Paris Calling

Buenos Aires To Paris, Don't Blame Covid For Killing Culture

Swedish-born, Paris-based writer Carl-Johan Karlsson has been seeing “dead museums” since the pandemic arrived... and even earlier.

Outside the Louvre Museum in Paris last summer
Carl-Johan Karlsson


PARIS — In the early days of last spring's strict confinement, I went for a walk with a friend soon after dawn. Keeping six feet apart, we spoke through our face masks and each of us carried a signed French government "permission to exercise" form in our front pocket. It was March, but that early Parisian morning was a little telegram from summer. We reached Pont au Change just as the first crackling light poured over the mansard roofs and set the placid river glistening. The air was calm and quiet except for the sounds of birds singing — and after a moment of silent reflection staring out from the bridge, my friend and I agreed: Paris had never looked worse.

The scene of a deserted, majestic city would of course have made quite the postcard, but all I could think of was William Burroughs' phrase "dead museum." And so it was recently that I thought of that phrase again when reading about two other cities that I once too called home; New York, where the Metropolitan Opera announced that the pandemic had forced it to cancel its entire 2020-21 season; and Buenos Aires, where the city's 200 "milongas' or, tango dance halls, will remain shut indefinitely after closing back in March.

Tango moves during an online class at an apartment in Buenos Aires — Photo: Martin Zabala/Xinhua/ZUMA

Before I go on, I should pause to say that I understand the risk of talking about tango when people are still dying in hospitals around the world. I should also note that, even though I live in Paris, I'm no particular high-culture maven. I've never been to the Met and I've never tangoed. I got close, back when I lived in Buenos Aires, showing up at milongas to soak up the atmosphere and watch the little tornados of people swirl and marvel at how they (with eyes closed!) managed to never collide. I never dared, having realized early that the Swedish male frame doesn't lend itself to dancing — our asses are too flat. Still, being there as locals tangoed like they had for generations was, without knowing it at the time, why I'd made the Argentine capital my temporary home.

Cities are nothing if not a compacted bale of all of the things that are now a threat to our health: dancing cheek-to-cheek, opera singers belting out arias, sweating shoulder-shoulder on the subway, shooting the shit in crowded bars, filing into a movie theater, sharing a cigarette … a handshake. And as we still don't know whether we're at the end of something terrible or at the beginning of something that won't end, it begs the question: What if some of our physical culture won't be coming back?

Beyond Burroughs, there is of course a whole slew of 20th-century dystopian writers who imagined what a spiritually dead culture might look like — some with an almost spooky prescience (George Orwell's 1984 hit bestseller lists again in 2017). Still, a very different perspective comes from my photographer fiancee who is convinced that the pandemic is a chance to confront a culture that has long been in crisis: "Maybe what we're going through now can remind us of what's been lost."

Culture will always need our collective expression.

That view requires a sunnier disposition than mine, but I understood what she was getting at. Visiting art galleries, I often get the sense of reading a newspaper; it tells you what's going on; or even social media (what's trending...), but it rarely invokes any of the feelings — love, fear, hope, rage — that it typically claims to depict. It lacks what Aristotle called "anagnorisis," that feeling of catching up with a truth that was already there.

I couldn't tell you what allowed artists of the past to compose, write or paint the stuff we still revisit in awe, only that I can't find it today. I also know that no matter how many it takes to tango, culture will always need our collective expression … even if some just sit on our asses and watch.

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Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.

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