Author Mary Winston Nicklin Illustration Graham Roumieu
In a small office off the Place du Grand Jardin in Vence, where elderly gentlemen play rounds of pétanque, Téo Saavedra punches a button on his CD player, talking up the artists in this month’s Nuits du Sud festival. “You probably already know Suzanne Vega,” he says and skips to the next track, “Birima,” by Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour.
“This is the man,” Saavedra says, grinning behind a bushy mustache. N’Dour is headlining the monthlong festival of global music, which Saavedra started 12 years ago in this small town in the south of France.
Saavedra, a shy Chilean who speaks English with a heavy accent, curates the show with intense dedication, and is close friends with many of the performers. “Cesária Évora can’t come this year,” says Saavedra with a sigh, looking up at a photo of Évora, the 69-year-old Cape Verdean morna virtuoso known as the “barefoot diva.”
Thirty-three years ago, Saavedra was a political studies professor in Santiago, Chile, when the hardline regime of Augusto Pinochet declared him an enemy of the state and evicted him. He ended up in this Provençal village.
“Why did you settle in France?” Saavedra’s friend asks.
“Brigitte Bardot,” Saavedra says, smiling mischievously.
Nuits du Sud came into being shortly thereafter. It started as a friendly gathering of émigrés playing late into the night. The authorities would come by and shut them down, until one evening Saavedra invited the mayor of Vence. When the police showed up, the mayor invited them in for a round of drinks. The rest is history.
This year, Saavedra—who recently published a memoir of his escape from Chile called Les Evadés de Santiago— was awarded a medal of arts and letters by the French minister of culture.
Music from the late Fela Kuti fills the office while Saavedra hums along, a twinkle in his eye. “There’s the real reason I came here,” he says, pointing to a photo of a beautiful Frenchwoman on his desk: his wife.