A century on, French singer and anarchist Georges Brassens still hits the right note

This story first featured in the Spotlight on France podcast: listen here

With his pipe, polo-necked sweater, moustache and cat on lap, the image of Brassens is more cudly uncle than new-man.

As Joann Sfar, curator of a major Brassens exhibition in 2011, has pointed out, “most of his songs are about naked women, death and cats”.

Brassens At the Beach

The hit song “Brave Margot” featured two of those favourite themes, with Margot drawing in big crowds by removing her bodice to breast-feed her pet.

Brassens excelled at taking aspects of ordinary French life – women, sex, death, religion, the military, migration … and, yes, cats … and transforming them into theatre through an unsurpassed use of wordplay.

He’s been described as a French Woodie Guthrie – a working class singer and guitarist who shunned stardom. He was also a self-proclaimed anarchist with a distate for the military and the clergy.

Brassens plays for a homeless man in Paris
Brassens plays for a homeless man in Paris Robert Doisneau

Bad reputation

He wrote 150 songs in his 40-year career.

Les copains d’abord, about friends playing with boats on a lake, L’Auvergnat, about the importance of generosity, and Quand on est con, are classics and feature in many a French family reunion or office party.

Some of his songs offended established values in early fifties France. Le Gorille – a song against the death penalty involving a rampaging gorilla desperate to lose its virginity and who “takes” the judge in the end, was banned on its release in 1952.

Mauvaise Reputation (Bad reputation), in which he defends individual liberties – including the freedom to desert the army, which he himself did in 1944 – was also deemed unfit for the public.

Out of time

Part of Brassens’ staying power resides in the timelessness of his songs, something he worked hard to achieve.

“I can’t use the word ‘automobile’ in my songs,” he told French public radio in 1970, “it will fix the song in a certain period.”

His superficially-simple refrains, accompanied by guitar, turn out to be very complex. But that hasn’t put off hordes of non-French speakers from taking up the challenge.

“Brassens has been translated into 82 languages and dialects, it’s enormous,” Bernard Lonjon, author of several books on Brassens told RFI.

He’s the most re-recorded French artist in the world.

Hesitant stage debut

Brassens’ entry into the pantheon of the French chanson got off to a sweaty start.

As a teenager he fled to Paris from his home town of Sète on the Mediterranean coast after a conviction for petty theft.

He first lodged with his aunt and then lived for many years in a house without electricity or indoor plumbing with a couple of friends –  Marcel and Jeanne – as a threesome. Continue reading “A century on, French singer and anarchist Georges Brassens still hits the right note”


Jeanne Cherhal

French pop star Jain’s ode to Abu Dhabi: ‘The song is my homage to the city’ 

For Sinatra it was New York. But the city that inspired Jain to sing is Abu Dhabi. The French pop sensation tells us about her memories of life in the Emirates

Sometimes a city gets under the skin.

So it was for Jeanne Galice, a French teenager in her final year of high school at the Abu Dhabi Lycee. Eight years on, Jeanne is Jain, an exciting young talent demonstrating that French pop and rock can travel after all.

And in the most striking song of the follow-up to a successful debut album, Jain pays tribute to a city that gave her both pleasure and inspiration.

She already knew Dubai from her childhood. But Abu Dhabi left a special mark on a girl already convinced, for all her sensible plans to study art, that her future lay in music.

‘A real cultural shock’

From the opening sequence of elegant, lilting Arabian strings, Abu Dhabi is a compelling piece of music dedicated to an influential period of Jain’s life.

It is not the first song to have been named after the capital. But while a 1979 offering from the New Zealand band Split Enz is rightly forgotten, Jain’s will be remembered. The opening verse sets the scene: Pushing the limits of music from the inside / Your Arabic sound is driving my mind / The first time I walked down into your town / A new kind of music had blessed my soul.

“Going to the UAE for the first time was a real cultural shock,” Jain, 26, tells The National from Paris, her home since returning to France. “Everything was different. People didn’t speak my language, it was all new, a huge change. But I loved it. I was young. It was about fun. Then we moved to Abu Dhabi after living in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I knew it would be the last time I’d be living outside France so I wanted to enjoy it the best I could,” she says. “The song is my homage to the city.”

Popular music history is dotted with classics extolling the virtues of big cities. Tony Bennett crooned about the “loveliness of Paris” and the historic glories of Rome before pledging his heart to San Francisco. For Frank Sinatra, it was New York or Chicago. Others have sung in praise of Copenhagen, London and Rio de Janeiro. With the West a popular geographical setting, could Jain’s song redress the balance by putting Abu Dhabi on the international musical map? It deserves to.

Two extremities

Her second album, Souldier, released on August 24, is the much-anticipated sequel to a superb 2015 debut, Zanaka, meaning “child” in Malagasy, the language of her maternal grandmother.

Packed with mesmerising rhythms, inventive melodies and gentle rap, the album sold heavily in France and won a clutch of awards. Matching its standard was a tall order, but Souldier rises to the challenge. Fans will not only love the enchanting song about Abu Dhabi, but the other compelling tracks, too.

Jain was born in the south western French city of Toulouse. Music was important in her household. The youngest of three sisters, she grew up to the sounds of The Beatles, Otis Redding and – most enduringly – the South African singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba, eulogised in a stand-out song on Zanaka.

Her father worked in the oil industry and she was nine when he took the family to Dubai. After four years came an eye-opening change – a move to the Congo. Jain was spellbound by the contrast. “Two extremities – Dubai, so rich with lots of business, the Congo so poor – and there seemed nothing in common. But it helped me broaden myself, to learn different values. I could not have asked for a better childhood.”

Indeed, Jain’s serious musical interest dates from her time in Africa. Adolescent insecurity played its part. “Outside of France, knowing I was French but not really feeling French, it was sometimes difficult. Music was my refuge and I stopped asking myself these questions when I started writing songs.”

In Dubai, she had tried – not without a struggle – to learn basic Arabic. She found it easier to master Arabian percussion techniques. In the Congo, she found she could write her own songs; Come, another hit from Zanaka, was composed there when she was 16. Surfing the internet, she stumbled on a reference to Jainism, the ancient Indian religion. It gave her a professional identity and an adopted principle: “don’t be sad to lose; don’t be proud to win.”

Expressing herself musically

Following up an outstanding debut album is notoriously tricky. But Jain has made good choices. Alright initially seems an unremarkable dance tune, but is lifted by bursts of her trademark rap. The title track is instantly likeable; others grow on the ear.

Jain drew on oriental and African influences and says she is both proud of the album and encouraged by the audience’s responses to the new work. There is also the chance of a breakthrough in the English-speaking markets that her music, in part, is clearly aimed at. But Jain remains resolutely French, despite – so far – singing exclusively in English. “I am French,” she says. “I was born here, I live here and France is my cultural identity. I sing in English because it is the language of pop and rock. Friends who speak English but not French can understand and it is how I express myself musically.”

Hers is a distinctive voice. Some listeners detect French, African and American English intonations. “There is no accent,” she protests. “It’s just me.”

Making music to make people happy

And no one, she says, should read too much into the album’s title. Souldier is an obsolete form for soldier but reflects no high-minded combat.

“When I started making music, I wanted to enjoy it and make others enjoy it,” she says. “But it’s just music. I am not saving the world.

“I’m not trying to create utopia, just a place where anyone can feel special. The last few years have been so sad around the world and I just want to make music to make people feel happy.”

In Abu Dhabi’s pulsating refrain, Jain sings “move back there, so I could move on”, evoking the musical and educational significance of that part of her life.

The magnet has not lost its power. “Abu Dhabi was a great experience,” she says. “I loved the Corniche, watching the sun go down on the ocean. I really want to go back.”

Souldier by Jain is out on Friday


Source: French pop star Jain’s ode to Abu Dhabi: ‘The song is my homage to the city’ – The National