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A taste of France, Italy in Petaluma


Have you ever coveted a cozy corner of a Parisian cafe, in a less complex, more romantic world on the banks of the Seine? Petaluma-based French and Italian music trio La Guinguette has been offering the music of that realm to Sonoma County since 2010.

Christiane Leleure, one of the band’s two vocalists, was born in a little village in the Loire Valley region of France, west of Paris. While living in Paris during the 1970’s, she began studying voice and joined the Choeur de Paris, located at La Sorbonne. She performed private concerts with an assortment of accompanists and started teaching school while writing and recording children’s songs.

“I always loved to sing,” Leleure said, describing the pleasure of performing as “sharing the joy of letting a song pass through you and express what comes.” Leleure was drawn to the United States by an ad for a job she saw in the Paris newspaper, Le Monde, which led her to Los Angeles in 1982 to teach French.

“I liked the openness of the mind here and the freedom feeling,” she said of the U.S. “There’s more of a spirit of enterprise, which was often discouraged in France.”

After three years, she moved to San Francisco, where she taught in another French school until 1991, when she bought a house in Petaluma.

“I’ve always found the people of Petaluma were family and community-oriented,” Leleure said.

She continued to teach French language classes to children in Sonoma and Marin through the Bienvenue School, a program she operated. Recently, she retired after 20 years.

During the ‘90s, Leleure continued creating songs with different instrumentalists for a French language program. She issued three CDs of songs and nursery rhymes for toddlers, composed of original and traditional material for use in her teaching programs.

In 2010, Leleure and two local musicians who shared her love for both French and Italian music founded La Guinguette, a group that’s named after the open-air cafes that began in little villages near Paris in the early 20th century. Accordions were a favored instrument, and there was an abundance of singing.

In addition to Leleure on French vocals, La Guinguette features San Francisco native, Al Haas, on guitar and Italian vocals for about one-third of the group’s songs. While attending medical school in Florence, Italy, Haas became fluent in the language and developed a love for Italian music, food and culture.

Italy and the south of France share a border, Leleure said, and a similar lifestyle, including love of folk music, especially songs that use accordion.

Robert Lunceford, born on Bastille Day, adds a depth of emotion as the band’s accordionist. He’s also been involved in the formation of the Bay Area French bands, Un Deux Trois and Sono Musette.

Leleure fondly recalls La Guinguette’s 2012 Bastille Day performance, which drew 500 people to the DeYoung Museum during an exhibition of the work of fashion designer Paul Gauthier, who’s most noted for his creation of Madonna’s conical bras.

The vocalist said she enjoys giving a brief explanation of each song before performing it.

“It’s a lot about love, though not all,” she said, with melodies made famous by artists like Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, and Fabrizio De André.

La Guinguette has performed at festivals, cafes and private events around Sonoma County, in addition to Petaluma venues such as the Corkscrew Wine Bar and Aqus Café, where the trio will be performing a Feb. 14 Valentine’s Day show.

Leleure prefers to perform in small venues where “you really have the contact with an audience that listens,” she said.

There’s not much room for dancing, but the audience is encouraged to join the singing.

“They love the language,” she said. “They want to hear it.”

Find out more about the trio at parisskies.com/music/La_Guinguette.html.

(Contact Robert Feuer at argus@arguscourier.com)