Ever wondered what God might be doing amongst the musicians of France? French record executive Pascal Portoukalian surveys the mysterious (to non-French speakers at least) world of FRENCH CHRISTIAN MUSIC.
What does France communicate to you? The Eiffel Tower, perfumes, haute-couture, gastronomy, Tour de France, wine, superstar footballers? Musically, of course, it's had its moments. Getting beyond the stereotypes of blokes with berets playing piano accordions or Johnny Halliday demonstrating that, in France at least, rock'n'rollers go on forever, France has produced its share of international hitmakers. From '60s icon Francois Hardy to the latest batch of cool club music practitioners (Sash!, Daft Punk and Air) French-based artists have hit big. But what about music that gives glory to God? To evaluate the slow growth of Christian music in France one must begin by looking at the religious make up of the country.
CHRISTIANS IN FRANCE
With 65 per cent Catholics and seven per cent Muslims, Protestants in France are demonstrably a tiny minority, being only 1.6 per cent of the population. Two thirds of these are Lutherans - directly descended from the Reformation - and one third are evangelicals from Baptist and Pentecostal churches. Born again Christians (of all Christian confessions) are estimated to be 0.6 per cent of the population of France. Clearly France is a nation awash with nominal Catholicism and secular humanism. But intriguingly, there are some regions more marked by the presence of Christians - Alsace (a German territory until World War I), the Cévennes, the South-East and the North.
It was in the '60s that, through the evangelical churches, CCM timidly stuck its head over the parapet. Guitar-strumming singer/songwriters Charles Roda and Gérard Peilhon began to perform while the next decade saw the emergence of small music groups though it was strictly a part time activity with no chance of giving up day jobs. The Sema and Trinité, small French language record companies, became pioneers in encouraging the Church to accept contemporary Christian music. Through the work of Sema and Trinité dozens of artists and groups emerged including Les Témoins, Les Reflets, Jean-Paul André, Jean- Paul Aymé, Naissance, Les Commandos du Seigneur and Vent d'Espoir.
During this pioneering era other acts emerged to sing to audiences and congregations about the Lord. They included Cascades, Gospel Group Transit, Alain Faure, Les Benjamins, Apostrophes, Pâturages, Danie et Moïse, Intersection, Trio Roffidal, Pierre et Jean, Gospel Group Help and Trio Emmanuel. There was just one full time Christian singer, Gil Bernard. Gil had excellent show biz connections, rubbing shoulders with French mainstream stars like Jacques Brel and Enrico Macias. Gil's conversion encouraged the singer to use his gift for God. Now a veteran, Gil is still with Trinité.
At the end of the '70s, what is today France's largest Christian record company Séphora Music was born. Its formation was a real act of faith for founder Marc Brunet. To get it off the ground, Marc sold his guitar, his only valuable possession, to print Séphora's first Christian music catalogue. Today, Séphora licences and distributes Christian music albums from the USA and the UK (including Kingsway, GMI Provident, EMI-Sparrow, Authentic, Vineyard, Integrity and Furious?) and through its distributors also markets CCM to Belgium, Switzerland and Quebec. Séphora has also produced dozens of new or well known French artists released under its Mayim or Latitude 116 labels enabling acts like Nicolas Ternisien, Théozed, Selah and Jean-Jacques Leprince to get into the CD racks alongside the Michael W Smiths and Matt Redmans.
Between 1983 and 1993, Séphora also pioneered a fondly remembered Christian music festival, Festival Séphora. Each year between 2,000 and 3,000 spectators gathered to hear French artists like Master Music, Rafael Fernandez and Marylène alongside overseas actis such as Petra, Guardian, Adrain Snell and Iona. For the last three years another French festival, Radical Festival, has taken over bringing such artists as Riverdeep, Blaise, Nicolas Ternisien to Liévin in the north of France.
Alongside this exposure mainstream festivals such as Bordeaux's and Paris's International Gospel Festivals have demonstrated French culture's love of black gospel music and have given welcome exposure to American gospel acts.
A TRICKY COCKTAIL
Today, the majority of Christian artists stem from the Protestant minority. However, since 2002 there have emerged a number of Catholic artists to compete for CD sales alongside the still hugely popular and influential folk-tinged liturgical worship of France's Taize Community. Acts like Glorious and Steven Gunell are releasing CCM while Catholics in mainstream French pop music include Daniel Facérias, Les Frères Martineau and No'l Colombier. Meanwhile, the Protestant Church has developed several full time Christian artists. From Pierre Lachat to Den-Isa, from Daniel Pialat to Pat Berning or Jean-Jacques Leprince, every taste is represented - French pop, folk music, songs for children, rock'n'roll .Having said this, it's true to say that just like in the UK many Christians attending local churches don't even know the range of Christian music - whether French language or not - that is available. There are still many conservative church elements, resisting the concept of Christian rap, R&B or reggae, to be overcome. With the exception of black gospel music which sells well through mainstream outlets, most Christian music sells through small Protestant bookshops. To promote this music, record companies and artists have to rely on local radio stations or two French language websites, www.muzikparadise.com (of Quebec) and www.etv.com.
CCM IN THE FRENCH-SPEAKING WORLD
You can't speak about French CCM without extending the discussion to take in the broader French-speaking world. Canadian artists from Quebec like Maggie Blanchard, Tabitha Lemaire, Stéphane Quéry and Luc Dumont, or from Switzerland like Rija (born in Madagascar), Visa, Sylvain Freymond and Fish 4 Lunch are part of the French music panorama. Plus there is one act which must be mentioned here, the group Exo. Just about every French Christian has an Exo album in their collection. This popular and influential trio stem from different origins, Chris Christensen is South-African, Laura Christensen is American and Thierry Ostrini is Swiss. Exo's ministry is truly worldwide, the group playing regularly in France, the West Indies and in Africa (their last concerts in Kinshasa filled the Stade des Martyrs, bringing them a total audience of 135,000 people).