Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A Musical Interlude -The Brilliant Brel



If you have never heard the wonderful voice of Jacques Brel then you simply have not lived.  I say this with complete conviction.  As I type these words I am listening to his wonderfully intense voice.  His is a voice that has a unique quality or timbre like an old French cognac tinged with cigar smoke.  His voice has an intensity that can move us, and certainly this present writer, to great depths of emotion.  Indeed, if I may indulge myself in a little ecstatic praise and an unaccustomed verbosity, I can say that his powerful voice shakes me to the foundations of my being.  Exaggeration surely, I hear you ask.  Perhaps.  However, my justification must lie solely in my requesting you to listen to him, or preferable still listen to some of his recordings on YouTube where you will get to taste visually and aurally this very intensity to which I allude.  The following two links will allow you to view and to listen to the wonderfully intense and magically enthusiastic Brel: Clip Brel 1 and Clip Brel 2 .

I have referred to a goodly number of male and female singers in these pages, notably Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. (See my posts on Singers) Both these singers are wonderful poets, lyricists and balladeers.  While they do not express the same depth of intensity as Jacques Brel, I feel they both share with him a vision of human life that embraces humankind in all his highs and lows.  However, I believe that Jacques Brel portrayed a darker vision of humanity than the other two. The quality and style of his lyrics are highly regarded by many leading critics of popular music.  I have heard it said that some Buddhist monks like listening to Leonard Cohen because they see his music as being particularly relaxing and meditative.  I find the same thing with the songs of both Bob Dylan and Jacques Brel.

Jacques Romain Georges Brel (1929 – 1978) was a Belgian French-speaking singer-songwriter who was Flemish through and through.  Unfortunately he was a heavy smoker (which probably added to the timbre of his voice) who died far too young of lung cancer.  He was also a fine actor and a not insignificant film director. He composed and recorded his songs almost exclusively in French, and is widely recognized in French-speaking countries as one of the best French-language composers of all time.  The WIKI states in its excellent article that: "Brel's romantic lyricism sometimes revealed darkness and bitter irony. 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 'Jef', 'La chanson de Jacky' and 'Amsterdam' evaded easy sentimentality, and he was not shy about portraying the unsavoury side of this lifestyle." (See the appropriate article in the WIKI: Brel.

Edith Piaf, another favourite singer of mine shares the same intensity and primal energy as does Brel and "le Petit Oiseau" was to say this of Brel's singing prowess: "He goes to the limit of his strength because, through his singing, he expresses his reason for living and each line hits you in the face and leaves you dazed."  I have many favourite Brel songs, most notably the wonderfully lyrical Quand on n'a que l'amour through which he first became famous in France in 1956/1957.  This is a wonderful song to which you simply must listen.  The magic of both the lyrics and the music and the sheer beauty of the french all conspire to moving the listener to the depths of his/her being.  I'll quote three unsequential verses in the original French and offer a poor translation of each:

Quand on n'a que l'amour

A offrir en prière

Pour les maux de la terre

En simple troubadour



When one has only love

To offer in prayer

For those of the world who suffer

As a simple troubadour (singer).


Quand on n'a que l'amour

Pour tracer un chemin

Et forcer le destin

A chaque carrefour



When one only has love

To follow the road

And force one's destiny

At every crossroad


Alors sans avoir rien

Que la force d'aimer

Nous aurons dans nos mains,

Amis le monde entier



So, without having anything at all

But the force of love

We will have in our hands,

My friends, the whole world.





After a while you will find yourself singing along with Brel's wonderfully expressive and beautiful French. There are other wonderful verses, but I feel it would be excessive of me to put them here and attempt my poor translation. Other favourite songs are Amsterdam, Ne Me Quitte Pas, Mathilde, Les Vieux Amants, Isabelle, La Valse a Mille Temps and, of course, the wonderfully expressive Je t'aime.

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