- Maurice, the man behind Les Etoiles.
Please start by telling me your name.
It’s not important, I am Maurice of Les Etoiles.
How long have you owned Les Etoiles ?
Since 1984. Before I worked in clothing. For several generations in my family we’ve worked in clothes and I became the black sheep of my family because I did something different. This is just like any other nightclub - sometimes it works out, sometimes it works less, and you always have to have the desire to create and work, which is not always easy. Sometimes a lot of people come, sometimes there is a Congress in Besançon, and there’s no one.
Why did you take over Les Etoiles ?
Because I went in on a deal with someone, and afterwards I kept it, and stayed with it - there was a time at which it worked out really well. It worked really well because it was the beginning of salsa in Paris. Before we had salsa here, we did other things, French music - the first time we had salsa, was in 1985, with Ariel Wizman, who’s now over at CanalPlus. People move around. If you start out with people who aren’t well-known, once they’ve made a name for themselves they move on. People who’ve already made it don’t come here. The first time I heard salsa, I though, ah, that’s nice - but it didn’t move me. I’m from the era of mambo and cha-cha-cha… but the opportunity had to come around. In 1994 there was a football match between France and Bresil, and a friend helped me organize a party with a giant screen to watch the match live. Lots of people came, and it was then that I realized that there was a large south-American population in Paris, so we started salsa parties. The first group that we had was Los Caiman, with Yuri Buenaventura, but Yuri wasn’t even the singer at the time. We started out with salsa almost every night, with a live orchestra, and then we cut back when we realized that it was too much - since then, Thursday, Friday and Saturday are salsa nights at Les Etoiles. Before we started our soirées here, there would be salsa concerts once or twice a month - we were three nights a week. Los Caiman, with Yuri, played here for three years straight. I would mix up orchestras, changing musicians around between groups, putting groups together. Azuquita sang here, when he was in a slow period… Raul Paz, Anga Diaz, most of the well-known people in latin music have played here. Some didn’t - but we had people like Yuri. Yuri is someone who created himself, he would go out and talk to people, he didn’t drink, he was nice… he always used to ask me for advice, one day he asked me : someone wants me to sign a contract, what should I do ? And I asked him, why are you always asking me for advice ? He replied, "because you’re Jewish, you know about business." And so I asked him, "Has anyone else offered you a contract ?" He said No. I told him, "Sign." And that’s how he got his first song recorded, and went to Colombia to record Ne Me Quitte Pas. We’ve done a lot over the years, lots of people started out here : Danny Boon, Stéphane Guillant, Shirley et Dino… But salsa has always been a Thursday Friday Saturday thing, and the DJ used to be up in the second level, with the orchestra on stage. We started dance classes around 1990. I was working with a group of Chileans, called "Alef". They taught boléro, and we even had tango here…Tango was on Wednesdays, with Blanca Ly, Almodovar, Victoria Abril, Madonna, Nicole Kidman, lots of big stars.
- Stars, on the marble dancefloor of Les Etoiles.
What was the salsa scene back then ?
Back then we didn’t have any well-known DJs, the live orchestra was the priority. The public was completely Latino, and the bands played to a full house every night, we had to wait for people to go out, to let more in, four people worked security at that time. You have to be careful organizing a soirée for Latinos, things can get out of hand, but I decided to do it differently. We had a dinner beforehand, so the guys would come in with their wives, and they behaved differently. People came from all over the world, from Los Angeles, from Cuba, we even had George Michael come by here, people knew that they wouldn’t be bothered here. Back then we were among the only clubs producing salsa, live salsa. Afterwards things took off, and it hasn’t stopped yet. It’s true that there’s something different about salsa music. It was born between Venezuela and Colombia, but the best sounds come out of Venezuela. It’s not true that salsa is Cuban - they’re among the best musicians, but they aren’t salsa musicians, they’re Jazz musicians, boléro musicians, but the real salsa is Colombian and Venezuelan. That’s the way we felt it - it’s no better or no worse than anyone else. All the South-Americans in New York, they’re the ones who created salsa, everyone brought a different note, and that’s how salsa was born. It was a way for all the South American immigrants to come together.
In Paris, it was later than in the US, but by 1980 we had FM radio, there was radio Latina, which gave a voice to those people, and played their music. But you have to understand that they didn’t have anywhere to go to meet up. We created a place for them. After awhile, people who worked in the fashion industry and the jet-set started coming. Salsa was high class. Today, things have changed, in a different way. It’s a very middle-class population, and people are either are ’Portoricain’ or ’Cuban’ style dancers, before people would just come in and danse salsa. Nowadays when a Colombian comes in here and sees people dancing, he can’t believe his eyes - everyone has their hands up in the air at the same time, all their feet in a line. They say that it’s beautiful to look at. They dance well. But I don’t really think that they feel it. It’s like the music : when you dance, it comes from your heart, it comes from your head - for Colombians, it’s a passion, it’s like Caribbeans with zouk, it comes out of their hearts, and out of their souls. Like when you hear Celia Cruz sing, or Oum Khartoum - that’s passion. You can’t say though that the most beautiful style is what they call Portorican, or mambo. Today it’s maybe that style that’s the easiest to learn, it’s the most accessible, but I call it a dance of the midinettes, those girls who used to work in haute couture. You don’t have to be that talented to learn how to dance. It is a pleasure to watch some people dance - and there are people who are only out there to please themselves, it’s just like when you hear people talk. Some people speak well, and other people just talk to hear the sound of their own voice. It’s true that it’s a good crowd - they’re not smokers, they don’t fight, they only drink fruit juice and pop. It’s people of all races, from every country, they don’t argue over politics, and they’re not punks. That’s important. It should be encouraged by the Minister of the Interior, because it’s a way for people to get along, to find acceptance. Salsa is like a common language. There are Blacks, Arabs, Poles, Americans, Russians, and everyone gets along.
- Lorenzo and DJ Willy behind the turntables on a Friday night in November.
What other differences have you noticed about this population of salseros as compared to other people who come to Les Etoiles ?
One thing that has always surprised me, in the 22 years that I’ve been here, I’ve only seen people make out once. Only one time, has a couple kissed in the middle of the dancefloor. When I was young, when we went out to a club, we went out to pick up on girls. It was the same for the girls, I think. But in salsa, nothing, not once. Right there, about two months ago, I saw a guy kiss a girl, and I turned to the person who was at the bar and said, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen a guy kiss a girl here. His wife, Alice, adds : They’re only passionate about dancing. When we had live music, and there were more Latinos, then there was more flirting. But with the salseros today, nothing. They come out, the like the music, they’re all friends, but it’s enough for them just to be together. You take the same people, and you start over… maybe the thing that holds them together, is salsa. It’s the music that they discover, and songs that are more attractive than anything else.
What has changed, why is there less live music these days ?
Two reasons : first, I had problems with the neighbors, and second, there are less and less South American musicians. You can find musicians, but you can’t find singers. These days, musicians cost a lot of money, too. Before, people would come here and play, invited by their friends - Latinos. Now, it’s people who work in music. The other problem is that a French person can’t fully understand what salsa is. For example, you can go anywhere in the world and buy a baguette - but you won’t find the taste of a Parisian baguette in the baguette that you eat in Mexico City. It’s like haute couture, or French perfume, there are just things that are native to a culture. South American musicians have a different sound.
And why are there less Latinos now at Les Etoiles ?
The went other places. Ten years ago it was the high point for salsa, and everyone was single. Since then they found French girls and married for love, or for visas, and they’re papas and they don’t go out like they used to. Events make men, men do not make events - Fidel Castro and Ché, they were warriors, but they became statesmen, one died, and now the other one is a dictator.
Now it’s mostly French people. You can count them on the fingers of one hand, the Latinos who come to Les Etoiles.
- View from the balcony.
Do you foresee a return of live salsa music at Les Etoiles ?
The situation in France has become difficult, people can’t pay much money anymore. Now, if I ask people to pay 15 or 20 euros, people won’t come. You have to take a big risk, for live music. The musicians are tired too, the time is past. There’s not the same energy, the story is changing. For the time being, we do salsa on Fridays and Saturdays, and the other days, I do other things. There’s a problem in France right now, like everywhere in the world. Salsa is a dance of joy, you have to be happy in your head, in your heart, in your life, it’s not like tango or boléro, that make you want to cry. The era also plays a part, people can’t spend money the way they used to.
There’s no more salsa on Thursdays at Les Etoiles, either ?
No, we have other things going on. If you work with salseros, you can’t stop until 5am. So we do other things, and we’re home in bed by midnight ; we do French music, flamenco. It’s hard to live the artist lifestyle. You see those people out there on stage, and you put yourself in their place - the night, they wrap up their show with or without applause, for very little money, and they fold up their bags and go on to the next show, 200km away. Here it’s a little bit like that, we would finish up at 3am when we had the orchestra. You don’t make a lot of money - you have to have something to hold on to, you have to have other passions around. We had problems with the neighbors too, but I haven’t tried since, I’m tired. And it’s not just me anymore, yesterday night I had to argue with my son who wanted to go home, but Willy wanted to keep on playing music. I understand this, I’m a little bit bohemian myself - but my kids, no. I fight with them to get them to dance, I tell them, you have a chance to take dance classes every night and you don’t do it ! Of course they like girls - and I tell them, listen, if you know how to dance, you can’t even begin to understand how much time you save in flirting with girls ! A girl sees a guy who dances well, and she’ll go to him.
Tell me about this place : it resonates, it pulls you in, there’s something about it that’s like salsa itself.
Les Etoiles is the oldest music hall in Paris. It was built in 1856. It’s the first talking-moviehouse in the world… the first cinema, is on the Grands Boulevards, but the first talking-movie house is here. There are lots of historians who come by to tell me things about this place, in the early days there was lots of Café-Théâtre. So many people sang here - even Sarah Bernhardt started out here. During the war, it was a movie theater, you can still see the projection cabinet. Do you see those columns ? They’re sculpted out of wood, the Ecole de Beaux-Arts restored them. It’s about time that we do some refurbishing of the place, I’ve let things slide a little, I didn’t have the energy and less and less people were coming, there were problems with the neighbors. It takes a lot of money. Everyone who comes in here though, they tell me, there’s something here, it’s magic, when you come in here you feel it. That’s why I wanted to keep the stage, people told me to get rid of it to make more room. Delerme, Benabar, Raphael, they’ve all sung here.
- On the stage, a carved column, velvet curtain, and a piano wait for the live music to come back.
What do you listen to ?
I love everything, I could live without drink, without food, but not without music. And my kids are the same way. I listen to everything. These days, it’s lots of Israelian music. Israel is like France now, it used to be out of date, but now as soon as something is popular here it’s popular there, and it’s the heyday of chansons à texte (songs with meaningful lyrics). There’s very simple music, but a lot of words. Also, in Israel, there’s a lot of different music, had I known I would have brought some for you to listen to. The Jews have very good musicians, especially in classical music. In Israel, they mix everything, classical with modern, modern in a classical spirit, but there is always a note of nostalgia. Even in the love songs. I’m an eternal romantic, I love everything, people, my family, life, and I am nostalgic for my country and my family who is there. It’s hard, when you’re used to a climate like that, to live here. We’re always asking ourselves, what are we doing here. Me, less, because I’m used to France, I’m more French. But for my kids, all their friends are there, and over there, family and friends are important. Life is easier, you don’t have the same needs that you have here. When you have a little bit of money, you buy yourself a coffee, and it’s not the coffee that matters, it’s the friends. If I go out to a café alone there, in a half hour there are 30 of us around the table, we laugh, we talk. There, the problem is the war, they don’t leave us alone. Here, too, there’s a war these days…
Do you think that your expatriation might also be part of your attraction for salsa, this music that you call the music of joy ?
We have that too, music that is joyous. Last week I heard about a tv show about Dalida, a Jewish girl named Zabou Breitmann said that what she loved about Dalida was her accent. Everyone who has an accent, are people who are missing something, where they are ; they’ve lived through difficult times, their life is not done being complicated. You can take a Greek, he can become Aristotle Onassis, and even when he has a cigar in his mouth, if you put on a little song from his past, everything falls away. A French person in France doesn’t have that. The French have mostly had the same life, from father to son. When you take an immigrant, no matter where he is, he’s not at his place, it’s sad. A musician, when he hears a note, will think of his father, of his grandmother. Georges Moustaki came here one night, and he saw that I was with my kids and he stayed and talked to me. We’re immigrants, he said, we’re not here saying "I’m descended from Jupiter’s thigh" - we live the life of our youth. There is passion. When we don’t like something, it’s passionate, and when we love, it’s passionate. We started talking, we talked about our lives, we talked about everything. In France you can’t talk like that, what you do, how much money you make. We talk about everything. In Israel, if you take the bus and you sit down next to someone, in five minutes he’ll have told you everything about his life, he’ll tell you where he’s going, how much he makes, where he works, and how many kids he has.
It sounds a little bit like the US.
You know, Israel is the United States. Moustaki, when he sings, he sings his family, he sings his father, his grandmother, his mother. He’s old, his hair is all white, but he is not cured of his past. It’s the problem that we all have in common, we immigrants, we are not healed. We love Paris, we love to dress like Parisians, we love the Quais of the Seine, but there is always something that is missing.
But is it really possible to get it back ?
No, you can’t every go back. It’s like Yuri Buenaventura - the first thing he did when he had money, was to buy a house for his parents.
In English, we say homesickness, like pain.
No, it’s not a pain, it’s a freedom, it’s the passing of time. We would have liked to stop time.
- The candles have been here almost as long as the building itself.
Where will you be in 10 years, where will Les Etoiles be ?
If I knew where I would be tomorrow, I’d give you all the details. (laughs). I can’t tell you where I’ll be, but I can tell you where I’d like to be : in Israel, as soon as possible. There were times in my life where I was exactly where I should have been, at the time I was supposed to be there - sometimes people live their lives without realizing this, without passion. Me, no. I look at everything as if I were a poet, a writer, and yet that’s not what I am at all. Life is beautiful. When you turn the page, it means that it’s time to move on. If what came before was good, all you can do is hope that the rest will go well too.
What future do you see for Les Etoiles ?
I don’t know…I don’t have the energy anymore. He goes to talk to Aïsha, who is cleaning the marble floor. You see, you have to take care of everything.
Do you see an end to salsa in Paris, you who saw its beginnings ?
There won’t be an end, because there will always be a new musician that you absolutely have to hear, and you’ll hear his music, and it will be great. What can replace salsa ? I don’t think anything can, because salsa is beautiful, and communicative. Salsa allows girls to get dressed up to come out and go dancing. They put on makeup, they dress up in a way that’s different for France. The guys, too, they dress with style, they dance with style. Girls make themselves beautiful for the guys, and the guys dress up for the girls. That’s salsa, and then there’s the music on top of all that.
Do you want to go get a coffee ?
- Aïsha mops up.