Mixing influences from the Maghreb to the Caribbean with a revival of the Occitan language, the Marseillais band Moussu T et lei Jovents offer a thrilling musical melting pot.
Vibrant Marseille the inspiration for Moussu T on the move
In the time it took to finish off a plate of spaghetti alle vongole on the Vieux Port, Marseille's famous waterfront location and home to the exotic musical ensemble that is Moussu T, I counted five wedding parties going by in noisy processions of cars.
There were garlands streaming from each vehicle, horns blaring, passengers stretched out through open windows. Each convoy presented a classic French wedding-day scene witnessed in countless towns and cities every Saturday, but each was distinctly multi-racial.
A vibrant point of entry and exit for Europe and the Maghreb, Marseille generally rises above the occasional advances of Marine Le Pen's anti-immigration Front National to show a united front. It is a long way from perfection, as demonstrated in chilly fashion by the rounds of Chicago-style score-settling among underworld factions, but in no city of France do different ethnic groups rub along more harmoniously.
They're touring the folk festivals this summer, but the little café-cum-cultural centre where Moussu T e lei Jovents chose, last year, to present samples of their new album typifies this multicultural mix. L'Ostau dau Pais Marselhes is tucked away up a hill a brisk walk from the Vieux Port, in a dusty quarter where shops, market stalls and restaurants offer the craftware, clothing and food of an exotic potpourri of nations: Greece, Lebanon, Egypt, the Indian subcontinent, the north African Maghreb and South America.
"People of diverse origins do get on better here," says Moussu T, real name François Ridel, the leader of the band. "But it hasn't come by accident. We've had to work to counter the racism of the extreme Right."
Moussu T e lei Jovents may essentially be a band rooted in the surrounding area. Yet somehow they embody this proudly inclusive spirit, and also the volatile, rebellious attitude many of its inhabitants reinforced when they proved the most militant strikers, blockaders and protesters of a spirited if unsuccessful uprising against Nicolas Sarkozy's pension reforms.
Moussu is the word for monsieur in the ancient Occitan language of the region. T is short for Tatou, the stage name adopted by Ridel, the chain-smoking, jerkin-clad singer and frontman. "Lei Jovents" translates as the young and represents the band, previously a trio but now up to five strong, Tatou developed from the Marseille reggae group Massilia Sound System.
Tatou looks nothing like a rock star. He is in his early 50s, grew up in the Communist-run Parisian suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine and could easily pass on first appearances for a political agitator on his way to a big demonstration. He moved to Provence as a teenager, studiously absorbed his family's roots there and has long regarded himself as belonging to the region and sharing its cultural detachment from the centralised French state.
Tatou would almost certainly be pleased rather than offended by that description, since he is indeed a man of the Left, a rebel constantly urging on like-minded souls to rise up as best they can against the Parisian establishment. "Oh, the joy of agitation and demanding change," said Manue, the given name of the band's manager and the owner of the La Ciotat-based Manivette label on which they record, during the most recent strikes.
Tatou and his partners in the band are aware of the traditional obstacles to French music. From the yé-yé girls of the 1960s through to the French Elvis, Johnny Hallyday, and ubiquitous variétés françaises - melodramatic, easy listening ballads - to irreverent, aggressive rap, French pop historically lacks the ability to appeal beyond a francophone audience.
Moussu T are different. They may hardly be world beaters, but the exuberance, widely varied inspirations and sheer fun of their music have been gathering a far-flung army of admirers since their first album, Mademoiselle Marseille, came out six years ago. They may even be better known among a discerning but open-minded international public than in some quarters back home: I live 65km along the Mediterranean coast from their base at La Ciotat, a resort once famous for its busy shipbuilding yards, but was alerted to them by friends as far apart as Abu Dhabi and northern England.
The uneasy struggle for domestic mainstream recognition may owe something to an approach that swings between nonchalance and chaos. One otherwise enthusiastic British reviewer talks of them occasionally being "too ramshackle for their own good". And then there is their preference for singing much of the time in Occitan. Close to the Catalan language of north-eastern Spain, Occitan was spoken by four French people in 10 in the mid 19th century, but fewer than one in 10 a century-and-a-half later.
But the band are, with reason, proud of their latest musical developments, which have recaptured and built on the excitement generated by their early recordings.
Remarkably, given that the band members' roots are French and Brazilian, traces of all of the cultures to be found in Marseille, and some that are not, can be detected in their music: the Maghreb and Africa, the Caribbean (notably from the British rather than French West Indies), the blues, French singalong and the Occitan heritage.
The banjo-playing of a key band member, Blu, has an insistent quality and is an important element in the rhythmical development of several tracks, but all leads essentially to Tatou's irresistibly airy vocals, often injected with a wink-of-the eye sense of mischief.
"I think our sound is more together now, more orchestrated," says Tatou. "We also concentrated more on rhythm. It's a bigger cultural basket."
The ease with which band members mix with the sprinkling of fans who have turned out to hear them play a few tracks on a windy afternoon in Marseille suggests they are happiest in a relatively intimate performance environment. "But our audiences at gigs can vary from a few hundred to thousands and thousands at festivals," Tatou points out.
Blu, the guitarist and banjo-player, suspects a rigid French approach to popular music may ultimately block the band's hopes of achieving mass recognition in France.
When I tell him the British look west to the Irish for lessons on how to adopt a truly broad-minded perspective - Dubliners think nothing of going out to hear rock, traditional folk and country on successive nights - he tells me: "And we think of the British as being more open than the French. People find it hard to gauge our music; I am always being asked what it is we do."
It should help that they have won domestic recognition with one of the Coups de Coeur awards made by the French music industry as represented by the respected L'Académie Charles Cros.
In the short- to mid-term future, Moussu T e lei Jovents will seek to branch out and win new fans at home and beyond French shores. For all the positive feedback their work receives among critics and the more aware listeners, the band have had to fight hard to break free of cult band status and step up to the next level.
"We'd love to tour all around the world," says Manue. "But we have been desperately short of a booking agent in various strategic locations: the USA, Canada, Japan, Germany and the UK. For other territories, we have good contacts, but nothing concrete."
June took them to Cheltenham in western England for a performance at the Wychwood Festival, so word may be spreading. But the relaxed nature of the band's approach hints at mixed feelings about wider success.
Critics may be right when they claim to see evidence of Moussu T taking their music more seriously. Tatou himself would probably be horrified if suddenly catapulted beyond the boundaries of man-of-the-people credibility, though he is clearly content when listeners of all ages and backgrounds latch on to his music.
"In the end, the idea is very simple," he says, lighting yet another cigarette. "What I want - we want - is to make music that people listening would like to have written themselves."