This is one of the first interviews I did. My mate Michel Turpin, drummer with a local dance band. It appeared in the January 2009 edition of the Connexion
« Le p’tit bal du samedi soir. » or the Saturday night dance Every village had one. At the end of a hard week, it was a chance for the « Paysans » or peasants to pull on their glad rags and trip the light fantastic Alas, the Saturday night dance is disappearing, killed off over the past twenty years by « disco mobile », and the plethora of second-rate nightclubs that mushroomed in the late eighties and early nineties.
With the death of the « bal » came the demise of the dance band – « orchestre de bal » – Nowadays, times are hard for professional musicians such as drummer (batteur), Michel Turpin. As Michel prepares to hang up his drumsticks (baguettes, but nothing to do with French bread), he reflects on forty years spent on the provincial dance hall circuit.
How does it feel to be retiring after forty years on the road?
You know, musicians never really retire. Music’s in the soul. I’ll still be « filling in » with local bands
Tell us about life on the road?
A lot of people think that musicians have a glamorous lifestyle. Perhaps that is true of Johnny Halliday, on the regional circuit though, there is no sex, the drugs are soluble aspirin and you don’t always play rock and roll. Sure we did Elvis or Beatles covers, but the public prefer the traditional « chanson Française »– Aznavour, Juliette Greco, Gilbert Becaud and others, or “variétés” – Joe Dassin, Sacha Distel, Petula Clarke, Dave, Claude François . . . When there was work about, I would do three dates in a weekend. Friday night we might be in Brest then Saturday in Bordeaux, doing a « bal » and we would finish the weekend with a local « Thé Dansant » (tea dance) or a « Guingette » on a Sunday afternoon. Most nights we would play for six hours without a break. We had over two hundred songs in the repertoire.
Let’s talk about the different types of dances. What’s the difference between a « bal » and a « guingette » for example?
Well a « bal » is the traditional Saturday night dance. In an average dance band there would be about ten people – in many small towns and villages, this was the major event of the week. The repertoire would almost be exclusively French – Johnny Halliday, Dick Rivers, Polnareff and such like. You have to remember as well, that in a time when music was not as accessible as today, the dance band was the main source of music for a lot of people in the provinces. Chances are that people heard us doing a Claude François cover, before they actually hear Claude himself doing the real thing. There used to be hundreds of « bals » back in the days when every town had a dance hall, or a « music hall » as we say in French. In the eighties though, the « bal » started to die out. Dance halls became discotheques, and in many villages mobile discos replaced dance bands, they were far cheaper. There was also a generational reason. For the youngsters in the eighties, the « bal » was considered as « ringard » or old hat.
What about the Guingette?
The « Guingette » is a summer affair, a Sunday afternoon dance held outside in a park. The repertoire is what we call « musette » – waltz, passe doble, charlestons or boleros all played on the accordion. In winter, the “guingettes” are replaced by « Thé dansant ». Strangely enough, the “guingette” has been enjoying a revival over the past few years, accordion music is popular again. Many up and coming artists in French music are using accordions
So, how did you start out?
I started life as a professional musician in May 1968. I got a job with Burt Blanca and his orchestra. Burt was Belgian, he’s still around. We played all over France. That job lasted a couple of years until the bandleader did a runner. He stole my drum kit.
Have you made a good living out of music?
Even when there was work, life as a musician has been precarious. Musicians in France work as « intermitemps du spectacle ». In British terms this probably corresponds to being a member of the musicians’ union. To qualify for your « union card » you have to do 43 dates in a ten month period. If you do less than this, you lose your status as a professional musician and can’t work. You can always supplement your income by giving lessons, or get a day job.
What advice would you give to youngsters starting out in the business?
Nowadays, there are fewer bands and so many good musicians. If you want to be credible, you have to go to a music school or one of those new talent academies, preferably in Paris. Paris is still the place to make a name and forge a reputation.
« Non je ne regrette rien ».
Le p’tit dico de la ‘zic.
A few popular musical French musical terms explained
Term in use since the beginning of the twelfth century. Originally an occitan word « ganches » meaning movement of the arms or hips. From the late nineteenth century, the term « guincher » was used to designate the dancing style in guingettes. Literally meaning « to swing one’s hips ». If someone suggested « On va guincher ? » they are merely asking you to trip the light fantastic with them. You will always « guincher » at a « guingette »
« C’est un zicos » – He’s a musician. Popular, truncated and fashionable term used by musicians and their entourage instead of « musicien »
Musicians make or play music, a « zicos » will make « Zic » .
« Il fait de la zic » – literally meaning – he makes music.