A CD by the Paris-based Les Primitifs Du Futur arrived in America with little fanfare in the fall of 2006. Entitled World Musette, it bore the artwork of illustrator R. Crumb and featured vintage style musette music played by the sextet, which included Crumb, as well as nearly two dozen guests.
While Crumb has long been known as the guy behind such iconic cartoons as Mr. Natural and the Keep On Trucking drawing, as well as his legendary Zap Comix, savvy music fans know that he’s a hardcore collector of vintage 78s. A banjo player himself, he’s put together offbeat collections with titles like Hot Women: Women Singers From The Torrid Regions Of The World and Harmonica Blues: Great Harmonica Performances Of The 1920s And ’30s.
Long obsessed with old-timey music (particularly blues and country), Crumb played with the Cheap Suit Serenaders back in the ’70s but, sick of the U.S., he moved to Paris in the decade that followed. There, he came across Dominique Cravic at a gig, and Les Primitifs were born in 1986.
“The first time we met Robert in Paris, he was more interested in learning about musette and we were more interested in learning about jazz and blues,” guitarist/bandleader Cravic recalled during a brief U.S. tour (minus Crumb, who doesn’t typically play live with the band). “We’d been playing blues for years, but not having a blues musician to play with in Paris made it difficult. It really was a meeting, for both us and him, you know? He’s an amateur, but he’s actually a really fine musician.”
Crumb was no doubt drawn to the music because of its overall raucous sound, similar to the music he loved. Dance music by definition, musette is an interesting collision of musical forces. The music is driven by accordion, which was brought to Paris by Italian immigrants. At the same time, country people who’d migrated from Auvergne, in the center of France, were hitting Paris as well. According to Cravic, in the 1910s and ’20s these people were running the cafés and organizing small dancehalls for working-class people. So the French and Italian migrants got together in the bands that played these places–the Auvergne players mostly played a French version of the bagpipes. Throw in some polka, waltz, gypsy swing and even tangos and other far-flung folk styles, and you’ve got musette. (Legendary Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt’s first recordings were musette music.)
“It was a very loud and wild sound,” says Cravic. “With the band we had the same idea: Some musicians are into French music, some are more into jazz or blues. The title is really a motto of how we feel about music.”
This aesthetic and cultural blend resonates as well today as it did when musette was emerging nearly a century ago. The intersection of styles seemed to fit the international flavor of Paris at the time and now definitely appeals to wide-open modern minds willing, at least when it comes to music, to shuttle happily between cultures. But rather than trying to unify the styles through some crafty electronic programming, the band does it by simply playing the music it loves.
They’ve gigged regularly over the years in Paris and beyond, but only now does it seem that the band is making a name for itself beyond French expatriates and tuned-in comic book obsessives. The band stays busy touring throughout Europe, and has even made several trips to Japan. Nonetheless, progress has been slow–three albums in 20 years is sporadic at best, and it’s taken six years for the band to see its third album arrive Stateside. The band’s recent tour touched down in Brooklyn, Louisiana, and San Antonio, Texas. Fellow musicians and casual fans alike were struck by the band’s loose jazz-like approach to the music.
“We had guys who were playing Zydeco music and they knew at least a little bit of French. We played Snug Harbor in New Orleans. We also played two days a