Saturday, May 03, 2014

How I rode a red tractor to France

Write a song, win a trip to France. Sounds like the kind of thing that happens to Other People, right? Well, it happened to little old me. So either I’m now officially Other People, or I’m more Other than I thought I was.
It started with this poster I saw in Alliance Française. Chansons sans Frontière it said. Songs without frontiers. These altruistic gents were offering an all-expense paid trip to France, if I could write a song – in French – on the subject of Liberty, which did not actually make them puke. And provided I was of sound mind, had not been arrested for vagrancy or drunken driving and a couple of other minor conditions like that.
Now this fitted my plans perfectly. Blandine, my French girlfriend, has been nagging me for years to pay her a visit, only, my official state as penniless struggling novelist does not permit me to raise the necessary airfare. And writing songs – Pshaw! As someone who has written songs on subjects as diverse as sacred ashtrays and mad anthropologistsLiberty, I said to myself, I can do in my sleep. True, it had to be in French, but I know a bit of la belle langue, and what are dictionaries there for?
I mentioned this to Blandine the next time she broached the subject of coming over. She gently rolled her eyes. Not that I could see it over the telephone. It was understandable. After all, it sounded like one of those chicken and egg stories: buy a chicken – the chicken lays eggs – the eggs hatch, producing more chickens, and so on – until one fine day you have a million eggs which you sell off at the grocery store to buy an air ticket to France. But eggs do hatch, sometimes.
To inspire myself, I checked out a couple of songs on Liberty. They made me puke. Liberty seems to be one of those subjects that makes the normally sane songster pull out the purple prose by the square yard. And those gents at CSF had specified it must not make them puke.
Nope, I wanted to tell a story. I know my limitations as poet, but a story is something I know to tell. And I had a vague idea of the story I wanted to tell, but I needed a hook. A key phrase to hang the story on.
A hook, a hook. I walked the muddied, rain-lashed streets of Bangalore searching for a hook, eyes rolling in frenzy, tearing at my crew-cut hair. At times like this I wish I grew my hair longer. All at once, a red tractor roared around the corner and almost rammed into me. Bangalore has an epidemic of tractors of late. All the farmers around the district have cottoned on that it makes more sense to sell their potato directly to the city dweller than have agents and middlemen hack off their pound of turnip. The tractor man scowled at me and said something rude in the local dialect. The last thing a tractor man needs is a mad poet on his primrose path. But I smiled back. For I had it. The hook, the key phrase. The Red Tractor of Liberty. Le tracteur rouge de la liberté.
The rest of the song was a breeze. As any songster will tell you, get the hook right, and the rest of the song will fall into place of its own. I sent it off to Blandine. She hated it. I shrugged. Blandine hates everything I do. She is one of those girlfriends who believe any form of praise can spoil a perfectly good boyfriend. I send it off to CSF. I forget all about it.
Fast forward three months. I get a call from a strange French number. A pleasant-voiced French lady is at the other end. She says she’s Marie from Chanson sans Frontière. She says I have won the first prize.
You could have knocked me down with a feather duster. No, not a feather. An eleven stone man cannot be knocked down with a feather. Not unless it’s a feather from an ostrich. A biggish ostrich.
I tell Blandine. She refuses to believe it. I provide proof – a congratulatory mail from CSF. She believes it. She is unimpressed. Blandine is never impressed. So what took you so long, she says? Couldn’t you have written a song last year?

Fast forward two months. Visa done, bags packed, girlfriend in tow I land on the doorstep of Jean-Claude Meurisse and Marie Courtois Prieto, in the historic town of Caen. Jean-Claude and Marie embody in their gracious form Chansons sans Frontières, as it exists today. They once had a big office with actual staff and an attached concert hall and whatnot. Now they operate from home. The economic crisis, Jean-Claude explains. Government funding has been cut down to a level where it isn’t funny any more. They can’t afford to put us up at a hotel either. We are invited to stay with them. No matter. The hospitality of Jean-Claude and Marie is as close to that of a Turkish pasha that a French bourgeois can get away with, without annoying his neighbors. So, no dancing girls and hookah – Blandine wouldn’t have approved anyway – but we get a meter-long pollock steamed whole in a meter-long steamer with lashings of potato and butter, apple cider from the nearby apple orchard and a sinful fresh-baked chocolate cake and all sorts of other goodies. And Jean-Claude and Marie are more warm and friendly than the best trained Hilton concierge. Besides, in their case, it is genuine.
Jean-Claude is actually a well-known musician in his own right. He travels all over the world with his band Lavionrose, besides running CSF. Marie is a Frenchwoman who spent most of her youth in Bolivia. She lived in a hippy commune before hitching up with Jean-Claude. She’s all up on Karma and Aromatherapy and Homeopathy and whatnot. Their lovely, sunny house is chockablock with bric-a-brac they have picked up on their travels – voodoo dolls from Haiti, tribal art from Africa, traditional furniture from China.

A day to go for the big night : We check out the nearby beaches of Normandy,of WWII fame.

The big night. We drive to the Big Band Café. This is the hip and happening hangout for the arty types in Caen. It is not really a café – it is a concert hall and gallery with a small attached bar. Jean-Claude tells me where to stand and when to prance onto the stage. We have a pre-event feast for the artistes of the evening – couscous and char-fried sausages with melon and ham. 

I’m introduced to the compère for the evening. Gwénaëlle Louis is the regional news presenter for France 3. She’s a tall, endless blonde with close-cropped hair and looks a bit like Brigitte Nielson. She looks like she could knock me out with a single karate chop. But she seems friendly enough – provided I don’t indulge in funny business. I have no intention of indulging in funny business.

I’m introduced to the guest of honor of the evening – the ambassador of Taiwan in France. His Excellency Michel Lu is small and birdlike and a bundle of fun. Not your everyday fuddy-duddy diplomat. Despite his somewhat shaky French, he manages to have the table in splits with a series of cracks that verge on the undiplomatic.

Gwénaëlle and Jean-Claude open the proceedings with a short intro to CSF. 

A Taiwanese string quartet takes the stage. The Miro Ensemble is a group of Taiwanese students who have been training in Paris. They perform a Taiwanese version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons called, naturally enough, the Four Seasons of Taiwan. Their singer seems rather high strung to begin with, but she gets into the groove. She has a lovely voice.

Charly Venturini reads out some of the top few texts (not THE winner, i.e. mine). Venturini is an actor, not a singer. He reads out the texts with a great deal of drama, with more than a touch of King Lear. Jean-Claude accompanies him on the keyboard.

The Ambassador of Taiwan is introduced. He does an impromptu puppet show. As he says, when he was small, no TV, no toys – they entertained each other with puppets. He says he is Made in Taiwan, like HTC and Asus. He urges the public to buy Taiwan – HTC and Asus, not him. 

Michel Bonnefoi announces the names of the winners of the second prize and young writer’s prize and others. Michel is a member of the jury. He has been associated with CSF since its inception eight years ago. He is a songwriter-composer and is Jean-Claude’s musical collaborator. He and his lovely wife Marisabelle are also our fellow guests chez Jean-Claude, and our partners in local tours.

François Lemonnier takes stage. He is a well-known singer songwriter in France. He performs the text of the winner of the award for native French speaker.

Then it is the turn of the big prize of the evening – the award for the non-native French speaker – i.e. little old me. My name is announced. I’m crouching in the wings. I hop onto the stage.

Gwénaëlle asks me a few standard questions. I’m expected to make a few standard answers. Blandine has carefully coached me. Very little chance of making an ass of myself. Very little, not none at all. I make an ass of myself. As many have said of me, given half a chance, I will make an ass of myself. Oh well. The audience gets a free laugh.

The Ambassador stalks on to hand me the prize. He forgets to do it. Too busy cracking jokes. An Indo-Taiwanese diplomatic rift?

François Lemonnier joins me. He sings my song. I nod and smile approvingly. I believe it is expected of me. It would not have been gracious to my hosts to make barracking noises.
But honestly, his interpretation was rather good – a bit like a French folk song. My original intention had been to write a blues song. Actually, I did an English version of it, that is a pretty good blues song, even if I say so myself.
Here is the text for the English version: The RedTractor of Liberty – Lyrics
And here is a recording of me singing it in the Delta Blues style – or what I fondly imagine is a Delta Blues style:-

By the way, I’m accompanying myself on my baby guitar. It’s the devil to tune and the devil to play, but it has an amazing throaty, raspy, bluesy sound. It sounds like a guitar that has swigged three quarts of gin and smoked three packets of cheap cigarette. It sounds like a guitar on whose shoulder all the woes of the world have fallen. My more refined guitars don’t come close to matching that sound. It makes up for my un-bluesy self-satisfied middle-class Indian voice.

And here is the winning French text : Le tracteur rouge de la liberté – les paroles

And here is a video of François Lemonnier singing it, with me nodding approvingly:-

Actually, I suppose François’s way of singing it is the only way to do it in French. I had tried recording the French version of the song on the same lines as the English version, but it sounded awful, so I deleted it. I suppose English is the natural language of the blues, although there have been French Creole blues singers in Louisiana. In any case, CSF did not let me perform my song myself. It seems it is a competition rule that the winner does not perform his or her own song. Probably all for the best. I would have made an even bigger ass of myself had I tried singing in public. I prefer to stick to recording my songs at home and posting them on my website.
Oh, and in case you’re interested, here’s a video of me making an ass of myself:-

It includes the song too (it is a superset of the previous video). The song starts at 3:05

The minor proceedings of the evening over, the real event starts – the popular French rock group Merzhin. The audience heaves a sigh of relief. They’ve been putting up with all this inter-cultural stuff with gritted teeth.

Meanwhile, the staff of CSF sneaks out into the foyer for backslapping and congratulatory flutes of champagne.  

 I am introduced to the jurists who had voted for my song. I thank them prettily.

Next day, back to my girlfriend’s pad in Lyon, with a quick stopover in Paris to see the sights..

Photo Credits: Tristan Jeanne-Valès, Marisabelle Lafont

Video Credits: Blandine Chavas
Good God Continues Next Weekend.