When she was a young girl in Paris in the '60s, Odile Lavault was not particularly aware of the seismic upheavals in French popular music happening around her. Her family was conservative, Catholic, and not at all open to American rock 'n' roll and its early French counterparts. The Bubblegummy “yé-yé” girl groups whizzed by her, along with the avant-rock explorations of Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Dutronc. But one kind of music did filter into her consciousness: musette, an old-fashioned French style from the '20s that had been largely forgotten. For Lavault, musette's appeal lay in one simple fact: “It made me cry, that's all. I mean, I knew there was something there.”
Winsome and ebullient, Lavault is the driving force behind the Baguette Quartette, a group specializing in French popular music recorded between the World Wars, when accordion music was at its commercial and artistic peak. Lavault is a scholar of the time period, dedicated to unearthing lost treasures by instrumental composers such as Joseph Columbo and Joe Privat, as well as by sentimental chanson balladeers like Maurice Chevalier.
Over the last eight years, the Baguette Quartette has carved out a niche for itself as the Bay Area's premier musette band. With the release of its new album, Chez Moi, the group widens its palette, augmenting its usual traditional tunes with Gypsy swing, Argentine tangos, and one of Lavault's favorite genres, the “realistic song,” a dramatic, pointedly maudlin style perfected by Gallic chanteuses such as Lucienne Boyer and Edith Piaf.
“Typically the realistic song tells the story of a woman from cradle to grave,” says Lavault, in a telephone interview from her home in Albany. “It's always the same thing: She's born into poverty, she's usually some kind of an orphan — if not when the song starts, by the second verse she is going to be. Then she works really hard, and, of course, the boss or some VIP connected to her job attacks her virginity. There are variations: She can be pregnant or she can die from tuberculosis or become abandoned with the kids. She becomes uglier and uglier and gets some kind of disease, and she dies or is stabbed in the street. If it's not her death, it's the death of her mother that's described. Sometimes she might have some happy years — if she didn't get pregnant too early in life.
“From the beginning, [the song style] was over the top. Like, I do these songs in Berkeley, and of course people laugh, but they are meant to.” Lavault explains that the realistic song was simply a type of popular entertainment, not meant to be taken seriously. “It's like people who go to horror movies and laugh: You get a certain pleasure out of tragedy.”
Innovations in the accordion brought on musette's golden era in the '20s, as the simple rustic squeeze box evolved into a more modern instrument capable of playing complex melodies. By the time Ernest Hemingway and other expats made their Jazz Age pilgrimages to Paris, the accordion was everywhere — from the cabarets and cafes to the theater stages and rough-and-tumble dance halls known as bal musette.
In the '70s, when Lavault began to immerse herself in the music's past, she moved to the Parisian district that once housed the bal musette, soaking up the then-vanished scene's lore in the process.
“To go to the dance halls, you had to be a little bit of a thief or a little bit of a prostitute, a gangster, or something on the margin,” Lavault says. “There were constantly fights about a woman, and also, because lots of people were gangsters, people had guns, and fights would go on all the time. There's a song from the '40s on our second CD [Rendez-vous] called “Bébert' that describes a bal musette: It was very small and hot, and people danced tight, and the band would play up on a balcony where they could be protected from the fighting.”
From this sinister atmosphere came the exquisite and seemingly genteel music that Lavault grew to love. But the heyday of the bal musette was brief: During World War II, the Germans closed the nightclubs and banned public dancing, forcing many musicians to either flee or lie low. After the war, American styles such as jazz and swing flooded the French imagination, and the humble accordion quickly became a quaint relic. Not until the late '70s did musette make its comeback, as French aficionados grew determined to rescue this uniquely French style from the brink of extinction.
“I was working at the National Radio [station] at that time, which was at the heart of the revival,” Lavault recalls. “I remember that there was a daily program with scratchy 78s that had just started on the National Radio at that time. It probably all started from that show. Then the sheet music got dug out, and musicians started playing the music.”
Like other young musicians eager to learn to play musette and chanson, Lavault found herself alienated from the accordion establishment, which she describes as a “mafia.” Although she tried working with several teachers, Lavault soon realized the instructors were more interested in forcing her to learn certain songs — and in receiving their kickbacks for the purchase price of the sheet music. Frustrated, she stopped taking lessons.
“There are millions of accordionists in France — that's why I'm here,” says Lavault, only half-jokingly. “They have all been to accordion school, but the material they use is sad. It's why so many people can't stand the accordion — it's like playing the most famous Mozart piece or Bach piece that every piano student studies. Luckily, I didn't go to accordion school, so it's fresh for me.”
Instead, Lavault apprenticed with Gypsy bands that played wild Eastern European music, entertaining diners and club-hoppers throughout Paris. The Gypsies showed her how to play with passion, while also giving her a taste of what the old bal musette scene was like.
“I worked with a guitarist, and he had two prostitutes,” Lavault says. “We would finish around 2 a.m., and then he would go check on his women. Betting on horses was also a very important thing. When I played with Romanian Gypsies, they would go out and bet everything on horses during the break. So I would be sure to get my part of the tips before they went out.”
Eventually, Lavault grew restless. In 1992, after visiting California to play at a wedding, she decided to move to the Bay Area. The following year Lavault founded the Baguette Quartette with violinist and Berkeley native Rachel Durling, a veteran of experimental jazz groups such as the Hieroglyphics Ensemble and the Speakeasy String Quartet. After 1998's Rendez-vous, the Quartette added guitarist Will Bernard, best known for his stints with Beth Custer, the Coup, and T.J. Kirk, the jazz-funk group he started with fellow Berkeley High grad Charlie Hunter. A self-described Francophile, Bernard says he was drawn to the material because it was different than his usual electric groups and it gave him the chance to explore the Gypsy jazz style pioneered by French guitarist Django Reinhardt.
“Most of the guitarists who played musette in the '30s and '40s played in that kind of style,” Bernard explains. “I've always been a fan of it. It's very different from other kinds of jazz styles, like bebop or later.”
“Plus, it's all acoustic, so I don't go from a gig with my ears ringing,” he laughs.
Bernard's lively riffs can be heard on the new album, particularly on the upbeat Gus Viseur tune “Matelotte,” which is a striking example of the kind of swing the prewar Parisians had perfected.
But the infusion of new sounds shouldn't upset the Baguette Quartette's Gaul-fixated audience, which ranges from habitués of San Francisco's Cafe Claude to residents of the East Bay hills. In fact, its fan base is bound to increase shortly, thanks to local entertainment giant Pixar Studios and its new computer-animated film, Monsters, Inc. When the movie's shaggy, slithery heroes make their voyage to Paris, it is the sound of musette — and Lavault's accordion — that greets them. Lavault hasn't seen the film yet, but she looks forward to telling friends and family back in France, many of whom find her fascination with old-fashioned styles to be amusingly peculiar.
Lavault readily admits that she traffics in a mythologized, nostalgic image of France, tapping into the romantic yearnings many Americans project onto Paris and Provence. “People here — I'm speaking of Berkeley — people go to France all the time,” she says. “I don't know how they manage it … I mean, I don't even go to Paris as often as they do! But there are so many of them. Paris just makes people dream, and I let them dream. I'm a dreamer, too; I build a show that is very poetical, and we all together jump into a world that maybe never existed.”