Louisville musician Carly Johnson performs on the Brown Hotel rooftop. | Courtesy of Louisville Downtown Partnership

Fête de la Musique, which means “celebration of music” in French, is an annual event that originated in 1982 by then-French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, as a way of bringing people into the streets to celebrate the summer solstice.

Musicians are encouraged to play in cafes, city plazas, fixed stages or wherever they feel an audience may enjoy listening free of charge. Since its modest inception in Paris, Fête de la Musique has since become a global musical phenomenon honored in more than 120 countries.

It’ll be held in Louisville on Thursday, June 21, all day long at various locations.

The Alliance Française de Louisville (AFL) is one of more than 100 chapters in the country that belong to the Alliance Française, an international organization that aims to promote French language and culture around the world.

Founded in Paris in 1883, the Alliance Française currently boasts more than 800 chapters in 130 countries, with over half-a-million students worldwide. AFL first organized the Fête de la Musique in 2011, in the former downtown Ghyslain restaurant parking lot. The local chapter organized three other Fêtes through 2014 in various locations throughout the city.

AFL board member Brett Corbin recently spent five years as a financial correspondent for the International Herald Tribune in Paris, where he discovered Fête de la Musique in the source city itself. He shared his vision with fellow board members early in the summer 2016 of organizing the event once again in Louisville, but this time approaching it with a broader scope.

It was too late to hold the event that year, but Corbin was confident he could deliver a successful festival the following summer.

Jeanne Hilt and Leslie Proasi join Micah Chandler for a tune. | Photo by James Natsis

Corbin called upon several contacts he already had in town, including Jeanne Hilt from the Louisville Downtown Partnership (LDP), as well as the French Cultural Attaché of Chicago, whom he had met during an event at the Speed Art Museum where he serves on the Board of Governors. The Cultural Attaché put Corbin in touch with Fête organizers in Louisville’s French Sister City partner, Montpelier.

Event organizers in the Sister Cities agreed to coordinate a livestream broadcast from Montpelier on the big screen outside the Kentucky Center, Fourth Street Live and Yum! Center. The livestream broadcast will be presented again this year.

According to Hilt, last year’s event brought 17 “buskers,” or street performers, to the sidewalks throughout the city, in addition to performances presented on main stages.

She has sent out an open call for whoever wants to come out and perform this year. She anticipates a similar level of participation but acknowledges that “you never know until the day of.”

Hilt sees Fête de la Musique as a winner for the Downtown Partnership.

“All along we want to build on the success from year to year, and to see it grow,” she said. “Our mission is to create a vibrant downtown, and the annual Fête event definitely enhances the urban core.”

Susan Cole took up French at the AFL in 2009. She has since traveled to France on several occasions and has been the AFL board treasurer for the past five years. She saw last year’s event as a good effort and especially enjoyed the evening reception on the Brown Hotel’s rooftop.

Susan Cole celebrates the Fête from the Brown Hotel rooftop with friend Bill Harris

“That was a beautiful venue, and everyone up there absolutely loved it,” she said. Cole sees the whole event as a work in progress and an excellent opportunity to promote the AFL. “Wouldn’t it be nice if some of the people from France came here,” she said.

For the love of French culture

Gregg Ferris is the current AFL president and was in Paris four years ago during Fête. He said there were 400 official venues with musicians, and the evening is referred to as “Nuit Blanche” (“sleepless night”) because the festival continues all night long.

“I don’t know if we’ll get to 400 venues in Louisville, but it won’t be for a lack of trying,” Ferris said.

Greg Livingston plays in front of the KFC Yum! Center. | Photo by James Natsis

Ferris is fluent in French and said that learning the language has helped him better appreciate other languages — as well as his native country.

“I never felt as American as I felt in Normandy,” he said, referring to the strong presence of American flags and other symbols that manifest a sincere gratefulness to the American sacrifices for France during World War II.

Fête de la Musique has quickly become one of AFL’s yearly highlights in addition to other cultural activities it offers its members and the greater community, such as a French Film Fest, a speaker series, a book club, etc.

“This is how we make ourselves visible to the community for those who only see us as a school — we are much bigger than that,” Ferris said. “Even for those who don’t want to learn French, they can appreciate French culture and music we have to offer.”

Hilt explained that the festival is the result of many community organizations coming together.

“One great thing about this is how many partners are involved,” she said, adding that there are 14 sponsors who have contributed advertisement, signage and venue space in an effort to make the event a collaborative success.

The Fund for the Arts also is working to blend into the celebration, as its 10-day fundraising campaign kicks off on Thursday as well.

“I feel that it’s a great coincidence,” said Corbin.

Event organizers want to limit the activities to the downtown area for the inaugural citywide initiative. But given the success of the first year’s event, this may change sometime down the road.

“It’s a great event for the community and to expand into other parts of the city, such as the Highlands and elsewhere,” Corbin added.

For her part, Hilt wants people downtown to associate June 21, the summer solstice, with Fête de la Musique, and go outside to enjoy music and festivities each year in the city’s vibrant downtown.

Fête de la Musique will take place Thursday, June 21, from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. with performances at Fourth Street Live, Kindred Plaza, Merle’s Whiskey Kitchen and various other points throughout downtown. The evening Happy Hour will be held from 5-7 p.m. at Fourth Street Live.

All events and performances are free, and there is an open call to all musicians to come join the fun in the central downtown area.

This post has been updated with a new venue for Happy Hour. It has been moved to Fourth Street Live due to the fire at the Kentucky Center for the Arts.