Music Day: Jack Lang advocates "a musical and civic event"

Music Day: Jack Lang advocates “a musical and civic event”

Jack Lang, who was the initiator of the Fête de la Musique in 1982, when he was Minister of Culture, answers questions from RFI and talks about this event which has since spread beyond the French borders.

RFI: This year, France is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Fête de la Musique. When you launched this small spark, in 1982, you were Minister of Culture. Can you imagine the duration of this event?

Jack Lang: Absolutely not. It was a first attempt, quite cheeky even: offering people to leave their homes with their musical instrument, their voice, their friends, their girlfriends and play in the squares, in the stations, almost everywhere. He wasn’t sure they would answer our call. And besides, at that time I had the greatest stage fright of my life. I said to myself that it might be a catastrophic flop, that people were going to stay cloistered at home. And finally, people were bold, dared, wanted. And like snails after the rain, they came out and found themselves here and there, everywhere. And not only in Paris as we believe, but all over France.

The idea was for it to be a celebration of all types of music. At that time — we don’t realize today — the French Ministry of Culture was mainly interested, before our arrival, in classical music, which is good, but ignored the others, traditional music , contemporary music, rock, jazz and so many other types of music. And we already wanted it to be a celebration of coexistence or the intermingling of all music. And the third idea—it was a bit of a coincidence—is the choice of the date of June 21, the day of the summer solstice, the shortest night. Summer is the most beautiful of seasons, the season of encounters, the season of love, the season of light. That pretty much sums up the event. The event is both a musical event and a civic event. We find ourselves in a timeless light. Everyone feels happy. You will also notice that during the Music Festival, there is never any violence. Except when one day a cop committed the stupidity, more than stupidity, almost the crime, of spreading tear gas on a gang of young people who were playing techno along the Loire and one of them s is drowned.

But otherwise, it’s a moment of grace, a moment when you feel happy as a kind of shared humanity. This year, it may be more true than usual since we have been locked down, if I dare say. And it’s a moment of reunion, of breathing, of new life, of rebirth one might say. And the Fête de la Musique, this year, has more than ever its civic sense, its human sense.

Were you associated with this 40th anniversary and how would you imagine it in your ideal?

Initiatives are raining down, if I may say so, springing up everywhere. Among these, there is one that particularly touches me. It is the initiative of the mayor of Villeurbanne (Cédric Van Styvendael, editor’s note) who, with his colleague, the mayor of Lyon (Gregory Doucet) has created a veritable boulevard of music over six kilometers which connects the two central squares of the two cities. And young or old will be able to take over this boulevard. It’s a first. It is something quite remarkable and I will go to Villeurbanne. In the afternoon, in the presence of many children and young people, we will blow out the 40 candles.

Jack Lang, at the initiative of the Fête de la Musique, June 21, 1982 alongside Danièle Mitterrand. © AFP/Joel Robine

We talked about 1982. And in 1985, the Music Festival became European and today, there are between 120 and 140 countries in the world taking part. That too, that was not planned…

No, but I tell you frankly, I really wanted it, not the first year, but when I saw that in France, the event touched people’s hearts, I said to myself: why not elsewhere? And since I am deeply internationalist and universalist, I said to myself: let’s try to spread this idea elsewhere. I called my fellow ministers, the media, the radios, the newspapers. And little by little, the event crossed the borders, in Europe first, then in Asia, in America. In America in particular, it is an initiative of an extraordinary type called Aaron Friedman, who created the Fête de la Musique about fifteen years ago.

And today, it is present in more than a hundred cities in America. There will be a symbolically very strong event, imagined by Aaron Friedman: he rented, if I may say so, the Statue of Liberty. He is going to give, with friends, a concert, Carnival of the Animals de Saint-Saëns, which had been created at the same time. He will establish links between the Statue of Liberty in New York and the Statue of Liberty in Paris. And at the same time, in many countries, he will ensure that his initiative is multiplied. And then there’s Africa… It’s moving, it’s touching. In any case, in this period when war is at our doorstep, where it strikes here or elsewhere peoples, friends or neighbors. Art and music are also an aspiration to friendship, love, fraternity.

Do you have one or two outstanding memories of Fête de la Musique in which you would have participated during these 40 years?

What is most extraordinary is what is not planned. This is also the spirit of this party, it is the unexpected. At the corner of a street, in a square. And it happened often… A musician alone, but in symbiosis with his musical instrument, a small choir. And then such a village, such a district. When I was mayor of Blois, the Fête de la Musique was in full swing everywhere, and especially in the ZUP. It was really the high place of the city.

And then, for the first Fête de la Musique, Jacques Higelin took an initiative on his own. He rented a fold-out truck which he hauled around town as a kind of musical roaming. He rallied musicians from everywhere. It was a fabulous farandole. And today, moreover, your colleagues from Radio France, Didier Varrod above all, have imagined this year renting a kind of unfolding truck that he will transport from one place to another in the city. And besides, he will inaugurate, if I may say so, his itinerancy right here at the Arab World Institute where Didier Varrod’s brass bands will come to meet Algerian musicians.

The singer Jacques Higelin, during the first Music Festival, June 21, 1982.
The singer Jacques Higelin, during the first Music Festival, June 21, 1982. © Getty Images/Gamma-Rapho/Patrick Aventurier

Are you proud of this initiative you have taken?

The word proud, I don’t know it well. I am happy. It is a great joy to think that — in spite of myself moreover, because I launched the idea — this party would not exist if people, millions of people, hundreds of millions of people did not experience the event. It belongs to them, it is the common good of these musicians.

I’m quite happy, indeed, when things get out of hand. You are questioning me today because I was at the origin of it. But there were so many extraordinary things that happened in Berlin or in Shanghai, in Kinshasa where I was invited and where, unfortunately, I couldn’t go. In Dakar, or around the world, in Korea, in Latin America. Finally, I am forgetting many countries while speaking to you just now.

Did François Mitterrand, at the end of his two terms, say anything to you about the Fête de la Musique? Was he also happy with this initiative?

Very happy. Besides, he sometimes came with me to the city and each time people gave him a treat. They were happy that this president was a president in love with music, close to youth. Today, we talk a lot about youth in political debates, but at the time, it was not a problem for us. The youth was with President Mitterrand, the youth of the world itself and the youth is only asking for that, to find a meaning in collective life, through art, through education, through beautiful projects and also through a political ideal. . Yes, François Mitterrand has often said that it was one of the key achievements of his presidency which will mark the memory, which will remain inscribed in the collective memory. And he was right.

Today is a ritual…

It’s a ritual. I recommend that you read a very fine text by Edgar Morin, who published a few years ago as a preface to a book by Le Seuil on The musical coronation of the French. He describes it very well. He says this cosmic feast has become a civic ritual. And that’s true.

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