In Paris, anything interesting happens up five flights of curling stairs with no elevator. You go through a street door that is built to withstand the next French Revolution and then you climb those five flights of stairs. I have been in Paris three weeks now, but I have yet to see anything truly interesting that wasn’t up five flights of stairs. (If the invitation is to, say, a third floor apartment you might want to consider bowing out; nothing of note will happen there.)
María was there. Rudi was there. Andrés was there with his Spanish firecracker of a girlfriend, Angela. There was a Brazilian who played a seven-string guitar and an Italian sax player. Ernesto our host had prepared an Argentine asado – chorizo, morcilla, cordero, entraña – in a Paris apartment, an act of love and magic that secured Ernesto a place in my personal Pantheon.
We ate. We drank. We laughed at the jokes that Andrés and Rudi, two veteran jesters, threw back and forth. I had the feeling that together they were a bottomless pit of jokes, that a new joke would never be further away than a slow sip of wine or at most the rolling of a fresh cigarette.
Cigarettes. The social role of cigarettes in Parisian party life is a matter of great fascination to me.
At any moment of the night, everybody in the room was to be found in one of five States of Smoking: preparing to roll a cigarette and realizing they didn’t have one of the essential pieces to do so – rolling paper, tobacco or filter; asking to borrow one of the missing elements from someone else who would then start looking around for their misplaced pouch of tobacco in which all the essential pieces were stored; at last rolling their cigarette; then having to borrow a lighter from someone because they could not find theirs; and ultimately the culmination of their efforts, the smoking of their little hand-rolled cigarette which disappeared in wisp of smoke.
They tell me that everyone rolls there own because of the cost of pre-made cigarettes and because the tobacco is less contaminated, healthier. I think the real reason is that it is so much more entertaining.
I don’t think I saw even one person roll their cigarette self-sufficiently; they always needed a piece from someone else to complete the act. I couldn’t help but imagine an anthropologist writing a long and fascinating treatise on The Social Role of Cigarettes in Parisian Party Life and their Role Cementing Social Bonds in a Multicultural City. Or something like that.
It would make and interesting read.
But this piece isn’t about cigarettes. It’s about guitars and those who play them.
When dinner was over, Rudi said to José, the Brazilian guitarist, do you remember [insert the name of some tune]?
José said, “Well, it’s been a long time since I played that and I was a lot drunker then. But let’s try.”
Rudi turned to Ernesto, our host. “Do you mind if we play a bit?”
Ernesto screwed up his face and looked at me. “El Rudi is asking my permission to play. He’s crazy.” He just shook his head and walked back to the kitchen; everyone knew that the thing Ernesto loved more than anything else was to get the guitarreada started. A dinner that ended in anything other than a guitarreada would be an abject failure. In Ernesto’s book, you didn’t get together and not make music. What would be the point?
And so the guitarreada began.
Night is the best time to make music. The rumble of the world quiets down and the silence begins to breathe again. In the silent spaces there is at last room for the music to unfold.
There is a special breed of tango musician who only comes out after dark. He prowls through the night with his instrument slung over his shoulder, walking, smoking, drinking his way through life. Often they are guitar players. They will play for hours on end. Seemingly it is the only thing they want – that and a glass of wine and an occasional love affair to mourn. Love is not something they lack, as the attractiveness of a man who plays music through the night is as irresistible as any love promise – if you can pry him away from his guitar long enough to even make love.
The table was strewn with candles, empty wine bottles, tobacco pouches, empty pistachio hulls, cigarette stumps. This was our altar with couches and mattresses that served as couches pulled up around. There was the view down a Parisian street out the window and a witch on a broomstick puppet called Natalie hanging by the window which was cracked open so that the smoke from all those cigarettes could make its exit. But it was hopeless because was not open enough to make a difference and to open it any more sent an icy chill into the room. Such is Spring in Paris.
The music flowed. The guitar was passed around. People smoked. The music poured out like the wine. Angela urged the party on with her party-loving Spanish palmas. Andres, the charango player, unleashed little flamenco flourishes in his feet and with an up-swirling hand when he couldn’t contain his happiness any more.
These are my people. People who make music in the night. Gypsies. Tangueros. Campfire singers – anyone who does not find what they are looking for in the day and must search for it in the dark.
By Kevin Carrel Footer – www.kevincarrelfooter.com
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