Monday, 14 July 2014

July 14: Bastille Day

I've always thought that July 14 should be seen as a day where France's contribution to the world's cultural landscape should be recognised, and not just in France.

Of course, a day of national celebration could not go without a version of the national anthem.

Probably the most famous recent version of  the Marseillaise was Serge Gainsbourg's reggae cover of the song on his 1979 Aux Armes Et Caetera album.

His version, recorded with Jamaican musician, led to anger from those upset at what they saw as an insult to the national anthem. Of course, many of those complaints were little other than thinly-veiled racism.

Faced with threats from right wing factions claiming they would do harm to him and his musicians for performing the song, Gainsbourg took to  the stage in Strasbourg in 1980 and performed it unaccompanied.

Gainsbourg reclaimed the Marseillaise and re-established it's rebel origins. Those who wanted trouble were left having to stand to attention and salute, defeated by Gainsbourg outmanoeuvring them with a coup de theatre.

Gainsbourg would later buy a manuscript of the song at auction. While he was far from a politically active artist, Gainsbourg didn't shy away from an opportunity to change society, albeit in a small way, to his way of thinking.

I wrote a couple of years ago: "While there were those offended by his version of La Marseillaise, it was more than just a gratuitous gesture of provocation, marking as it did the possibility of an ethnically diverse and inclusive France, confident and international in its outlook while retaining all its positive qualities.

I don't know if France is there yet, but Serge certainly made it more possible."

There are many artists who aim to change society in some way, outsiders who want the establishment to move in favour of those disconnected from the mechanisms of power. Gainsbourg played his part more than most in making this happen.

France remains a country with a revolutionary attitude at its core, and its artists are part of this heritage.

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