Tucked away behind the Pantheon in the 5ème Arrondissement of Paris, there is a bar. This bar is small and unpretentious, wallpapered inside with yellowed posters in an anarchy of papier mâché. There are two rooms: first, a narrow bar for sipping cheap imported beer, and second, just past a collage of passport photos (as if when folk arrive here, they decide spontaneously to stay), the back room, sectioned into table enclaves, where live music plays.
The Rodolphe Raffalli Trio, every Monday night
Le Piano Vache, est. 1969, was one of the first bars in Paris to play rock music. Now they rotate rock with funk and punk, new wave and metal. The vibe is chill and studenty–more Parisian laissez-faire than frat-boy brawl. There are patchwork couches, wooden cabaret chairs, rickety tables, plus the young and interested, packed along the banquettes like so many macarons in a display. Because of the lighting, the whole place glows red.
Just above the Quartier Latin, Rue Laplace connects the Rue Valette and the Rue de la Montagne Sainte-Genevieve; it’s barely one block long. And yet, it is pure Paris–unadulterated charm, this neck of the neighborhood being generally off the beaten path–except, of course, for students. In the evening dark, a humid quiet settles down into its alleys and its cobbled cracks.
We remember it on Monday evening, when we are full of marvelous white Roussillon, baguette, grilled leeks, and cheese from the excellent Café de la Nouvelle Mairie (which caters to the wine-snobs and the intelligentsia and the execs of Universal and is not open weekends), when a fire in a neighboring courtyard disrupted the idylls of our sidewalk sipping, and occupied the little fountained park.
We sneak past the Pantheon and its imposing pillars, winding our way to Le Piano Vache, which we discover takes a regular Monday respite from their hard rock ways. We go down the wrong steps first–into the cellar–before we make our way to the back bar, to a room decked out in dusty bottles and ceramic cows, strewn with wrought iron hat racks and sewing bodices. One horned bull head oversees the broken down piano, the thickly postered walls. We cram into a corner space, vacated between sets, and order bières and verres de vin.
The Pantheon at dusk (Paris, France)
We’ve stumbled into the night of jazz manouche, or “gypsy jazz,” the swinging folky stuff of Django Reinhardt in the 1930s. The mood is one of reverence. Like jazz geeks everywhere, the faithful bop their heads in time to the pumping, complex plucking of Rodolphe Raffalli, who as it turns out, plays every Monday night. His trio are in t-shirts, tailored pants, and hats: his son on back-up guitar, his towering friend on double bass. They slap their instruments like gods or fishermen. If someone speaks too loud or gets too boisterous, he is shushed almost immediately.
The set wrapped up at just past two. We walked home with the la pompe rhythm in our feet, ducking through narrow streets to our hotel, half expecting Orson Welles to pop out behind a corner, a silhouette in grey fedora, as the up-swing strumming of the soundtrack swells anew.