We see two fights on the streets of Marseille in two days, an alarming regularity that has me wondering whether the combatants are in fact just violent street performers, putting on a scheduled show. Some say that this violence resonates throughout the city, that it is a city built on the clash of cultures and ways of living. Its very apparent, very quickly, that this is a place of fusion, due to its role as the gateway into France from North Africa. Skin colours cover the spectrum, cafes and bakeries maintain and reinvent national and regional specialities, and cultures mix to produce wonderful sounds, smells and stunning looking people.
We have timed our trip perfectly, unintentionally but happily scheduling it on the weekend of Fete de la Musique, the annual festival of music that takes place across France. Concomitant to this is the Fete du Panier that takes place in Le Panier neighbourhood, but for one night extra. Le Panier (The Basket) was something of a ghetto back in the day, and the Germans cleared much of it out in WWII – of people and of buildings – due to the elements of resistance that emanated from it. It has an Old Town feel to it, but is now re-populated and is something of a young and innovative quarter.
The narrow streets are bookended by spacious piazzas, that tonight have stages erected. Like a river flowing into a delta, the crowds are large and packed tight until they flow into a square, where they fan out into a dispersal of rivulets, winding, disconnecting, reconnecting. The music, like the city, is multivariate but mindful of its influences – Tunisian, Algerian, Moroccan, European. We see a sailor-striped choir on a boat; a covers band, badly dressed and with a bad singer who can’t remember her band-mates names for the introductions; a DJ who interacts beautifully with her audience; an African percussion group who sound terrific but finish just as we arrive; a samba band with a pushy crowd that I still get a bit upset about; another DJ, more focussed inwardly but who has pulled the biggest crowd.
Food and drink also abound – I discover that yes, I do like pina-colada; we have a good mojito and a foul, dish-watery one; we eat accras de morue (fish cakes), spicy Merguez sausages, whitebait, sushi and takoyaki. The food stalls tend to be little “hole-in-the-wall” places with very busy and hard-working staff in them. The drink stalls are mostly set up by people chancing their arm to make a some extra euro by going to the liquor store to buy a few bottles of spirits to mix, and mark up.
We meet a group of Parisians, who have come to Marseille for the Fete de la Musique for the second year in a row. They say that the Fete here is much better than in Paris, that it has a more genuine and honest feel. We are talking in front of the shop that is selling pho but now, there is no pho. Our shadows are cast upon the wall. We dance, and drink and laugh, and realise that perhaps it is time to go home.
As we make our way back into town, we come across the most rocking brass-band you will ever see, and watch them for a quarter hour. They are young, and new to their instruments but this allows them to be experimental and inventive. They make you wish you had taken up a brass instrument at their age, because by now you might be really good. Fun and joyful, they send us on our way, slow dancing through the Vieux-Port. We pass by a couple riding a plastic zebra sculpture, and wait in line for them to finish so that we can have a turn. They look like they might have come from a wedding or a ball – he in a suit, she in a gown and clutching a bottle of champagne. Their state of intoxication must have prevented them from riding a real zebra – this plastic one seems to be the only equine that would have the forbearance to allow them to mount it this evening.
By the time they vacate, our daring has deserted us and we decide that we should just carry on and head home to our bed – without riding the zebra.