10 October 2008

The Voice of France that came from Belgium

30 years ago - on October 9th, 1978 - one of the most famous European voices of the 20th century fell silent forever. On that cool and grey day Jacques Brel - singer, songwriter, existentialist and cultural icon for more than one generation - died in Bobigny, a suburb of Paris, aged 49.
The news of his death came as a shock for millions, especially in France, and there are people who are still not able to get over it, three decades later.

Jacques Romain Georges Brel, whose many famous songs were so quintessentially French that they are still used as examples of typical French culture, was not even French himself. He was a Belgian, born on April 8th, 1929 in Schaarbeek, a suburbian district of Brussels.

Although the Brel family spoke French, they were of Flemish descent and came originally from Zandvoorde, near Ieper.

Brel's father was co-owner of a cardboard factory, and Jacques started his working life there, apparently destined to follow in his father's footsteps.
However, he was soon bored with it and showed instead an interest in culture, theatre and music. He joined the Catholic-humanist youth organisation Franche Cordée, where he sang and acted. At Franche Cordée he also met Thérèse Michielsen (known as 'Miche'), whom he married in 1950.

In the early 1950s Jacques Brel achieved minor success in Belgium by singing his own songs. A 78rpm record - La foire/Il y a - was released as a result. But he wanted to achieve more, and from 1954 on he pursued an international singing career.
Eventually he quit his job and moved to Paris, where he stayed at the Hotel Stevens and gave guitar lessons to the artist and dancer Francesco Frediani, to pay for his rent.
Frediani witnessed Brel's first show at the famous Olympia theatre as 'ouverture de rideau' (warm-up) act and encouraged him to continue. In those days Brel had to change behind the bar and was almost a nobody in the big cultural scene of the French capital.

But Bruno Cocquatrix, the Olympia's owner, invited him to come back. Brel carried on writing music and singing in the city's cabarets and music-halls, where on stage he delivered his songs with great energy.
In January 1955 he supported in the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels the performances of the Belgian pop and variety pioneer Bobbejaan Schoepen. After some more success Brel's wife and daughters joined him in Paris.
By 1956 Jacques Brel was touring Europe and recorded the song Quand on n'a que l'amour, which brought him his first major recognition. Soon after he appeared in a show with Maurice Chevalier and Michel Legrand.

By the end of the 1950s Brel's wife Miche and their three daughters returned to Brussels, and from then on they led separate lives. Under the influence of his friend Georges 'Jojo' Pasquier and the pianists Gérard Jouannest and Francois Rauber, Brel's style changed significantly. He was no longer a Catholic-humanist troubadour, but became the existentialist chansonier many people loved and remember. He sang grimmer songs about love, death, and the struggle that is life. The music also became more complex, and his themes more diverse. The songs of this period explored love (Je t'aime, Litanies pour un Retour), society (Les Singes, Les Bourgeois, Jaurès) and spiritual concerns (Le Bon Dieu, Dites, Si c'était Vrai, Fernand).

In contrast to many other singers, Jacques Brel's work is not limited to one style. He was as proficient in funny compositions (Comment tuer l'Amant de sa Femme..., Le Lion) as in more emotional ones (Voir un Ami Pleurer, Fils de..., Jojo).
His acute perception made Brel an innovative and creative 'painter' of daily life with rare poetic ease. His intelligent use of words was striking and often simple, exhibiting a very visual and meaningful vocabulary.
Few of his peers are considered as matching his skill in fitting as much novelty and meaning into a sentence.
He had a keen sense of metaphor, as in Je suis un soir d'été, where the narrator is a summer's evening, telling what he observes as he falls on a city. Being regarded as a master with lyrics, Brel's musical themes were first class as well, and again he was not limited to one style, composing both rhythmic, lively and captivating tunes (L'aventure, Rosa, Au printemps) as well as sad and solemn songs (J'en appelle, Pourquoi faut-il que les hommes s'ennuient?).

Brel's romantic lyricism sometimes revealed darkness and bitter irony. And at moments his tender love songs might show flashes of barely suppressed frustration and resentment. His insightful and compassionate portraits of the so-called dregs of society - the alcoholics, drifters, drug addicts and prostitutes - described in the songs Jef, La chanson de Jacky and the famous Amsterdam evaded easy sentimentality and were not shy about portraying the unsavoury sides of these lifestyles.

Jacques Brel composed and recorded his songs almost exclusively in French, and he is widely recognized in French-speaking countries all around the world as one of the best French-language composers and singers of all times.

But occasionally Brel included parts in Flemish or Dutch - as in Marieke - and he also recorded Flemish versions of some of his most popular songs, such as Le Plat Pays (Mijn vlakke land), Ne me quitte pas (Laat Me niet alleen), Rosa, Les Bourgeois (De Burgerij) and Les paumés du petit matin (De Nuttelozen van de Nacht).
A rather obscure single was uncovered only a few years ago, having Brel singing in Flemish De Apen (Les singes) and Men vergeet niets (On n'oublie rien). These two songs were included in a 16 CD box-set titled Boîte à Bonbons.
Since his own command of Dutch was rather poor, most of his later Flemish interpretations were translated by Ernst van Altena, but De Apen by Eric Franssen and Men vergeet niets by Will Ferdy. Marieke was translated by Brel himself.

Brel's attitude towards the Flemish was marked by a love for Flanders and the Flemish countryside (as evidenced in songs like Le Plat Pays, Marieke, Une Ostendaise and Mon Père Disait), but a dislike of the Flemish nationalists ("les Flamingants") and their political ambitions.
He declared himself Flemish and presented himself to the world as a Belgian singer (saying "moi je suis un Flamand" on French television), but he also mocked rustic Flemish life with the comic song Les Flamandes.

Later in his career he directed his political anger at the Flamingants. From La, la, la (1967) are the words "Vive les Belges, merde pour les flamingants" (Long live Belgians, shit for the flamingants).
In Les F... (1977) Brel portrayed the flamingants, ignoring any sense of nuance, as "Nazis durant les guerres et catholiques entre elles, vous oscillez sans cesse du fusil au missel" (Nazis during the wars and Catholics in between, you constantly swing from rifle to missal). The Flemish were very insulted by this song. After a long debate it was banned by VRT, the Flemish service of the Belgian national radio.

Brel's daughter France says: "He was very Flemish. He believed in discipline, hard work, and was always punctual. Our family is Flemish in character in many ways, Jacques was proud of his Flemish blood."

"If I were king," Brel himself once said, "I would send all the Flemings to Wallonia and all the Walloons to Flanders for six months. Like military service. They would live with a family and that would solve all our ethnic and linguistic problems very fast. Because everybody's tooth aches in the same way, everybody loves their mother, everybody loves or hates spinach. And those are the things that really count."

Although France and especially Paris was Brel's "spiritual home" and he expressed contradictory statements about Belgium, some of his best compositions pay tribute to his native country, like Le Plat Pays or Il neige sur Liège.

He starred in the musical L'Homme de la Mancha (The Man of La Mancha) which he also translated into French and directed. As an actor he gained fame playing opposite Lino Ventura in L'Emmerdeur. In 1969 he took the lead role opposite Claude Jade in Mon oncle Benjamin.
Le Far West, a comedy which he directed, co-wrote and appeared in, competed for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973.

In 1973 Jacques Brel embarked in a yacht, planning to sail around the world. When the vessel reached the Canary Islands, Brel - a heavy smoker - felt unwell and was subsequently diagnosed with lung cancer. He returned to Paris for treatment and later continued his ocean voyage.

In 1975 he reached the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia and decided to stay there. He remained on the volcanic South Pacific islands until 1977, when he returned to Paris to record his well-received final album.

He had planned to return to the islands, perhaps for good, but renewed pain kept him in Paris, where he died 30 years ago at the young age of 49. He was survived and mourned by his wife Thérèse (called Miche) and three daughters - Chantal, France and Isabelle.

Following his last will and instructions, Jacques Brel's body was shipped back to Polynesia and buried at the Calvary Cemetery in Atuona on Hiva Oa (photo above), only a few yards away from the famous impressionist painter Paul Gauguin, who had spent his later years there as well.

Though he died 30 years ago, Jacques Brel is still present in France today. There is no day without his songs being heard on radio and played in music boxes. About 200,000 of his records are still sold each year. No other artist of the existentialist period, which produced many French singers - male and female - comes even near this great and lasting success.

Brel's body rests on a South Pacific island, his family resides in Belgium, but his music is more than ever alive all over the world, though nowhere more than in France, the country that was his home for more than half of his life and inspired most of his songs.

The Emerald Islander


Michael said...

Nice account. Just one thing: I'd say Belgium always remained his spiritual home. He wasn't really very showbizzy, despite being quite ambitious, and Paris represented "work" for him. Even when he was in the islands, he was still basically singing about Belgium.

Peashooter said...

Thanks for your comment.

Yes, it is very likely that his soul always remained in Belgium, no matter where he lived and worked.
Paris was his home for a long time, and it certainly 'made' him as a singer, songwriter and composer.
Had he stayed in Belgium all those years, he might not have achieved the great success he had.
But I too think that he always was and remained Flemish and Belgian, and his daughter confirmed that as well.

It is difficult, perhaps even impossible, for a Belgian to forget his homeland, especially if it is Vlanderen.
I am only half-Belgian and lived outside the kingdom for more than 2/3 of my life, but I cannot help but carry much of it around with me, where ever I am.
Give me a song by Brel and a bottle of Leffe, Westmalle or - should I be so lucky - Westvleteren, and I am in Belgium, no matter where I am physically at that time. :)

Anonymous said...

And so even with death we shall remember those we have loved and continue in some way or another to touch our lives. Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.

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