture and apportions funds to it. Ah, the European dream – it’s still alive for some.