| In early 88, as I was putting the final touches to 'Words Of A Mountain', my second instrumental album, I got a call from Jean-Paul Goude in Paris. We had met in Nassau since he was Grace Jones' pal in the early 80's, designing her legendary image while we were doing the music. We went along very well, sharing crazy dreams like being the Diaghilev and Stravinski of the times.
Through the radio, I've heard of his appointement as creator of the Bastille Day Bicentennial extravaganza. His phone call was about Herbie Hancock's whereabouts, as he knew we had projects together. And during the conversation (maybe before ? or after ?), he realized that, as an African-French composer, fluent in both french and english, I could very well be the one to help him shape the behemoth to come.
The early days were spent going through hundreds of ideas, all rivaling in crazyness. The point was, we were called upon to create something off the wall, far from the regular parade. Like in a movie - and a movie in the making it certainly was - we thought we ought to invent everything from the ground up, and never let our imagination get limited by Mother Nature's physical boundaries. Jean-Paul was excellent at this game, far better than I.
As music director and composer, I was in charge of all the music that was to be heard that night. With the invaluable help of professionals in all domains involved (traditionnal and contemporary music), I quickly had sketches of the compositions I was to suggest to most of the french participants. I had them articulated around two ideas: the "Marche des Mille" (March of the Thousand) to be performed by a thousand traditionnal musicians and above 1600 drummers throughout the parade, and the "Prelude to the Marseillaise" to be performed, prior to the anthem as a halt in Place de la Concorde, by a 300 piece choir, with soloists of Pierre Boulez' Ensemble Inter-Contemporain, all added to the thousands of parading musicians. Rehearsing all these provided us with quantity of memorable moments throughout France, Parthenay and Marseille in particular.
Then we had to provide and supervise music (as well as scenery) for all foreign participants. Again, we had trouble explaining to most of them that they were not to design their own parade 'Olympics'-style; instead, just like the french participants, they were invited to perform as actors in a 'virtual' movie which neither the screenplay, the music nor the directing they were ever to control. They were asked to thrust our vision and taste. Numerous trips abroad were required to defend our project, armed with drawings, speeches and sketches of all sorts. That's how I got my first trip to Beijing the year of the Tian An Men Square massacre, and to Russia the year of the Fall of the Berlin Wall.
The US contribution to the project was to be multifaceted. Besides the rehearsals with the Tallahassee Marching Band which I was too busy to attend, there were to be meetings with Jessye Norman who was to be the voice of the World, to sing the "Marseillaise" at La Concorde, as a tribute to France for having given birth to the Human Rights concept. Quincy Jones, for the undisputable aura he internationally enjoyed, was to be our godfather. And James Brown, well, we could not get him.
July 14th, a day which was to run 'free of our control'. Quite normal. After all, everything had been designed so as to run freewheel on the 14th. There was no room for last minute decisions, other than cancel the show altogether, like in a countdown of a space rocket launch. We've had the help of the military to test and time everything out, a couple nights before on the Champs-Elysées; transportations and other logistics were duly taken care of, wardrobes were set, and all we could pray for was the weather to be on our side, which it did, very fortunately. Our Titanic encountered no iceberg.
Jean-Paul and I watched the parade, like most of us, ... on TV. We were much too nervous to appreciate what finally went on. Judging by the reaction everywhere, I believe it was a great show. Soon after, request for a decent audiovisual record of the event became overwhelmingly mandatory. And we failed to deliver, busy as we were, all 18 months spent on just creating, convincing, massaging and rehearsing. Today's DVD trend would have made more obvious the need for a full fledge 'Making Of' production team.
But the music remains, and I haven't given up on the idea of producing a record of it, way better in quality than the CD of the demos that were handed over to the french musicians, which Island Records France commercially released in small quantity soon after
And in terms of professional acclaim, specially in France and in Africa, things had never been the same ever since that event.