Guest Culture – Music Festival: Jack Lang calls for “a musical and civic event”

Jack Lang, who, as culture minister, initiated the Fête de la Musique in 1982, answers questions from RFI and talks about the event, which has since spread beyond France’s borders.

RFI: This year France celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Fête de la Musique. When you ignited this little spark in 1982, you were Minister of Culture. Can you imagine the duration of this event?

Jack Long: Absolutely not. It was a first attempt, quite cheeky in fact: offering people the opportunity to leave their homes with their musical instrument, their voice, their friends and their girlfriends and to play in the squares, in the train stations, almost everywhere. He wasn’t sure if they would answer our call. I also had the worst stage fright of my life at the time. I told myself it could be a disastrous flop, that people would stay secluded at home. And finally, the people were brave, dared, wanted. And like snails after the rain they came out and found themselves everywhere here and there. And not just in Paris, as we think, but throughout France.

The idea was that it should be a celebration of all kinds of music. Back then – we don’t remember now – before we arrived, the French Ministry of Culture was mainly interested in classical music, which is good, but ignored the others, traditional music, contemporary music, rock, jazz and so many other music genres. And we already wanted it to be a celebration of the coexistence or blending of all music. And the third idea – it was a bit of a coincidence – is to choose the date of June 21st, the day of the summer solstice, the shortest night. Summer is the loveliest of all seasons, the season of encounters, the season of love, the season of light. That pretty much sums up the event. The event is both a music event and a civic event. We are in a timeless light. Everyone feels happy. You will also find that there is never any violence during the music festival. Except when one day a police officer committed the stupidity, more than stupidity, almost the crime of tear gasing a gang of young people playing techno along the Loire, and one of them drowned.

But other than that, it’s a moment of grace, a moment of feeling happy as a kind of divided humanity. This year may be truer than usual since we went into lockdown if I dare say. And it’s a moment of reunion, of breathing, of new life, of rebirth you could say. And this year, more than ever, the Fête de la Musique has its civic meaning, its human meaning.

Have you been associated with this 40th anniversary and what is your ideal image of it?

Initiatives are raining down, if I may say so, and springing up everywhere. There is one that particularly touches me. It is the initiative of the mayor of Villeurbanne (Cédric Van Styvendael, editor’s note) who, together with his colleague, the mayor of Lyon (Gregory Doucet), has created a true music boulevard over six kilometers that connects the two central squares of the two connects cities. And young or old can take over this boulevard. It’s a first. It’s something quite remarkable and I’m going to Villeurbanne. In the afternoon we will blow out the 40 candles in the presence of many children and young people.

Jack Lang, at the initiative of the Fête de la Musique, June 21, 1982, alongside Danièle Mitterrand. © AFP/Joel Robine

We talked about 1982. And in 1985 the music festival became European and today between 120 and 140 countries of the world take part in it. That wasn’t planned either…

No, but I’ll tell you honestly, I really wanted it, not in the first year, but when I saw that in France the event touched people’s hearts, I said to myself: why not somewhere else? And since I’m deeply internationalist and universalist, I said to myself: Let’s try to spread this idea elsewhere. I called my fellow ministers, the media, the radio stations, the newspapers. And gradually the event crossed borders, first in Europe, then in Asia, in America. In America in particular, it is an initiative of an extraordinary kind called Aaron Friedman, who launched the Fête de la Musique about fifteen years ago.

And today it is present in more than a hundred cities in America. There will be a very symbolically powerful event that Aaron Friedman envisioned: He rented, if I may say so, the Statue of Liberty. He will give a concert with friends, Carnival of the Animals de Saint-Saëns, which was written at the same time. He will make connections between the Statue of Liberty in New York and the Statue of Liberty in Paris. And at the same time, in many countries, he will ensure that his initiative is multiplied. And then there’s Africa… It’s moving, it’s touching. At least at this time when the war is on our doorstep, where it hits peoples, friends or neighbors here or elsewhere. Art and music are also a pursuit of friendship, love, brotherhood.

Do you have one or two outstanding memories from the Fête de la Musique that you attended during those 40 years?

The most extraordinary is what is not planned. That’s also the spirit of this party, that’s the unexpected. On a street corner, in a square. And that often happened… A musician alone, but in symbiosis with his musical instrument, a small choir. And then a village, a district. When I was Mayor of Blois, the Fête de la Musique was in full swing everywhere, especially in the ZUP. It really was the highest point in the city.

And then Jacques Higelin himself took the initiative for the first Fête de la Musique. He rented a fold-out truck, which he towed around town as a form of musical roaming. He gathered musicians from everywhere. It was a fabulous farandole. And today your colleagues from Radio France, led by Didier Varrod, have also imagined renting a kind of folding truck this year that he will transport from one place to another in the city. And also, if I do say so myself, he will begin his journey here at the Arab World Institute, where Didier Varrod’s brass bands will gather to meet Algerian musicians.

The singer Jacques Higelin, during the first music festival, June 21, 1982.
The singer Jacques Higelin, during the first music festival, June 21, 1982. © Getty Images/Gamma-Rapho/Patrick Aventurier

Are you proud of this initiative you have taken?

The word proud, I don’t know it well. I’m happy. It is a great joy to think that this celebration would not exist – despite my own opinion, because I originated the idea – if people, millions of people, hundreds of millions of people, had not experienced the event. It’s theirs, it’s the common good of these musicians.

I’m actually quite happy when things get out of hand. They question me today because I was the origin of it. But so many extraordinary things happened in Berlin or in Shanghai, in Kinshasa, where I was invited and unfortunately couldn’t go. In Dakar or around the world, in Korea, in Latin America. After all, I’m forgetting many countries as I speak to you right now.

At the end of his two terms in office, did François Mitterrand tell you anything about the Fête de la Musique? Was he also happy about this initiative?

Very happy. Also, sometimes he came to town with me and every time people celebrated him. They were glad that this President was a President who loved music and was close to youth. Today we talk a lot about youth in political debates, but back then it wasn’t a problem for us. The youth were with President Mitterrand, the youth of the world itself and the youth only desires to find meaning in collective life, through art, through education, through beautiful projects and also through a political ideal. . Yes, François Mitterrand has often said that this was one of the most important achievements of his presidency, one that will mark the memory and will remain inscribed in the collective memory. And he was right.

Today is a ritual…

It’s a ritual. I recommend that you read a very nice text by Edgar Morin, published further a few years ago as a preface to a book by Le Seuil The musical crowning glory of the French. He describes it very well. He says this cosmic festival has become a civic ritual. And that’s true.

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