The old music and the new fascists

It is a strange irony that pianist François Tusques' work with the Intercommunal Free Dance Music Orchestra is resurfacing at this very moment. Tusques was one of the key figures to emerge during France's period as a free jazz hotspot at the turn of the 1960s. But he created some of his most unique pieces in the 1970s with the Intercommunal, a group that successfully blended music from many sources, from North Africa to Spain and French Brittany to North America.

Today, 50 years later, in 2024, France is on the cusp of its first far-right government since the collaborationist Vichy regime of World War II. The movement trying to seize power is a rebranded version of the Front National, a party founded in 1972 by a neo-fascist group called Ordre Nouveau. Adorned with Celtic crosses, Ordre Nouveau was a proponent of street violence, often directed against the far-right organizations active in post-1968 France with which Tusques had ties.

According to drummer Noel McGhie, the paths of Tusques and Ordre Nouveau crossed at least once. The scene took place at the Faculté de droit on Rue d'Assas in Paris. The musicians were about to play after a film had been shown when far-right militants attacked with crosses and forced an evacuation by shooting a gun. The event was postponed shortly after, this time with the presence of a strong left-wing security force.

There are not many sources, but this attack can probably be dated to early March 1971, when Tusques and McGhie were scheduled to perform with singer Colette Magny at an event in solidarity with the Black Panther Party. More violence followed soon after, notably a massive clash between Ordre Nouveau and Trotskyist activists attempting to prevent a gathering at the Palais des Sports. The neo-fascists inside were treated to Wagnerian music while they waited for the right moment to shout “France for the French.”

Although that past is now very distant, perhaps almost mythological, some of its elements are still more current than others. Racism as a driving force is particularly evident in France, the United States, and countless other countries. On the other hand, in the current cultural climate, there is little information about the nature of Trotskyism or the world communist movement to which it belonged. Marxism-Leninism, the Sino-Soviet split, contradictions as forces of development, or names like Huey P. Newton require extensive definitions. History has a habit of letting some of its forces expire, as was the case with much of the left of that time, much of which can now be understood only after intensive research.

Since art has rarely been given a central place in the political processes of the left, it is perhaps ironic that today the culture that emerged from such movements is the most immediately accessible. Tusques and The Intercommunal Orchestra were prime examples. After the years in which free jazz was at its most feverish, the question in the 1970s was how to make music that was more popular, more easily understood and more relevant to the local French context.

The answer that Tusques and his colleagues found was the Intercommunal Free Dance Music Orchestra, whose name provided a largely self-explanatory description of the project. The term “intercommunal” referred to writings by the leader of the Black Panther Party, Huey P. Newton. Locally, it was understood as the unification of the various communities living in France.

In practice, this meant that a soprano saxophone and a bombarde – a traditional Breton instrument from the oboe family – could play together over a groove of electric piano and congas, as can be heard on The Musicians. During a solo on Volume 3Tusques moves from Vietnamese and Chinese material to the Paris Commune of 1871. The band could incorporate elements of blues, biguine and North African music, play Charles Mingus' “Fables Of Faubus” or dedicate a piece to Egyptian singer and oud player Sheikh Imam. On paper, this should have been a recipe for disaster, but it worked. Guinean saxophonist Jo Maka, Togolese trombonist Adolf Winkler, Catalan singer Carlos Andreu, Algerian percussionist Guem, the Marre brothers and many others contributed to the band.

For many musicians, creating “political” music simply involves laying material on forms that have long been closed off, resulting in works that differ little from their apolitical counterparts. The Intercommunal sought to question “the foundations” of the music its members had previously played in order to create something new, taking socially functional popular forms as a starting point. In doing so, the band created music that was inextricably linked to, and unable to survive, the function it sought to serve.

So this old music is being played again. Of course, this very small event has no bearing on the larger historical moment. But perhaps the old music, which comes from a time when the idea was widespread that there was no such thing as art, which is above politics, raises a timely question. As society moves to the right, so does culture. Can we identify the forms that will undoubtedly remain impervious to the swelling, violent, racist and exclusionary worldview that lies at the core of far-right ideology, with or without the Celtic cross?

The catalogue of the Intercommunal Free Dance Music Orchestra is currently being reissued by the French label Souffle Continu.