Step inside the vibrant cultural institution of Paris celebrating Franco-African culture through music, film, food, activism and a mind-boggling collection of curiosities.
Perched on the banks of Canal Saint Martin, the most colourful group of Parisians imaginable gather inside a sprawling old barn decked out in glinting African treasures. On any given night of the week, the hipsters, students, artists, families and Left-Bankers jostle for a seat in this self-titled “temple of ghetto culture” to sip strong, cheap drinks into the early hours to the soundtrack of blues, jazz and world music. This is Le Comptoir General, a cultural institution in Paris’ 10th arrondissement that celebrates Franco-African culture through music, film, food, activism and a mind-boggling collection of curiosities.
Opened in 2010 by Étienne Tron de Bouchony and Aurélien Laffon, this bar/restaurant/museum humorously recalls the sumptuous elegance of colonial African palaces. The film, music and fashion of countless eras is referenced from wall to wall, from 1980s France to Hollywood’s golden age. A beguiling collection of ornaments and antiques spill across the place: vintage posters; old TVs; chests; taxidermy; skulls; skeletons, fish tanks, trinkets from African markets; boots; coats; oil paintings and dusty globes. Thrift store disciples come here in droves to run their beady eyes across the clothes racks, glass cabinets and shelves bursting with rare treasures.
Arriving at a misleadingly discreet entrance, guests enter Le Comptoir General via the ‘Abandoned Hall’, a sweeping corridor strung with crystal chandeliers. On the left is ‘The Classroom’, a still-life school hall with its own rambling ‘Endemic Garden’. On Sundays, children can gather here for traditional storytelling sessions. This particular venture is overseen by Jwah, a Paris-based organization supporting vulnerable children.
After passing by the working African hair salon (ICI Bon Coiffeur), you’ll find Le Cabinet de Sorcellerie (The Witchcraft Cabinet which promises to “freeze the blood in your veins”) and the wild, green plant shop La Petite Boutique des Horreurs (Little Shop of Horrors). As well as purchasing a few succulents and herbs, visitors can also get involved with the gardening workshops that take place here every Sunday. There is also an on-site record shop, The Municipal Library and a continuous rota of exhibitions, which spread themselves across the space. And on Sunday evenings from 7-11pm, free film screenings take place at le Cinébrousse, with topics ranging from culture and warfare to art and nature.
The Ballroom is where most of the magic happens. Guests huddle at rattan chairs and velvet sofas shaded by palms and twisted ivy, scattered across the scuffed tiled floors. Here you’ll find the bar and event space, watched over by a wide mezzanine. Drinks are served from the front of a wooden ship, with a carved mermaid and her shell-bra jutting out of the front. “Rebellious, exotic” bands and DJs blast a daily range of music, from Afrobeat and funk to rap, hip hop and disco. The venue is also open for African brunches each Sunday – with a killer playlist, naturally.
Le Comptoir’s music is overseen by Etienne, who founded the record label and radio station Secousse in 2012. He calls the project his “baby”, and plays host to private concerts from some of the world’s greatest musicians. Recent stage-takers include Bumba Massa, Calypso Rose and Alicia Keys.
While Le Comptoir General has created a name for itself as a hip, off-beat art destination with a clientele of celebrities, creatives and musicians, its message remains the same; to celebrate “marginalized cultures” and give back to the community. The Centre of Lost Properties is a project that supports ‘les biffins’ (‘the waste pickers’) of the city, selling the wares of the homeless who dig for disused goods on the streets. Above the bar at Le Marché Noir, visitors can sift through a colourful collection of clothes, shoes and accessories thrifted from across Africa by second-hand clothing connoisseur Amah Ayivi.
“All profits from exhibitions and events are poured straight back into funds for the next. The space also acts as a meeting place for charitable organisations like Greenpeace and Amnesty International.”
Its in-house markets, screenings and concerts breathe life and colour into underrepresented cultures. It throws together an eclectic mix of locals, painting a picture of Paris’ diversity whilst valuing collaboration and inclusivity above all else.
The fact that it is almost certainly the coolest 600m2 in the entire city is an added bonus. Visitors enter this exotic alternate universe, explore the sights, sounds and smells of different worlds, and leave Paris far behind for a while.