PAT HARVEY AND HELENE HAZERA
On the evening of Friday, November 13th ,2015, France’s capital city suffered a blow from which some say she will never recover. Unlike the events of January in the same year, when the satirical cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo were, presumably, punished for desecrating what they saw as dehumanising religious beliefs, this carefully-planned and executed extermination took as its target innocent pleasure-seekers in cafes, bars, a football stadium and, notoriously, the Bataclan concert hall, killing 130 and maiming immeasurably more. The world held its breath.
As the writer of a blog with the title Chanson and Immigration in France, it might be imagined that I felt the need for considerable pause for thought. Some, it must be said, had even warned me of the danger of such an undertaking. Most regarded it as an interesting and unusual exercise – if somewhat “niche”!
All that changed with the events of November 13th. I felt I needed to make a statement; or at least comment on the situation. How I wish I could have consulted my husband Ralph! With all his years of experience as a defender of la chanson francaise, what would he have said? I felt very alone.
Then an idea struck me. Helene Hazera, ex-columnist for Liberation and long-time presenter of Chanson Boum! on France Culture – and in fact my ispiration for this blog – was the go-to person. Should I continue with the blog? What should be my ‘take’ on the recent atrocities?
It is Helene who suggested, not only that I continue – “Il faut pas leur donner raison” – “You can’t let them win”, but that I begin with a selection of songs about Paris – a ‘florilege’ of tributes to the city I love. These, you will note, include, not only the acknowledged classics of the genre, but the contribution of a new generation – many of them of immigrant extraction. Faced with the challenges of discontent, unemployment and possible radicalisation, they have chosen another path: a new, compound identity which both embraces and challenges the great French tradition. It is a brand new combination which recalls the indelible mark left by another, older immigrant community: that of the influx of Auvergnats and Italians to Paris in the 1900’s – bringing with them the priceless duo of bagpipes (often called ‘musette’) and accordion – the sound of which, as even the dullest Radio 4 listener knows, is now synonymous with one thing: ‘Paris’.
Francis Lemarque (1917-2002) was the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who grew up in the working-class area of Bastille. Influenced by the yiddish refrains passed on to him by his mother, he became known as the creator of one of the best-known songs about Paris, A Paris (also recorded by Yves Montand).
Charles Trenet (1913-2001). In a sixty-year career, ‘Le Fou Chantant’ (the singing madman), with his consummate mastery of singing, writing and composition, became one of the most towering landmarks of French chanson.
Catherine Sauvage (1929-1998) started out as an actress but swapped the Right Bank for the Left and the cabarets of Saint-Germain-des-Pres where she met Leo Ferre, the anarchist singer-poet who entrusted many of his songs to her before actually recording them himself. Paris Canaille is the embodiment of la gouaille – Paris’s cocky humour.
Serge Reggiani (1922-2004) The child of Italian parents who fled fascist Italy when he was eight, like Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens and Edith Piaf before him, Reggiani was pushed to prominence by the great promoter Jacques Canetti. A dedicated and successful actor, he entered the world of chanson reluctantly, but his stage presence soon led to a double career.
Lys Gauty (1908-1994) was the daughter of a garage owner who eventually topped the bill at the newly-opened A.B.C. music-hall in 1935. A ‘chanteuse de charme’, she was known for her huge blue eyes and an emotional delivery which sounded as if she was crying. A Paris Dans Chaque Faubourg (In every Paris suburb) is one of the cornerstones of the French repertoire.
Maurice Chevalier (1888-1972) hardly needs a note written about him. About the only household-name French singer in the UK apart from Edith Piaf, from his origins in early music-hall he became one of the few genuinely transatlantic French performers, known for his (slightly caricatured) portrayal of the boulevardier (Parisian man-about-town).
Josephine Baker (1906-1975) In 1925 at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees Josephine Baker became the first Black American performer to sing and dance in Paris. In La Revue Negre her erotic dances and unusual costume (nude save for the famous banana skirt) caused a scandal; but she morphed into one of Frances most celebrated stars.
Edith Piaf (1915-1963) Little can be said of the person who, for most foreigners, and many French people, remains the embodiment of la chanson francaise.
Charles Aznavour (1924- ) Now 91, the first subject of this blog, Varenagh Aznavourian (to give him his Armenian name) appeared on November 3rd this year at the Royal Albert Hall. His vigour undiminished, he skipped around the stage like a teenager, entertained an adoring audience with jokes about ageing, and recycled deathless hits like La Boheme.
Renaud (1952- ) Little-known outside France, Renaud (Renaud Sehan), ‘le loubard au coeur tendre’ (the yob with the kind heart), was born to a working-class mother and a father who was a professor of German and raised in the 14th arrondissement. Unruly and rebellious, he conceived a passion for Georges Brassens, whose songs he studied assiduously (later unveiling a plaque to the singer at his home in the Impasse Florimont). Standing firmly in the Aristide Bruant tradition of ‘epater la bourgeoisie’ (shock the middle class), he developed a superlative writing style and spawned a series of hits, even contributing to the newly-published Charlie Hebdo.
Lili l’abassi (1897-1969) ‘The genius of Chaabi’. Chaabi music was born when, in 1492, Muslims and Sephardic Jews were expelled from Northern Spain (Andalusia) and took up residence in North Africa. Dealing with everything from religion and love to tea and coffee, it has sometimes been described as ‘the blues of the casbah’. Lili L’Abassi was a Jewish master of Algerian music, and here offers a hymn to Paris.
NTM An acronym for ‘Nique ta mere’ (which decency forbids me to translate here), NTM (actually Joey Star and Kool Shen) were part of the first wave of French hip hop, embodying the most aggressive wing of that movement. In 1990 their first album, supported by massive promotion and graffiti in the metro, achieved sales of 50,000, triggering huge success and a platinum disc.
Taxi Girls were a French ‘new wave’ New Romantic band, whose synthesizer-led songs took influence from mythology and literature. They existed from 1978-1986.
Oxmo Puccino (1974- ) (Abdoulaye Diarra) is a French hip hop musician born in Segou, Mali. He came to Paris one year later and lived in the 19th arrondissement from the age of 5. Age 21 he joined a rap collective, honing his style and developing into an outstanding lyricist, crafting violent but poetic portraits of urban Paris life and drawing on street-smart American hip-hop.
Teki Latex (1978- ) (Julien Pradeyrol) is a Paris-based dance, electronica and hip hop artist of Italian descent.
Camille (1978-) (Camille Dalmais) is a French singer, writer and dancer.
Copyright November 2015 Pat Harvey