Arts and culture belong to Marseille this year. In 2013 it is the Culture Capital of Europe and as a result it plays host to a wide variety of exhibitions and acts which originate from all over the world. The city has really embraced the role and has shared the payload with it’s neighbouring townships and the people here really embrace it.
It’s fair to say that I’m not the most culturally educated person in the world and generally don’t attend too many events that aren’t those of the sporting variety. But here in Marseille, due to Couchsurfing I attended two such events.
The first was a musical affair. The night started at a warehouse looking building and was a pretty low key affair with not too many people. It was just as any other night, socialising with others over a few beers. Suddenly came a booming rhythm as one after the other a series of percussionists holding their drum filed out of the building into the outside. Led by their conductor of sorts, they played continuously a series of beats to the audience that echoed into the neighbouring residential areas. There must have been no less than fifteen of them, each beating the drum to a perfectly timed tune.
This continued for at least half and hour before they started to turn their stance and progress back into the building. This time however, they beckoned the audience to follow. And they did. Into the building we filed to uncover a large space with a stage at the front. At the rear a bar and one side lay some curiously placed couches and seats.
On the stage waited three men. One holding a guitar, another a violin and the final a drum of sorts. Each were waiting patiently, presumable for their turn to perform but their presence created a sense of mystery to the audience as to what could possibly follow.
The percussionist troupe continued their beat for another fifteen or so minutes before finally relenting and disappearing into the shadows of the building. This left the three men on stage to begin their performance.
They played an ensemble of middle eastern inspired music. Fitting really, given the large influence of arabic culture in Marseille. This was more toned down from the rather fast paced and exciting rhythms of the percussionists but it made for a more relaxed atmosphere where discussions could be made with friends.
Soon though they were replaced by some more upbeat musicians that played a variety of things from jazz to reggae to creole. This inspired a bout of dancing from the audience and lasted until the end of the spectacle in the early hours of the morning. A very satisfying and entertaining night for a low cost.
The second event that I attended was actually in the surrounding seaside town of Cassis, a short train ride out of Marseille. Here, a large crowd of spectators were gathered on the beach in the dark of the night anticipating something to follow. Cassis is famous for it’s cliffs along the coastline and one such bordered the beach. Projected onto the face of the cliff was a countdown to the start of the event.
As the timer counted closer and closer to it’s taget, the anticipation of the crowd was rising. Nobody really knew what was to be in store.
Finally the timer hit zero and soon the audience noticed lights out on the ocean in front. These were fireworks being let off by boats patrolling the beach. At first these fireworks were pretty minimal, sprouting out a few metres from the boats to produce a wave of light. Soon though, they became larger, and the boats were letting of the more traditional fireworks that float high into the sky before exploding in a ball of colours.
As this was happening, more detailed light projections were being shown on the cliff face. Waves of light flowing along the cliff in different colours.
Music was blasted out across the beach to enhance the atmosphere. The entire thing was entertaining, but was becoming repetitive and stale.
And then, out of nowhere, the crowd started to notice something. One by one, the audience member to their right would realise and prompt the others to turn around. There, walking across the beach was a person fully clothed in a suit of lights, strutting across the beach. They took care to walk through the crowd without ever really recognising them.
And then a second appeared.
And a third, each one following the previous about a minute or so afterwards.
And then it was realised that there was one waiting atop the cliff.
Eventually five or six of these fellows congregated to a small rock formation at the base of the cliff. Here, they danced and shot fireworks from their backs. One was wearing a spinning wheel on the back that would shoot fireworks from behind them. Another had two ‘wings’ of fireworks and this character soon started to rise above the others and magically ascend to the top of the cliff.
Soon after large flames spurted out of the rock floor below them like a dragon breathing fire. So intense they were that one could feel the heat of them from one hundred metres away.
This was the finale, and as the flames dissipated for the final time, so too did the lights on the suits of the people. They disappeared into the night just as simply and unspectacularly as they had arrived.
But by then, they had left an impression on everybody on the beach and, particularly given that it was free for entry (it was performed in plain public), most people were highly impressed at the performance.
The French really embrace the arts and cultures much more than in Australia. Sports are still large here, but the ratio towards fine arts and exhibitions is much greater here.
Marseille of 2013 is a perfect example to experience this.