Most evenings, Eadred the Bald and I play music to the girls (via a speaker, for any of you having painful visions of toe-curling family sing-songs accompanied by saccharine guitar-wielding parents). In some families this would be a spontaneous, joyful event. In ours, it is a matter of deadly seriousness. For, you see, nothing less than the future musical credibility of our offspring is at stake.
I have just made, I admit, a grandiose statement. If you are in any doubt as to whether or not it is justified, I suggest that you take a minute to plug the words musique and accordéon into Google or YouTube. The results will be familiar to you from films about France, for they are the backdrop to many a scene of Breton-striped, beret-adorned, garlic-wreathed, wobbly bicycle-riding down bucolic chemins in the back of beyond. There is the accordion, of course, but then there are also the breathy people behind it chuchoting “bah-be-da-be-da”, and sometimes the throaty crooner up front, whose eau-de-vie fumes you can almost smell as he croaks on and on in melancholic fashion.
Part of me feels a grudging respect for a nation that has stayed sufficiently in touch with its heritage to maintain its peculiar musical traditions in the age of Spotify and Deezer. The other part of me remembers that the act of playing such music often goes by the name of le flan. Who, tell me, can possibly expect to attract respect for their art form when it is named after a flabby beige dessert?
All cheap attempts to make you laugh aside, there is a significant difference between the cultural approaches to music in France and in le monde Anglo-Saxon. My French father-in-law, who is my authority on all matters even slightly tending towards the philosophical, once told us that, in France, the word yaourt was often substituted for the lyrics of any song sung in English. Why? Because substituting yaourt made very little difference to the overall result. Dans les chansons anglaises, la musique est plus importante que les paroles. Dans les chansons françaises ce sont les paroles qui sont primordiales.
Therein, perhaps, lies the explanation for those interminable songs with no discernible melody crooned by ageing hirsute men with twinkling eyes and charisme. There was I busy looking for a rousing tune, whilst the French audience was searching only for poésie.
Then again, why bother having a song at all, if you pay such scant attention to the tune that it virtually ceases to exist? Why not just hold a poetry recital? When I listen to music, I want to be given a melody of at least moderate interest underpinned by some sturdy harmony. If it’s classical music I’m after, I need something more than a couple of thin, breathy flutes fiddling around up high. If it’s anything else, I usually require a bass guitar, or at least a thrilling bass line. And no, I don’t really care whether they are singing about serial killers with silver hammers or about stairways to heaven. So long as the music is good, it is not terribly important what they are saying.
In a flimsy attempt not to impose our cultural prejudices on the girls, we once played them some Johnny Halliday (or Jon-ee Allidaie, as he is more routinely pronounced, such are the perils of a French artiste picking an English name) followed by some Serge Gainsbourg. The result was prolonged hysteria. We have taken this as a sign that we should continue our nightly grim-faced introductions to music from the other side of La Manche or, at a push, the Atlantic. Yoghurt will yet triumph over flan.