Les Grooms in the USA

Arts and Ideas Festival – June 2003


In June 2003 the United States went to war with Iraq. The French opposition to this military action led to escalating tension between the two countries. The arguments became more heated and more irrational. The French showed themselves to be very French while the Americans proved to be... well, very American. It was at root a war of opposing cultures.

During this awkward time, in June 2003, the Grooms undertook a voyage into 'enemy territory', to Newhaven, Connecticut, as part of the « Arts and Ideas » festival.

We don't know if the organisers felt any concern that we might meet with anti-French reactions but we must say that our stay was a great success. We were given a warm welcome to wonderful places by smiling people. For the Grooms it was like a picture-postcard version of the States come to life.

The following piece about our stay was written in the very particular context of the difficult atmosphere of the time, and its intention is to ridicule the patriotic point of view which was found on both sides!

Anyone who thinks that France comes well out of this account has missed the point.


In June 2003 the Grooms brass band visited New Haven, USA.

Its University : Yale

George Bush Junior did a stint there

So did we !

I can't stand America

I hate the Dow Jones

And the dollar which first goes up

Then down

The American companies which Americanise French companies

The Star-Spangled Banner

The Chicago Bulls' jersey

The muscle-bound athletes

The super-heros

The fight between good and evil

I can't stand the arms trade

The death penalty

The power to say who lives and who dies

I can't stand the Americans' casual way of destroying the earth

And of taking it over

And of believing they represent the planet's highest achievement, above Everest, above Mont Blanc and even above the hill of Montmartre.

I prefer


The Lozère

The back-end of nowhere

In short

I'm French.

My head is stuffed full of preconceptions

And I'm part of the Grooms Brass Band which travels all over the world and makes its living by performing

And since there's no money in the Massif Central

We sold our soul to the States

For an eight-day stay.

Eight days too many.

From somewhere deep inside I longed for the thing to fail

For it to be hell

I was expecting the America of George the Bloody (bloody George !) to be hostile to the Frenchie Grooms

I was expecting the States to be as bad as Canada

Where I spent my worst-ever Groom-time

I would have liked it so much if the States had proved to be the worst of all

Justifying their reputation as arrogant and ignorant ignoramuses

Unfortunately, everything went very well

For a Frenchman, that's infuriating.

The America of George Junior and his countrymen welcomed us warmly

Life was good

We were well lodged

Well paid (in dollars)

Generously applauded

So I say : bravo!

Well done those Yanks!

What then are we to do with all our pre-conceived ideas?

How embarrassing!

To find something to complain about I'll write about the visas

Ah yes!

The visas!

Three months of work to finally get the right to step onto American soil.

We had to fill out the form in English

Resisting the temptation to give facetious answers

And most importantly

Provide a 5x5 photo

US standard format

Not exactly easy to find in the Parisian suburbs

The photo had to fit exactly into the space provided (no overlap)

The face had to be in close-up (but not too close)

There hadn't to be a hair missing

If there was, then you had to start again!

They're a pain in the ass these Yanks with their crappy visa and their stupid mistrust of everyone

They make no effort, they're patronising and rude

Just as we like them, so that we can criticise them as much as we want.


Visa in pocket

The next thing was to take the plane (no comment) and get through customs


A real pleasure

In France we go through in groups, little chaotic bundles of humanity, always with some who manage to get to the front by squeezing under the armpits of the others

In America they put you straight lines, one by one

And we all have the same name : Next!

We are all suspicious characters

But if we turn out to be honest and a trusty friend of the American people

Then no problem, we're allowed in...

I had a gigantic Brie cheese in my bag

A Brie we wanted to give to the choir who were to sing with us in our street show

A Brie which had melted during the journey

An illegal Brie, with no visa

Well hidden, but stinking

Giving out a horrible smell, as if it had already exploded!

The odour of Brie was everywhere

My bag smelled of Brie

My hands, my passport

The whole airport stank of milk gone off...

With all those detectors of this and that which you have to pass through, logically I was done for

But incredibly the detectors detected everything in my bag except the cheese.

I was through

"You're welcome"

Before making it through American customs your status is 'suspicious'.

Afterwards you're simply "welcome"

In our case, it's incredible just how "welcome" we were

Great organisation

Good atmosphere


No problems

With a good hotel

Well positioned in the centre of town just opposite the dressing-rooms and the rehearsal space

Enough time to get over jet-lag

Cheap beer for the artists in the hotel bar

And it was good beer.

So there we were in Newhaven

A prosperous American town

Verging on the old-fashioned

As if to say : We know all about English traditions, but here we build to last.

Hefty rustic buildings

And straight streets which seem to go on for ever

The University is stone-built in the style of an old castle


The whole town structure is based on squares

The standard US way

A square of greenery

A square of buildings

A square of greenery

Then the University.

America asked us to come to perform our Wagner

And to entertain the folks on the streets during the Festival of I don't know what

It's one of the most important festivals in the world, in the USA, in the University town of Yale

American flags everywhere

For us the most important thing was the Wagner,

The made-by-the-Grooms "Ring Cycle" that we play under a tent holding between 150 and 300 spectators

It was the show's première in the land of George Junior

And we were hoping that some kind of super world-beating tour would come out of this gig

A jackpot.

The "Ring" takes place in a tent which represents a grotto

And is made from non-inflammable poly-something cloth

There are poles and circular stages made of the kind of wood that turns into crumbs if you mistreat it just a little

All these wooden structures had been re-made by the Americans

It was cheaper than flying it in from Paris

And it has to be said that cheap American wood

Is strong

Like concrete

Now we had a top quality décor to play in.

Good job

Well done lads.

Our closed-in playing space means that the safety people can have a field day

In Newhaven they went the whole hog.

On the first night the safety official was a big old black guy who looked under everything and checked everything.

During the show he continued to walk around the set, amongst the public and even in between the actors

Er, excuse me, but I have to perform...

No, no, security!

He was everywhere at once

Testing the ropes to make sure the tent wasn't about to fall in

Checking the emergency exits, making sure all the passageways were kept clear

He kept close tabs on the smoke machine hoping that maybe there he would find a problem

But the smoke machine had been cleared

Nothing he could say

Nothing he could do

Obviously he hadn't been told that during the show we use a lighted candle to ignite a powder which then gives off sparks


The old guy became positively Shakesperian in his reaction... a crisis! Treachery!

To calm things down we had to say sorry, to grovel, to humbly excuse ourselves

To say that we would never do it again


We promised.

At the next show the person in charge of safety was a very nice young woman, very "welcome to the USA" ,who offered no comment about the night before

Not a hint of reproach

Nor the slightest excuse

And during the show she wasn't there... what a pity!

Wagner was a triumph

At the end of the show

For three minutes

We were the kings of the petroleum industry

In other words, the kings of the world,

In other words... how short three minutes is

Since the size of the audience for Wagner is strictly limited

The organisers often alternated performances of 'The Threepenny Ring" and the interactive street performances (called the " Baronnade"), so that we could be seen by more people

We would have preferred to play only the Wagner, all the time

But that's business in the world of the market economy, and our Big Chief finds it easier to sell the Wagner in this way

So we grumble, and then we play

And we discovered through playing in the town centre that the streets of Newhaven are mostly deserted most of the time.

In our show the "Baronnade" we constantly ask people from the audience to sing with us

That's how, in the past, we've found a Chinese man who was ready to sing an air from the Peking Opera

And fans of Mozart willing to try out Papageno or Papagena

We've even found Wagnerians who knew the Ring...

And we have a surprise finale prepared where a choir sings a Wagnerian air with us

It works really well

People are amazed and can't work out how all these elements fall into place.

But here we had the same audience who came to see all our festival performances

About 20 people in all

A few passers-by (3 or 4, including 2 down-and-outs with nothing better to do)

So the choir made up 60% of our listening public.

A slightly too large proportion

Especially since we played five or six times, each time with the same spectators, the same choir and the same Grooms

As regards the 'surprise effect', forget it.

But that being said, the average American is a good sport and with a drop of cheap alcohol and a few well-chosen tunes, they were eating out of our hands

Vive la France

In addition to the deserted streets

We also played in courtyards where we were drowned out by the air-conditioning

And in a park (not exactly Woodstock, though the organisers would have liked it to be)

We were the headliners

We were a great success at the closing ceremony (a bit like a tacky version of the Olympic games) in playing "La musique à Papa", a humorous musical sketch which goes : parp parp boom pa-pa.

Let's say it again : Vive la France!

A triumph!

When we go to the States they love us

That's the way it is

We even had our fan club

A real American-style Fan Club

Which consisted of one woman who came to see us 10 times out of a possible 11


Oh yes!

She came with her husband

With her sister

With her sister's dog

For the first time a dog played trumpet with the Grooms

A very moving moment

On our last day

She came to say goodbye at the hotel

She was almost in tears

We've never had such a faithful spectator

And we were touched

We felt like we had become her whole life

But sadly,

Her 'whole life' had to go home

Leaving behind the fan club

The success

The glory

The good life

Leaving behind all those sweet Americans (whites, middle-class, against the war in Iraq) who loved the Grooms

And the horrible Americans (blacks, Puerto-Ricans, the poor and the drug-takers, in favour of the war in Iraq) who also loved the Grooms.

This positive view of the States was a bit confusing

Luckily, when we got back to Paris, on the front page of the newspapers we rediscovered the America that we knew so well

Disgusting, intolerant, oppressive

George Junior was once again the merciless Ruler of the Universe

The dollar was once again the source of all our problems

American athletes were once again all taking drugs


We could breathe again

Bienvenue en France

This pleasant land

Defender of human rights

World capital of modesty.


Go to the slide show