Why French musicians are chasing the Mississippi blues
By Karen Ott Mayer
For one group of French musicians, playing music isn’t just the end goal. Rather, their pursuit of creating music is intricately tied to a working philosophy that continually drives rich sensibilities about people, places and culture. And lately, right here in Mississippi.
The group, Hypnotic Wheels, arrived in Como, Mississippi last week and will spend the next two weeks traveling the Hill Country and Delta working on a project that hopes to further identify the cultural and musical commonalities between rural Mississippi blues musicians and rural French folk musicians, both whose music is born from a place of necessity rather than luxury.
“In French, we call it la musique de fonction,” said Gilles Chabenat.
Sitting in the living room of Moon Hollow Farm & Country House surrounded by their equipment and instruments, the group talks about early origins and how they arrived at this point in their careers.
Gilles Chabenat, the hurdy gurdy player, picked up the instrument as a young boy and hasn’t put it down for nearly 40 years. From central France, Chabenat is nothing short of a master when it comes to this instrument that dates back thousands of years. The list of accomplishments is long, having even worked with Sting.
For many Mississippians, hearing the hurdy gurdy can be an education in itself. As Gilles explains, the instrument mirrors the violin with similar strings–except they sit atop a wheel.
As Gilles cranks the gurdy by hand, the wheel turns. The sound effects can hardly be separated. One moment, it’s easy to hear an organ, but then again, perhaps an echo of a bagpipe? With sensitive skill, Gilles coaxes the hurdy gurdy’s volume, speed and personality.
Singer Tia Gouttebel discovered Mississippi before the rest of Hypnotic Wheels and explains the attraction: “It’s such a rich culture here.”
She and Marc Glomeau met and played music together for years before she met Gilles. Known for his percussion talents, Glomeau’s musical background covers many genres including Latin jazz, African, Cuban and Caribbean styles. Founder of Black Chantilly, one of the leading French Afro-Cuban jazz bands, he toured for over 10 years and worked with numerous artists from the jazz scene, as well as in French and American world music: Bruno Angelini, Thierry Peala, Rosy Bazile, Cheb Bilal, Arthur H.
And now, the blues. Referring to Glomeau, Gouttebel said, “Not too many people play the blues with percussion.”
When Glomeau suggested that Gouttebel meet Chabenat, she fully confessed her hurdy gurdy prejudice.
“I didn’t like it. And I thought it was something old,” she said with a laugh.
But when she finally agreed to meet Gilles, she was amazed. From there, the trio began playing together, bringing together three instruments rarely heard together–the guitar, the hurdy gurdy and percussion.
Behind the scenes, Pierre Bianchi, a director, producer, and sound engineer known for his talents both in the studio and live, has toured with musicians of international fame in the U.S., in Canada, Central America, South America, Japan, China, Africa, Middle East. He’s worked with countless artists including Peter Gabriel, Natalie Dessay, Diane Dufresne.
The youngest member of the group, Yannick Demaison, is the accomplished filmmaker who works quietly behind the scenes, recording the group and always smiling.
While in Panola County, the group has connected with friends and community members while visiting Hunters Chapel parishioners during a service, recording with Cedric Burnside and will record this weekend with Cameron Kimbrough, the grandson of blues legend Jr. Kimbrough.
On Monday evening, May 8, Hypnotic Wheels will be performing during a free concert at the Gallery at 223 in Como. The free concert at 7 p.m. is open to all and an opportunity to learn more about the hurdy gurdy and the French-Mississippi connection, which according to Gouttebel, is alive and well.
“People in France love Mississippi. We are very interested in the strong culture and music.”