Brian Jacobson

Babylon Circus brings dances of resistance to Milwaukee

By - Apr 15th, 2008 02:52 pm


It’s 12:55 in the afternoon, and I’m preparing to make my first international call through my cell phone. It’s almost 8 pm in France, where lead singer David Baruchel is in the studio with ten other bandmates making their latest album. It’s a big deal. The 2004 Babylon Circus album Dances of Resistance was a hit; worldwide, the group is as big a draw as, say, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are in America.

But perhaps you haven’t heard of them. While Babylon Circus has produced three full-length albums and one EP since 1995 and sometimes play for huge audiences (for proof, see here), their influence in the States is relatively minor. This may be in part because most of their songs are in French (sometimes mixed mid-song with English), or it may be because the genre of music they play is hard to nail down and describe.

The group’s nom de guerre is apt: Babylon Circus is influenced by Romani music and instruments infused with the bombastic rhythms of reggae and ska. The style is often called “chanson,” which uses the meter and timbre of the French language to set the rhythm. Their onstage antics and cacophony of sound bring frequent comparisons to Gogol Bordello, an international band that plays hardcore cabaret- and punk-influenced rock music.

How about this for a written description? Take shades of No Doubt, Sublime, Bob Marley, and Less than Jake – but add even more musical chops.

BC’s songs are mostly about social awareness and change, with occasional riffs on personal love and loneliness (like “J’auruis bien voulu”) but nary a treacle-y power ballad in the repertoire. Baruchel emphasizes that the sonic wave of joy and love they send out at their concerts gets bounced right back.

“It’s always a big adventure, and we don’t always know what will be next,” Baruchel says. “In New York,” he says – the only North American city the band has played until now – “we played for a big audience in Central Park and a small one in Brooklyn. Each one had a different energy – both were powerful and filled with a lot of love.”

Baruchel goes on to describe the vibe from a well-chronicled musical happening in Syria that BC encountered right about the time of the start of the war in Iraq. They weren’t sure how they would be received, but in the middle of the show, the band stepped down from the stage and paraded down the street “carnival style.” Soon shopkeepers were closing up to join the festivities and women in full hijab were dancing along with the music. Even if they couldn’t understand the words, people could relate to the joyful sound.

“Afterwards one man took me in his arms,” Baruchel says. “I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I could feel what he was saying – that it was good to him.”

There are other tales of BC’s tours in Ireland, Russia, Australia and beyond. It’s hard to tell what hijinks these high-energy hommes will get into on their eight-city US tour, which includes a stage show at the Kennedy Center and an appearance on Live at the World Café.

Their show at Alverno Presents meshes with Director David Ravel’s mission to bring major world music, jazz and dance groups to the Pitman Theater. This jammy music show would probably be wildly popular in a summery, outdoor setting – especially Alverno’s own Global Union Festival at Humboldt Park – but timing and schedules likely conflicted. Milwaukee is lucky to get them for this.

Some of the music presented April 19 may be from their newly developing album, but most songs will likely come from their last public-protest-inspired Dances of Resistance, titles like “Parade Acoustique” and “De La Musique et du Bruit.”

Babylon Circus examines social evolution, perhaps revolution. In their home country, Baruchel says, the neighborhood has changed. One song conveys the true story of a friend of his who grew up sharing food, music and life with neighbors from other countries. But as French government politics changed, it affected the composition and lifestyle of the neighborhood. Many moved away and the sound is gone from there.

Baruchel sees each album as a photograph in time describing the world we live in and the way things are going: “DoR happened because we were in Barcelona in 2001 and got caught up in a huge demonstration. You could feel the power in it. There were people shouting and music and a lot of hope. So the album was thinking about how if you have a problem in society you can just sit on the pavement crying, or you can stay standing and say ‘I’m a part of this, I play a role’.” VS

Babylon Circus gives the final performance of the Alverno Presents 2007-08 season on April 19, 8:00 p.m. at the Pitman Theater. All seats are $28. Check out availability by calling 414-382-6044 or visit Alverno Presents online.

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