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"Once upon a time in a French city called Lyon, some young people decided to rule the world with the best weapon, which was music," David Baruchel — vocalist, guitarist, and founder of the 10-piece band Babylon Circus — says by phone from France. He chuckles at his own theatrical tone and then begins to babble at record speed as he spins true tales of world travel and musical enlightenment.
The band's music — a mix of ska, reggae, punk, rock, and jazz, with a nervous horn section ripe for a cartoon soundtrack — is as hyperactive and emotional as, well, a circus. The soaring heights and plunging depths are reflective of the group's home environs. "There's a lot of urban violence and police, but that's where we're born, so we're like a circus with a lot of different disciplines going from one city to another to carry love and give people dreams," says Baruchel.
And while the music flows out in positive, energetic bursts, the socially and politically conscious lyrics question the world's aggression. For example, take the song "De la Musique et du Bruit," off the band's third and latest album, 2003's Dances of Resistance (Yelen Musiques/Sony Entertainment/Rough Trade). It tells the story of a boy who has spent his whole life taking part in ethnically diverse neighborhood parties. One night he shows up and finds himself virtually alone save the police. Baruchel says that number was a critique of the way President Nicolas Sarkozy, even when serving as the country's interior minister, has repeatedly called for tightened security, higher deportation quotas, and tougher immigration reforms.
It's fitting, then, that just about every song on Dances of Resistance is focused on the year the war in Iraq began. "It's really a picture of 2003, what we had in our heart and in our brain, how the situation was in the world during this period," Baruchel says. That same tumultuous year, Babylon took its circus on a monthlong tour of Syria, strutting its stuff not only onstage but also on the streets. Like a pack of pied pipers, the band members paraded through town with their horns as residents chased them to catch an earful of their joyful noises.
Even more inspiring than that cultural convergence was the show the band played over the border in Lebanon. For two and a half hours, Babylon Circus performed tirelessly to a crowd comprising all walks of life. When the music finally stopped, one onlooker struck a special chord in Baruchel's heart. An old man with a toothless grin and a tear in his eye took the musician in his arms and chattered to him in a language Baruchel couldn't make out.
"The word wasn't important because you could tell you gave him something that made his life okay for that moment," says Baruchel. "I like to do these kinds of concerts, because when you travel with music, it's kind of like you're bringing something to a party — like food or a drink."
Whatever the metaphor, the music pouring from their lips and instruments seems to transcend language and culture to get right to the heart of the matter: that we are all in this mixed-up world together. Babble on, circus boys.