Tuesday 13 October 2009

La Java

Tucked away at the back of an attractive, but now little-used 1920s shopping arcade is La Java, one of the oldest nightclubs in Paris. Follow the art-deco curved iron staircase underground, then take a wander back in time.

It's 1923 - the jazz age, but Paris is dancing to another tune. The immigrants from the Auvergne have brought their own style of music with them known as the Musette, built around the notes of the accordeon. The workers who have come from this region want places to meet, drink and dance to this music. Within a few years, hundreds of small venues spring up across the east of the city where most of these workers live.

One of these venues is La Java in the Rue du Faubourg du Temple. The Java also happens to be the most famous type of dance associated with the Musette, a kind of speeded up waltz invented in Paris to enable people to dance in the tightly packed spaces of these small clubs. The venue was almost certainly named after the dance, advertising to prospective clients exactly what they could expect from a night out there.

Although the club sits in the heart of Belleville, not the most salubrious part of town, it is situated underneath a recently built shopping arcade and it manages to attract quite an upmarket crowd. The success continues into the 1930s, and now the walls are witness to the beginnings of a new breed of artist. Young singing stars plucked from the streets of Belleville take to the stage and take the Musette in new directions. Edith Piaf makes her debut here as a young girl and Maurice Chevalier is a regular. From here they will take on the world.

In this same decade jazz does finally arrive, played on a guitar in a manouche style by the scarred fingers of Django Reinhardt. The public come in ever increasing numbers to this small place which has become known as an initiator of new styles, but after the rise must come the fall. The end of the decade sees war break out, and the venue will see many years of decline.

In the 1960s and 70s, the venue becomes a popular hang-out for gangs and wideboy criminals, with Mesrine being a regular visitor. Hidden away underground and out of sight, and probably after greasing the palms of a few local policemen, illicit gambling is the main centre of commerce keeping the venue alive. It continues trading, plodding into the 1980s, until an unlikely saviour appears.

The city's Latino crowd adopt the venue, and it becomes one of the hottest salsa clubs in the city. Young dancers from across Paris come each weekend to sway to the sounds of leading DJs and furious live bands. Men of all ages who have mastered the salsa swing come to find young girls to dance with, but with their adroitness and wide smiles they are never short of partners.

Today the venue has been cleaned up and renovated, but the history is still written on the floor and walls. La Java is displayed in the floor tiles as you enter, and the walls are painted with scenes of an imaginary Belleville where the stars seem to glitter in the lights. The sounds have changed though, and you’ll be more likely to discover alternative rock bands or stand-up comedians early on in the evening, then a more eclectic range of dance music after midnight.

Take a drink at the bar then sit down in one of the booths. The venue is thoroughly modern now, but it is still easy to picture yourself in any one of these snapshots from 80 years of a very rich history.

La Java
105 Rue du Faubourg du Temple, 75010


Tim said...

Interesting article - didn't know Edith Piaf had started it out there. In fact, was totally unaware of the history of the place. I'm mainly familiar with La Java through attending shows organised by yer man Karel Beer (stand-up and/or music). Does he still use the venue?

Adam said...

I'm not on his mailing list anymore, so I'm not sure. However, a quick look at his website seems to suggest that these are quiet times. The economic crisis has possibly hit the comedy circuit hard!

Cergie said...

La rue du Faubourg du Temple est toujours assez animée n'est ce pas ? Plus que la rue de Belleville à partir d'une certaine hauteur, non ?
Je regarderai ce qu'il en est de ce club la prochaine fois que je passerai par là, promis. Et je boirai un verre.

Starman said...

Fascinating piece, Adam. Belleville is, of course, the rising star of Parisiza arrondisements.

Starman said...

Just a comment check.

PeterParis said...

I posted about it... but only from outside! Must go there one of these days! I can see that Cergie decided for the same thing; maybe we can all go together?

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