Exoticism, Colonialism, and Paris

And the superb Juana! Her name alone evokes the sun-drenched countries, Creoles, and gypsies that she sang about so often. On the boulevard de Strasbourg [Eldorado], we called her Juana the Spaniard; her dark hair, her Moorish look justified the name. And yet she was born in Dôle, although we know that her region was under Spanish domination in the 17th century and we tell ourselves that this woman from Franche-Comté has the eyes and hair of a beauty from Granada.

- Paulus, and Octave Pradels, Trente ans de café-concert. Souvenirs recueillis par Octave Pradels ([1908], 230-31).

The nineteenth-century French public was well acquainted with musical exoticism. Representations of other cultures, from Spain and North Africa to the Far East, permeated artistic works throughout the century. Operas and operettas (Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine; Félicien David’s La perle du Brésil and Lalla-Roukh; Delibes’s Lakmé; Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles; Offenbach’s Ba-ta-clan; and Thomas’s Le Caïd, to name only a few), literature (Hugo’s Les Orientalistes, Flaubert’s Salammbô), and the visual arts (Benjamin-Constant, Ingres, Delacroix, and Jean-Léon Gérôme) all engaged with Orientalist or exoticist themes. Musical exoticism entered the home, not only through published operatic excerpts but also in romances and chansons. Song texts and sheet music covers relied on clichéd images: the oasis, camels, caravans, lions. The musical signifiers of generic exoticism—chromaticism, augmented seconds, dance rhythms, melismatic passages—produced local colour, while remaining well within the boundaries of the Western tonal idiom.

The café-concert halls perpetuated sexualized images of the exoticized woman, which typically collapsed Spanish, Arabic, and Asian women into a single stereotype. Café-concert singers capitalized on any possible connection to a foreign ethnicity—no matter how far-fetched, as in the case of French-born Juana—to imbue their performance with a sense of authenticity, albeit only imagined.

The sonic worlds of the imaginary exotic and the real came into contact at the Exposition Universelle of 1889. Visitors witnessed the sights and sounds of foreign cultures transported to the exhibition site in Paris from France’s colonies, including North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia), and West Africa (Senegal), Indochina, and New Caledonia. By examining public and critical responses to the musical performances at the Fair, Annegret Fauser (2005) reveals how the pervasiveness of musical exoticism in French culture shaped the ways in which the visitors heard and responded to the performance of foreign music.

Further Reading

Displaying 1-6 of 6 pieces of sheet music.