The mysteries of the human voice
I know there's enormous competition for your time, attention and money when you're traveling in France. Even if you've already seen all the major tourist sites in Paris, there are a dozen or more enticing day-trip opportunities in the area -- Versailles, Fontainbleau, Chantilly, Giverny, among others.
But if you're going to be in Paris this summer -- and if you’re a musician or someone who really loves music – you should get out of Paris for a day and head south to MuPop , the Museum of Popular Music in Montluçon. It's a great trip, too, if you want a glimpse into the real heart of France far from the beaten path taken by the crowds of tourists you'll find in and around Paris. Whatever your motive, though – this museum is worth the day away from the capital!
From April 6th to November 18th, MuPop is hosting a major new exposition on "the mysteries of the human voice in all its dimensions". They'll be covering the physical aspects of the sounds that can be produced by human vocal cords, how these sounds can be used to reveal a singer's personality, what makes some of the most famous voices so distinctive, and how singing differs from culture to culture.
A musuem like no other in France
MuPop is an exceptionally well-curated collection of instruments, songs, and stories about musicians from the past 200 years or so. You’re given a set of headphones at the entrance, with a simple point-and-choose control to let you listen to what you’re seeing. In each of the exhibits of musical instruments there are good demonstrations of how they sound when played by professionals, and there are a couple of “walls” of albums with generous cuts to sample.
The scope of the experience, according to MuPop, includes “traditional, accordion, pop, brass band, electro and rock” – but it covers a lot of subgenres and other music, too (especially jazz, blues, and Afro-pop).
Want to hear what a hurdy-gurdy sounded like during the French Revolution, or how a village brass band sounded around 1910? There are recordings for that. Want to trace the evolution of guitar playing from Django Reinhardt to Muddy Waters to Jimi Hendrix and beyond? There are terrific, rare films to tell you the story.
Want to know everything there is to know about bagpipe music in pop culture? Neither do I, but if you know someone who does there’s a whole room full of bagpipes from history, pictures of famous (?) bagpipe players, and recorded samples of the music they make.
The museum is all about global trends in popular music – but it’s also about how those trends got translated in French culture. You can actually see the straight line from Chuck Berry to Johnny Hallyday, or from the development of Afro-Pop in other countries to the 1973 French hit Soul Makossa by Manu Dibango. If you’re inclined, you can even look for the relationship between Jimmy Page’s fuzzy guitar playing and the electronic distortion applied by a professional hurdy-gurdy player (!).
MuPop is a "hands-on" museum
If you’re travelling with kids – or just a fan of “interactive” exhibits – you’ll find electronic drum kits to play with, samples of accordion bellows to show you how air produces that signature sound, and demos of how stringed instruments work.
Have I mentioned that I loved the afternoon I spent here? I’ve played rock and blues on the piano for 50-something years, and collected records, CDs, and MP3 files all my life, and MuPop has recordings, films, and examples of every genre I’ve ever enjoyed and some I want to know more about.
Scenes from real life at MuPop
My favorite exhibits, though, are the little “scenes” taken from real life. There was a local rock band called the Rand’gers playing here in Montluçon in the early 1960s, their sound heavy on reverb and echo; their instruments have all been collected and assembled as though the band might walk on stage and pick them up. There’s a traditional lute-maker’s workshop, and a reproduction of a French guitar craftsman’s atelier. But the greatest of these “scenarios” for me was the lovingly detailed recreation of the rehearsal space used by a punk band called the Crocos – candy wrappers and beer cans on the floor, tangled up cables everywhere, and a hammock hanging from the ceiling over the drum kit.
A vision of the future of music
You can end the visit with a look into the future in “La Salle des Machines” – the Machine Room -- the idea being you can now physically go inside the digital machine and make sounds out of gestures and movements. Sounds weird, but I could have spent another hour “playing” the room!
... and while you're in Montlucon
There’s plenty else to see in Montluçon. This is the family home of the Bourbons, who ruled this part of France from 1070 A.D. to 1523 A.D., and who gave us the French Kings we know best today – Louis XIV (the “Sun King”), Louis XVI, Louis Philippe in the last century. By marriage, the House of Bourbon's influence spread to Spain and Luxembourg, and the royal heads of those countries today are still considered to be “Bourbons”! There’s even an upper-crust family in India claiming to be Bourbon descendants, and there’s a rather famous drink invented in Kentucky that bears the family name.
In addition to the medieval Bourbon chateau perched above the center of town, the Cher River winds through the city and makes for a beautiful walk in the late afternoon heat. Besides Saint Pierre, there’s an impressive 15th-century Gothic Church of Notre Dame near the Bourbon chateau. At least a dozen other medieval houses make the city an authentic repository of ancient French architecture. Click here to take a more detailed tour of the town -- and be sure to leave yourself time for lunch and a quick walk through the medieval quarter of town if you go.
How to get to MuPop
From Paris, drive about 3.5 hours down the A10/A71 autoroutes, or take the train from the Paris Gare d’Austerlitz to Montluçon (a trip of 3 to 4 hours for about 50 Euros). While you’re in Montloucon, check out the old medieval quarter and the Palace of the Dukes of Bourbon – it’s a small town, so you can reasonably do all this in a long one-day roundtrip. Check online at www.mupop.fr to verify opening times, which change during the year.
Did I mention that MuPop is a great museum? Have you discovered gems like this one on your travels in France? What made them worth the visit? Please tell us about your experience in the comments box below!
(all photos in this post © 2016 Richard Alexander)