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Tété: A Hot Young French Singer-Songwriter Doing Something New

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 9 September 2004—European popular music is sliced up like local weather maps. The Italians do not care about the skies of Germany. Greek stars are not popular in Norway. The rain in France does not fall on Spain.

The album A la faveur de l'automne (Epic) by the young French singer-songwriter Tété Niang, known as Tete, has sold over 100,000 copies—certified gold in France. His records sell poorly beyond French borders, and Tété has "absolutely no ambition" to become an international star.

The Nigerian singer Keziah Jones proved to him that it's "possible to be a black musician without playing reggae or rap or African music." Tété sings in French without any noticeable accent, and his songs are about universal subjects such as love, modesty, ego, and solitude. After a video from his album was widely aired on television, several of his fans told him that they had not known he was black.

He was born in 1975 in Dakar of a Senegalese father and a mother from the French-Antilles. When he was three, the family moved to the northeastern French village of Saint-Dizier, where he grew up. His mother was the village doctor. Tété said that thinking back he remembers suffering no racism. "I was the doctor's son, not a black man," he said, with irony. A sense of irony was also evident when he described himself to a French journalist as "a charming black troubador, a very smart young man, a manufacturer of pop-folk-bluesy songs with intellectual pretentions."

At the age of 18 he broke a leg and his mother gave him a guitar to help him through the weeks of inactivity. Parents often underestimate the power of music. She would have preferred him to be a doctor. Worse, he had grown up listening to her Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Tom Waits records. "She was only interested in 'real' music," Tete explained.

He began to play guitar and sing in bars and cafes in Nancy and Strasbourg, moving to Paris in 1998. Sony/Epic signed him in 2,000. The veteran producer and documentary filmmaker Martin Messonnier calls Tété "one of the few young chansoniers doing something really new."

Tété performs in public about 100 times a year - sometimes alone with his guitar, most of the time with his small band. The venues tend to hold less than 1,000 people. His audience is mostly white and young. "As a black African in the Occident, I live between two stools," he said. "I am neither a Banania nor an Uncle Tom. Like many children of immigrants, I don't really exist anywhere. My real identity is in the music that I make."

He cites such influences as the Delta blues, Lenny Kravitz, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan. He has been called the "French Jeff Buckley." His two favorite books are "On The Road and Catcher In The Rye:

"All my references, all the people who influenced me, were American or English," he said. "I finally realized that you guys invented rock and roll, and you don't need a French copy of all of that, so I don't do that any more."

You can listen to Tété singing in French like listening to Joao Gilberto in Portugese—the words become a sort of linguistic scat-singing. But the English language remains tempting: "In English you have short words, one or two syllables. In four or five words you can express a whole idea. For the same idea in French we need twice as many, and longer, words. France is all about talking. Le culture de debat. Everybody has their own opinion. Americans are not into talking for kicks. They are more into action. By the time it takes the French to make two sentences, you guys do two things."

Writing songs in English, he would have to learn about other peoples's kicks. He would probably have to move to England or America. It would be like starting all over again. He likes going on tour and learning who he is by how different people in different places react to him—it makes him stronger—but he's not ready for another move.

He moved from Saint-Dizier to Nancy, and to Strasbourg, and he moved again to Paris. Now, finally, there is time for reading and writing, and for recording in his home studio in the suburb of Montreuil. The main point of all of this was his independence, and he already has that. "I really feel at home right here where I can pay my rent and eat twice a day," he said."

Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He is currently writing a book called "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor of Zwerin who has lived in France for 33 years, was promoted recently from 'Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres' to 'Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres" by the French Minister of Culture.

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