The Belleville District
by Jeff Berner
Flanning around in the Belleville district up on the slopes of the 20th arrondissement, going from artist´s atelier to storefront gallery during the annual open-studio festivities, I passed a great little café, Au Vieux Belleville. I looked in and saw a crowd of locals nursing beers and coffees, listening to Riton de Manville, master of the "orgue de barbarie." This old crank-driven organ plays "automatically" by moving a series of stiff fan-folded cards through a slot, each one with holes punched in a pattern that generates a unique old tune. And Riton sings!
I entered, ordered a café noir, and drifted back in time with the crowd. I caught his attention during a break, and we went out onto the sidewalk to talk.
"In Paris, there are maybe twenty people who play authentic barbarian organ like me. There are also some crooks who have a tape recorder inside a fake organ."
"I was born in Paris, like my father and my mother." Riton was educated in a modest household. His mother was a German teacher and his father was a photographer who had a small shop in the 16th, specializing in photographing pets. He felt privileged because their house was located in a quiet place, and children had space to run outside.
"I´m a actor, and I used to do pantomime in the streets, amongst other activities. Not so long ago I played on the square near Beaubourg,
asking people to participate in my show. I did that for ten years. I came to play organ because one day I read in the newspaper that a certain actor would enjoy talking about his work. So I called him. From the day I saw the organ, I knew it was something Iâ€šd do. I used to play the guitar. Playing with that box is easier than playing guitar, but it is fascinating for the public. The orgue de barbarie has a soul. It contains Paris! Look: I stand next to it, I start to play, and the people immediately come closer!"
As we talked, some of the regulars drifted outside to listen in, and some wanted to start asking me some questions, all with such camaraderie that I felt I´d been hanging out with these guys for at least a few weeks.
I asked this impassioned native Parisian, "If you had a baguette magique, what would you change in today´s Paris?"
"I´d like to give time to people. I wish people had more. The people run from one place to another. I wish I could give them more time to stay out, in restaurants, in bars, or simply in the open air. Why? Because social life is not in the house, it´s outside with others. Today, we don´t have a social life: when you go shopping, you have a commercial
life, not a social life." Then, with a twinkle, he said, "If I had a magic wand, I would sideline America ! Seriously, I think Americans
don´t understand that an increasing part of humanity rejects that commercial imperialism. I have four boys: 17, 15, 12 and 4 years old.
They eat cereals, but breakfast cereal is not French. So every morning I have America for breakfast, you see?
Since we were now surrounded by his friends and supporters in front of the café , with all that attention surrounding our chance encounter, I
dreamed up a dramatic scenario: "Monsieur Manivelle, if you and I were on CNN right now, and you had just two more minutes to speak to an audience of 20 million people, what would you say?"
"What would I say? Never be satisfied with how things are. My government keeps saying, ´Look what we´ve done!´ I don´t care. As long
as there are people starving or simply struggling to find a decent job, we´ll have to fight for more justice." I told him that I was touched by his unrelenting humanism."
You can find Riton la Manivelle playing in festivals, at flea markets, up in Montmartre, at private parties and, of course, regularly at Au
Vieux Belleville (Tél: 01-44-62-92-66). He even has a web page. Stop in say bonjour.
Visit Jeff Berner´s site at: http://www.awakeningvision.com/
Â© 2002 Jeff Berner