I am not sure where my love of France and all things French stems from. Possibly from having French forebears on both sides. But I do know that when, aged seventeen, I heard David Frost’s choice of Edith Piaf’s Non, Je ne Regrette Rien on Desert Island Discs, I was electrified, and embarked on a love affair with that country — and particularly its popular music, known as the chanson — which continues to this day.
What I did not know then was that 20 years later I would end up marrying the man who produced that compilation for EMI, the record collector and French specialist Ralph Harvey, and that together we would embark on an extraordinary collaboration involving several high profile television programmes and a series of record and CD albums for which Ralph produced the sleeve-notes and I was privileged to prepare the artwork.
In 2012 Ralph had a stroke which effectively ended our collaboration. Could I carry on? I decided to take a solo trip to Paris (weeping as I boarded the Eurostar). The result was an extraordinary series of encounters which led to annual trips to ‘the city of lights’ and, eventually, the emergence of the subject of this blog – Chanson and Immigration in France. Sadly, I lost Ralph in April 2014, but his legacy lives on: an incalculable treasure trove of knowledge about French chanson.
WHAT IS CHANSON?
Asked to define the essence of chanson, Charles Aznavour replied, “Lyrics”. Like poetry, with which it has often been compared, but unlike Anglo-American influenced international popular music, it concentrates on the whole spectrum of the human condition: the moral dilemmas, tragic situations and moments of euphoria peculiar to the artist and his or her times. The text itself may be outstanding, as in the case of Georges Brassens, or, at least on paper, relatively trite, as with Barbara. It is the power of the performance that counts. According to Juliette Greco, “une chanson est une toute petite piece de theatre”; (‘a chanson is a tiny play’). The supreme example of this is of course Piaf.
CHANSON AND IMMIGRATION
Many French singing stars (Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Yves Montand) have been of immigrant extraction but the major change came about from the 1960’s onward when, in the wake of the Algerian war, people from France’s North African ex-colonies swarmed to her major cities in search of employment. Some sang wistfully of their Algerian homeland. Others expressed social grievances (unemployment, racial prejudice) through their music, drawing on chanson – that uniquely French tradition showcasing personal, political and philosophical issues which stretches back to the Troubadours. Yet others managed to blend their own Arab musical traditions with the classic French repertoire; and finally, an enormous proportion of musicians from immigrant communities passionately embraced rap: that quintessial art form borrowed from Black American hip-hop.
Hence, the subject of ‘chanson and immigration’ takes in a huge range of musical expression. From Brassens to Booba; from the poetic to the provocative; from rap to rock, and everything in between. In this blog I will visit all these sections; in no particular order, except as they grab my attention – and hopefully, yours.