How, European Music Scene, have you so successfully failed to meet my expectations when I had absolutely none to begin with? That is a special, varsity level of screwing the pooch. And let me qualify this judgment further by being completely transparent about my level of fandom within the music scene back home in New Orleans. On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being deaf (i.e. Justin Bieber fans) and 10 being a season ticket holder to the Grammys, I’d say I hover around a 4-ish. I have my Stevie Wonder Pandora station on regularly and can have a surface-level debate about contemporary jazz versus the blues, but I’m also sort of the douchebag all the hipsters hate because I jump onto the bandwagon of their favorite once-underground Irish punk band. So, even though I come from the city of Rock ‘n Roll (Cleveland), and live in the birthplace of Jazz (New Orleans), my DNA failed to be coded with the fanaticism needed to follow The Grateful Dead from coast to coast.
Okay, so, taking into account this pseudo-working knowledge of my pseudo-fandom, when I say that my standards of musical excellence are low, I’m talking basement low. Sub-basement low. Linsday Lohan’s self-respect low. To not aurally appease me is somewhat akin to dividing by zero, so in some ways the music scene in Europe has blown my mind. (much like it would be if the fabric of space and time unraveled)
Perhaps I sound so hyperbolic because as I think back to my first encounter with live music in Europe, it may still reign as the most bizarre. I had come to Barcelona knowing very little about the city. As it was, my expertise basically boiled down to: their patron saint of architecture was Gaudi and people went to the beach au naturel. I was pretty excited about one of those draws, but I’ll just leave it at that. Having worked at the same Spanish tapas restaurant for going on four years now, I will concede that my expectation of what the country’s music should sound like was a bit informed. How could it not be when I’d been forced to listen to the same 25 flamenco songs on repeat for the entire last half of my 20s? (if I grow old and senile, I may forget my name and/or to wear pants in public, but I will always know every damn chord of that fucking Paco de Lucia album) So, as I strolled through the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona on my first day, taking in the history of the oldest buildings I had seen to date, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the faint whisper of a distant melody. A familiar melody my subconscious veiled from me, as my only mission became to find the source of the music.
I sussed out which direction I needed to go, and felt an unexpected but reflexive anticipation at finally seeing the genuine article in person despite so many years of suffering the laborious repetition of my restaurant’s soundtrack. The closer I got, the stranger the tune was. Was that even a guitar? Somehow I managed to navigate the cobblestone labyrinth and stepped out of the grid of side streets and into a sun-dappled square. Cradled among buildings, schizophrenic in their architecture, some specters of the city’s ancient Roman occupation, some augmented to support tourist shopping, the moderately sized plaza was home to historic Catalan church, Santa Maria del Pi, a pair of quaint cafes with al fresco diners, and adjacent to the cathedral’s august Gothic facade, my Spaniard musician.
Who actually wasn’t Spanish at all.
In fact it was a small Indian man playing a pan flute, karaoke style, to the instrumental version of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.”
Dreams crushed. End of story.
From that moment on, I couldn’t help but keep my radar calibrated to other signs of live music during my trip. Barcelona continued to amaze as the karaoke street musicians seemed to be the status quo, even branching into the underground metro system where they would serenade riders with Phil Collins from what I can only assume was a sad regurgitation of their failed American Idol auditions. (Spain Idol auditions?) Did I go in search of the city’s authentic music scene? No, I would classify this as a passive (lazy) case study, so Barcelona ultimately gets a pass.
However, as my journey across Europe continued, my musical experiences only seemed to grow odder. Enter: Paris. I suppose it wasn’t too unexpected that when a group of four young(ish) female tourists sat down at a street-side patio in the Latin Quarter, we quickly came into the crosshairs of the strolling minstrels who performed the theme to Amelie. Oh yay, we’re so easy, here’s some Euro. But once the duo had continued along to the next five consecutive cafes and played the same song at each, we could only look at each other, groan, and feel simple. Yet, as luck would have it, our redemption was in the cards when one of our fellow hostel-ites clued us into a show “some New Orleans blues musician was having” later that night.
It seemed like kismet, Mona Lisa in the morning, Dr. John at night, all on the 4th of July. The newest Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame inductee from our own backyard was sure to turn the tides of our musical failings. And yes, the Dr. brought it as he always does with his funky self, but the crowd we’d folded into was of a different ilk than we were used to back home. Apparently the citizens of Montmartre are too busy pretending to be the next Picasso to actually stop taking themselves so seriously and do more than just nod their heads to the high-energy music born to get people out of their seats and dance. Not taking these social cues to heart, we two-stepped our hearts out, eventually recruiting others around us to do the same. When all was said and done, we couldn’t help but investigate the strange dynamic of the crowd, turning to one of the gentleman who had shaken loose and joined our second-line, asking him what the deal was.
“I was happy people were finally dancing, but I’m from Portugal.” (and as it happened, the other folks who had taken up the call to dance action were all from other places) “You will not see this crowds get into it. They are The French.”
Oh right. Of course. Silly us.
But it wasn’t just “The French,” who had the visceral reaction equivalent to Agent Smith from The Matrix. The trend seemed to follow us even as we crossed borders from France, to the Netherlands, and finally the Czech Republic.
We rallied our optimism for our introductory weekend in Prague and attended a few more shows, one even billing itself as a “Night of New Orleans” affair. We bought our tickets, took our seats (no moving allowed), and pried open our minds with a crowbar; what were we going to be in for this time? A Czech jazz orchestra? Well, they brought it, even as the older crowd created another seemingly unresponsive dialogue with the performers. During the second set when the band struck up some Duke Ellington, a handful of people finally began tapping their feet silently and lethargically nodding to the music. It was then that I spotted a young, black male twosome (the only ones in the venue, and maybe the whole country), who wore a matching pair of private smiles that seemed to say, “so many white people, so many different interpretations of the same beat.”
Then there was the contemporary jazz club where the Central European musicians performed with technical precision, stepping to and from the microphones for their respective solos with the soldierly synchronicity of a Swedish cuckoo clock. And the Led Zepplin cover band that boasted Robert Plant’s vocal doppelganger, who were awarded with sober applause from drunk people.
What was the common thread? Why did these audiences seem to pride themselves on their reserved, almost introverted concert-going ways? My insight falls short of any plausible answers. Maybe though, it’s the same reason why the natives stink-eyeball the loud Americans who fill their public transportation commutes with big laughs and their restaurants with a higher octave of dinnertime chatter.
Well, as they say: when in Rome, stay in your damn seat.