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Yamakasi kool! | Music Interview

‘Fight scene from “Les Fils du Vent”
Yamakasi kool!
France’s new urban superheroes
by Tobias Grey

Ten years ago not many would have bet on seven teenagers and 20-somethings transcending their suburban environment by creating a unique form of high-rise entertainment. But that’s just what the Yamakasis did. Treating the edifices of northern Parisian suburbs like Sarcelles and Evry as their elaborate playgrounds, the seven (plus a couple of others, who have since gone their own way) began developing their skills as real-life spidermen. A mixture of precision jumping and urban leapfrog, the “art of movement” or “parkour” as it is variously known, has since become a worldwide phenomenon, with the first ever “parkour” jam taking place in London this August (6-9).

Not content with taming their urban environment, the original seven — whose name “Yamakasi” comes from the Zairean dialect Lingala meaning “strong spirit, strong body, strong man” — are now inventing themselves a future on the silver screen. Their latest movie “Les Fils du Vent,” a unique entry in the French lingo chop-socky genre, is out in France on June 23. While a little rough around the edges, the film works pretty well as a showcase for the seven’s various talents.

Today I have a meeting with one of the original Yamakasis and it’s Vietnamese-born Chau Belle Dinh or “Baseball,” as he is also known, who has drawn the short straw. While his six pals — another of whom was born in Vietnam, two in Africa and three in France — are no doubt fine tuning their “tic tac” or practicing their “passe muraille” (they train at least six hours a day), Chau it is who has to talk turkey with me. He is accompanied by Elodie Yung, a law student with a black belt in karate, who plays Chau’s feisty sister in the new film.

Chau who grew up and still lives in Sarcelles, remembers a bunch of friends, all of them linked by an interest in sports, who got together and began to develop what might accurately be described as a sort of gravity defying urban ballet. Says Chau: “After a while friends and family were telling us why don’t you show people what you can do, nobody’s ever seen something like this before. So we sent Luc Besson, who was about the only French filmmaker at that time to make the kind of films we appreciated, a cassette of us in action.”

After that things moved quickly and Besson signed up the Yamakasis to provide the stunts for a key scene in the action movie “Taxi 2.” “That film was like a test for us,” says Chau, “Besson wanted to see if we were really cut out to be in films.” And so pleased was Luc with the boys’ work that he set up “Yamakasi,” a movie built entirely around them. At one point in that film an agitated police chief famously intones: “The Japanese had ‘The Seven Samurai,’ the Americans ‘The Magnificient Seven’ and what do we end up with? The seven troublemakers.”

But far from being the mischievous troublemakers depicted in Besson’s film, the real-life Yamakasis, are modern-day role models. For a start none of them smoke, drink or take drugs and far from letting incipient fame go to their heads, the boys from the burbs, are putting as much as they can back into their community.

Last year they set up an association teaching the “art of movement” which has attracted some 30 youngsters aged five and upwards. “We want the next generation after us to benefit from the art of movement in the same way that we did,” says Chau. “It’s not necessarily about becoming a Yamakasi, we try and really take care of these youngsters, to look out for their educations and make sure everything is going alright at home.”

I wonder about the kids’ parents, how do they react when they find out their kids are learning how to scale walls and jump through windows? “It’s true the parents always start off being afraid for their children. But it’s up to us to convince them their children are learning in a safe environment. They have to realize that their kids are much better off than we were. Nobody was there to tell us not to do something or that we might get hurt.”

Anyone who watches the Besson movie might imagine the Yamakasis getting into endless scrapes with the police. Not so says Chau, “That’s just Besson’s humor in inverted commas. The only time problems arise are when the police don’t know who you are and think that maybe someone’s breaking something or trying to burgle someone. But as we’re always training in the same places there’s no problem. The police aren’t stupid, they don’t need any extra problems.”  

After exploding one myth I wonder if Chau is about to blow up another when I ask him about life in the suburbs. Was it really as difficult to get a start as people often suggest? “It’s true that it wasn’t easy. It was incredibly hard for us to get a foot in the door. When we started off we didn’t have two pennies to rub together. We went out knocking on doors and most people didn’t give a damn what we were up to. That was ten years ago, now things are starting to get a bit better. With people like Jamel, Eric and Ramzy and now us doing really well, people are waking up to the fact that there is a lot of talent in the suburbs and that it just needs to be tapped.”

But Chau is doubtful if he’d have made on his own. “We made the choice to live as seven and took on board all the constraints that involves. When one went hungry we all went hungry. That’s the true story of a group.”

But it’s not for everybody as Elodie soon realized when she became an honorary member of the group. “I don’t think I would be capable of doing the kind of training they do every day. It doesn’t correspond with the way I choose to live my life. As it’s an art of movement they’re basically on the go all the time, even when we went out for a bite to eat, they would end up swinging from the lampposts.”


France’s new urban Elodie Yung and Chau Belle Dinh

Still from the movie