From electro to flamenco: the surprising music scenes of Lyon and Granada

From electro to flamenco: the surprising music scenes of Lyon and Granada

Emily Craig takes us through the lesser-known music scenes of her Year Abroad destinations, Lyon and Granada.

As I was to encounter on my Year Abroad, the music scenes of these two strident European cities go far beyond the clichéd expectation of mellow French jazz and romantic Andalusian flamenco.

Arriving in Lyon, I was keen to get involved in the vibrant jazz scene that I had read so much about. However, my first couple of weeks in this new city revealed the more traditional jazz bars to be pretty averse to foreign singers unless they brought their own band with them. In my third week, standing outside my university’s music department – a very lost Brit in a sea of nonchalant French eighteen-year-olds – I tried to get the local lowdown on open mic nights and jams in the city. There seemed to be a consensus about one place in particular, with what has to be the coolest of French names, La Grooverie. My Argentinian flatmate and I didn’t need much convincing that this was the place to be and we headed down to the weekly ‘Urban Jam’ night…

La Grooverie was packed, overflowing with a mixture of middle-aged hippies and painfully trendy music school kids. The so called ‘Urban Jam’ revealed itself to be a jazz-hip-hop fusion jam: every tune was performed by a rapper, a singer and a full band that rotated every three songs, although most seemed to include various improvised versions of ‘American Boy’ (there’s no getting away from that tune) and a mix of Lauryn Hill tracks. As local celebrities, the members of one of the city’s most popular bands, Supa Dupa, had an established monopoly of the stage, but were also extremely welcoming. In fact, that first night, the band’s rapper pulled me up onto the stage to accompany him in singing a somewhat French version of Snoop Dog’s infamous ‘Young Wild and Free’ – something I will never live down. Thursdays at La Grooverie became a ritual for the rest of my time in Lyon, (as indeed did Tuesdays and Wednesdays) but I soon found that this jazz-hip-hop fusion scene extended throughout the whole city. It was only on meeting the character that musicians referred to as Almighty Alex that its prominence became apparent. Alex founded Les Scènes d’Alex; a series of open jams taking place every single night of the week in various restaurants and bars across the city. Night after night, the same musicians and performers followed Alex’s trail in search of the perfect line-up and, ultimately, free drinks. Suffice to say, if jazz-hip-hop is your thing, look no further than Lyon.

Another surprising facet to the music scene in this city is just how seriously the Lyonnais take their dance music. Local DJs and record labels such as Art Feast Records, specialising in electronic music, are championed throughout Lyon’s most inventive dance spaces. From Le Sucre, a former sugar factory, to Bellona, a converted river cruiser, the clubs which have also welcomed world famous DJs, from the likes of Dimitri from Paris to Terrence Parker, are nothing short of original. For ‘les afters’ the most resilient party-goers end up in the enigma that is Tata Mona. Located in an underground cave in one of the city’s old silk cellars, this club has been referred to as the ‘psychedelic black hole’, for obvious reasons, open from 5am-12pm on Saturdays and Sundays. As one of my classmates said to me, “if you haven’t been to Tata Mona, you’re not from Lyon”.

Although I wasn’t officially in Lyon to study music, I was able to take some courses at my university’s music school which bizarrely culminated in a class of French freshers being encouraged to learn my songs. Teaching them proved to be tricky, particularly when I realised that the normal ABC notes did not apply in France. Instead I had to resort to ‘Do Re Mi’, just as well given that I was brought up on ‘The Sound of Music’. The students’ willingness to learn these new songs with foreign lyrics was incredibly inspiring and reflected the same genre-defying enthusiasm that I had observed all around the city. When the songs were eventually performed at the end of term concert, they sounded pretty decent, despite the tutor insisting that that every arrangement had to include the accordion.

Following the host of bizarre musical experiences that I encountered in Lyon, moving to Granada certainly did not disappoint. I was fortunate enough to live next to the Huerto de Carlos, an enormous patio overlooking the Alhambra Palace where local people and travellers would congregate with their variety of instruments. On a good day, by 5pm the Huerto would be full of musicians playing anything from an exotic Flamenco ballad to ‘Valerie’. If you liked what they were playing you were welcome to join in, and I’d usually take the opportunity to do just that, often finding musicians to go busking with, provided that we all knew at least three of the same songs (jazz standards came in handy).

On the streets of the Albaicín, the city’s oldest barrio, I quickly had to learn to perform songs by some of the favourite local songwriters like El Kanka and Muerdo. What really struck me about their lyrics was how they only seemed to sing about how much they enjoyed life. That is pretty much the Granaínos attitude to music in a nutshell; you play because you love it, not for personal gain. This was epitomised by one of my most memorable afternoons spent in the city on a rain-soaked rooftop playing cajón for a full three hours. I was quite bemused when, as the heavens opened, everyone just kept on playing without flinching: a violinist, an accordionist and multiple guitarists. Conveniently, the window to my bedroom was on ground level and opened up onto a narrow alleyway leading to some of the city’s most famous viewpoints such as San Miguel Alto and El Ojo de Granada. The openness of the people in Granada was such that on multiple occasions, strangers would literally invite themselves into my house to have a jam after hearing me practicing from outside.

By night, Granada is renowned for its reggaetón super clubs including the likes of Mae West (think Loop x100). Yet, beneath the surface lies a quirky and somewhat bizarre underground scene buoyed by unsleeping students and hostel workers.  Swapping the heels and tight trousers for Birkenstocks and hareem pants, the ‘holy triangle’ of bars, Entre Suelo, Patapalo and Booga Club, are the favourites. Here, the unlikely combination of Balkan music, reggae, cumbia, salsa and vintage soul tunes ring out night after night. The high energy dance floors of these alternative destinations literally heave until the early hours.

Discovering the true musical colours of these two very different cities led me into some pretty unorthodox situations, from top-lining French rap battles to singing ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ with a banjo player outside Tapas bars. However, the open attitudes that I encountered during my time in Lyon and Granada, the flexibility to defy genres and willingness to play as a collective, were virtually identical. Infiltrating the music scene of a city surely has to be one of the best ways to discover its most vibrant character and, safe to say, Granada and Lyon did not disappoint.

Image Credits: Emily Craig