The French Connection

IF SHE HAD to do it over again, she might not. When Sara Remke started the Minnesota sur Seine jazz festival two years ago in St. Paul’s Lowertown, importing French stars to perform and jam with local artists, she just wanted to share the amour that Minnesota musicians had been experiencing at festivals in France. Unbeknownst to most Twin Citians, such homegrown talents as the band Happy Apple and vocalist Gwen Matthews had become hits overseas, largely thanks to Remke’s romantic and creative partner, Jean Rochard, a veteran French record producer who has devoted years of work to recording Minneapolis music on his international label. Remke, co-owner of Lowertown’s hip Black Dog Café, had never booked a festival before, and few Twin Citians had ever heard of the acts she imported.

But after two years of building a musical bridge between Saint-Germain and Saint Paul, Remke isn’t about to pack it in now. In fact, she has begun to go beyond the Franco-American connection. This year’s festival, which runs October 12 to 22 at various venues, features return engagements by British saxophonist Evan Parker and the Jacky Molard Quartet, a group of Breton/Celtic musicians. Locals acts include cello-rockers Jelloslave and guitarist Dean Magraw. The biggest surprise: Moroccan female vocal group B’net Houariyat (Daughters of the Houara). The six-woman group has recorded with Peter Gabriel, played festivals around the world, and shared the stage with Happy Apple. Their arrival in St. Paul could reshape Sur Seine from a sister-city jazz exchange into a summit for world music.

Remke modeled her event on the Sons d’Hiver festival in Paris, where such Twin Cities musicians as Michael Bland (a drummer with Prince’s backing bands, now with Soul Asylum), the jazz trio Fat Kid Wednesdays, and the hip-hop lyricist Brother Ali have gone over well. But re-creating that festival’s warmth was not so easy in chilly Minnesota, where attendance was comparatively modest and locals were, and more or less still are, unfamiliar with such French legends as reed player Michel Portal and bass-clarinet sensation Denis Colin. (Portal knows who we are, though—he recorded his 2001 record Minneapolis here and in Paris. It features Bland, guitarist Vernon Reid, and other American musicians, as well as songs named after such Minnesota icons and landmarks as Judy Garland and Nicollet Avenue.)

With the international travel hassles faced by touring musicians post-9/11, it’s increasingly difficult to set up cross-cultural musical exchanges. But Remke remains committed to arranging more musical marriages through Sur Seine. When Happy Apple, for instance, shared a bill with Berber chanters B’Net Houariyat at a small festival in Morocco, Remke was so moved by the spectacle that she immediately invited the North African group to Sur Seine.

The fest will enjoy its first bit of glitz when French movie actress and poet Nathalie Richard performs October 15 at Alliancea musician playing drums Française in Minneapolis. (She’ll also appear with the Jef Lee Johnson trio at the Varsity Theater on October 18.) But the curiosity of the week could be French multi-instrumentalist Bernard Lubat and the premiere of the Deliberation Orchestra, an international all-star act with not one but two Twin Cities drummers. It will be a first and possibly a last—and thus utterly symbolic of Sur Seine’s idealistic unpredictability.

“Even if people didn’t know each artist, they’ve been really impressed with the quality of the music once they went,” Remke says. “Hopefully we can build on that, and encourage people to go even if they don’t know what to expect.” She takes a deep breath. “Maybe we’re crazy.” C’est la vie!

The third annual Minnesota sur Seine runs October 12 to 22, 2006 at numerous Twin Cities venues. Visit

, or call 651-292-9746, for more information.