Tucson Goes to France

Chicha Dust and other local acts are crossing the Atlantic to play the Festival Les Escales

How do five acts from Tucson get invited to play at one of Europe's most respected boutique world music festivals, the annual Festival Les Escales in Saint-Nazaire, on the French coast? And what does that say about the local music scene here in Tucson?

The answer to that goes back to 2011—or as far as 1995, depending on how you look at it. It was in 1995 that the Nantes, France-based band the Little Rabbits first came to Tucson, to make a record with local record producer Jim Waters. That in turn led to a convoluted, ongoing musical exchange that has seen numerous Tucson-based acts (Al Foul, Golden Boots, the Pork Torta, Tom Walbank, Naim Amor, etc.) touring in France in the last several years, and that directly led to the huge "Some French Friends" 10-day event in Tucson in 2008 ( see tucsonweekly.com/tucson/french-connection/Content?oid=1092159). There were/are also the two "We Got Cactus" tours of Tucson bands playing in France: one in 2005 and another coming up this October.

In 2011, local musicians Gabriel Sullivan and Brian Lopez started traveling to France to tour, ably helped by the Nantes-based DJ Laurent Allinger, aka the French Tourist, who helped them put together a band to tour with, the French Cumbia Ambassadors. It was at one of the Ambassadors' shows in Saint-Nazaire in 2011 that they first encountered Les Escales' two directors, Patrice Bulting and Jerome Gaboriau.

Bulting founded the festival 22 years ago; Gaboriau is mainly in charge of bookings. They were obviously smitten by our local musicians, and spent more than a week in Tucson earlier this year scouting talent for the 2013 festival. The end result is that the festival will feature five Tucson acts: Gabriel Sullivan, Brian Lopez, Chicha Dust (led by both Lopez and Sullivan), local bluesman Tom Walbank and the eight-member Mariachi Luz De Luna. All told, 19 local musicians will play at the festival, which runs Aug. 2 and 3 in the beautiful port city of Saint-Nazaire, known to film lovers as the setting for the end of the WWII submarine epic Das Boot.

Festival Les Escales 2013 is subtitled "World Music & Tucson." This singling out of some our local musicians is a huge nod toward Tucson as a cradle of musical talent that can play on the international stage. The festival has long been a bastion of great taste in its bookings, and has always worked with a specific theme each year, to which a quarter to a third of the bookings are devoted. Some of the noteworthy talent this year includes the legendary, peerless purveyor of Ethio Jazz, Mulatu Astatke; the great Spanish singer Amparo Sanchez, who has many connections to Tucson, having recorded here and in Cuba with Calexico; British reggae greats Steel Pulse; the terrific New York City-based band Chicha Libre; and several other genre-hopping acts from around the world.

"Many Europeans, probably more so than Americans, realize that Tucson is a special town that one way or another tends to spew out eclectic and unique music," Sullivan says. "There is a fascination with the landscape, the extreme heat and the mystic qualities of the culture. I think Jerome had already realized this when he approached us with the concept of a 'Tucson focus' in his world music festival. All he had to do was come see for himself."

Gaboriau says, "I was completely seduced by the very particular tone of these musicians. The ... guitars and this very specific sound plunges our imagination into the big plains of Arizona. This artistic meeting was the trigger of our musical prospecting in Tucson.

"After meeting Brian and Gabriel, we pursued our musical explorations in Tucson. After a short and intense stay of musical prospecting, accompanied with our French Ambassador —Laurent Allinger—we realized the artistic wealth peculiar to this city opens up more and more to the world. At the end of this trip we decided to focus only on the city of Tucson, and to present ... what seems to us to be a certain soul of Tucson. In a festival of world music like ours, it is also this vision of 'opening' that we wish to present. The musicians of Tucson will be revealed, but they can also meet other artists from other latitudes."

So, what started almost two decades ago as a project to record an album in the States by one French band has evolved, over 18 years, into a headlining status for several of our local acts at a major world music festival in Europe.

And that, friends and neighbors, is globalization at its best.