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Jacques Romain Georges Brel (Schaerbeek, Belgium, April 8, 1929 – Bobigny, France, October 9, 1978), artistically known as Jacques Brel , was a French-speaking Belgian singer-songwriter, actor and filmmaker. His songs are recognized for the poetry and honesty of his lyrics. Perhaps his most international song is Ne me quitte pas (1959), which has been widely translated into several languages and performed by many singers. It turns out to be one of the most outstanding exponents of the Chanson Française. Many of his songs have been performed by other French-speaking singers.
Brel was born in Schaerbeek, Belgium, a town hall north of Brussels, he lived part of his artistic life in Paris and his last years in the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia. He died in Paris. His remains are found in the Marquesas Islands, next to those of Paul Gauguin.
On June 1, 1950, he married Thérèse Michielsen (Miche). On December 6, 1951, her first daughter, Chantal, and later France, were born on July 12, 1953. Finally, Isabelle was born in August 1958, to whom her father dedicated the song of the same name.
From 1952, he began to compose his first songs that he sang in family gatherings and in many Brussels cabarets. It showed the lyrical power that characterizes him, both in the lyrics and in the interpretation, although his family did not encourage him to continue.
He persevered in his endeavor and in 1953 published his first 78 rpm. Immediately, he left alone from the Belgian capital to Paris, where he devoted himself to writing music and songs in the cabarets and music halls. He also devoted himself to giving guitar lessons to make a living. On stage he interpreted his songs with great gestures. After enjoying relative success, his wife and daughters moved with him from Belgium. In 1956 he was already touring Europe and recorded the song Quand on n’a que l’amour which was his first great success. He appeared on a show with Maurice Chevalier and Michel Legrand. In 1957 he recorded his second 33 rpm, receiving the Grand Prix de l’Académie Charles Cros and the following year he finally got acclaimed at Olympia. As of this moment, the tours were unstoppable, giving more concerts than there are days in the year.
His themes are extremely varied, exploring love (Je t’aime, Litanies pour un retour, Dulcinéa), society (Les singes, Les bourgeois, Jaurès) and spiritual concerns (Le bon Dieu, Dites, si c ‘ était vrai, Fernand). His work is not limited to one style: he was so good at the most comic compositions (Les bonbons, Le lion, Comment en l’amant de sa femme …) as in the dramatic ones (Voir un ami pleurer, Fils de .. ., Jojo).
Brel’s sagacity made him an innovative and creative painter of daily life, with a rare poetic ease. His intelligent use of words was surprising and simple, using a very visual and evocative vocabulary.
Brel also had a facility for metaphors, as in Je suis un soir d’été, where the narrator is a summer night that tells what he observes as he falls on the city. Although he is considered a master of the lyrics, the musical part of his compositions is also of first quality and are not limited to one style. He composed so many lively melodies full of rhythm (L’aventure, Rosa, Au printemps) and solemn and sad songs (J’en appelle, Pourquoi faut-il that les hommes s’ennuient?).
Brel’s romantic lyrics sometimes revealed a certain amount of darkness and bitter irony. At times, their tender love songs show flashes of resentment and frustration scarcely suppressed. His accurate portrayals of the so-called society waste, alcoholics, vagrants, drug addicts and prostitutes described in Jef and Jacki, avoided easy sentimentality; I was not afraid to portray the unpleasant part of his lifestyle.
He composed and recorded his songs almost exclusively in French. It is widely recognized in French-speaking countries as one of the best French composers of all time. It only occasionally included parts in Dutch, such as Marieke, and also recorded Dutch versions of some songs such as Le Plat Pays, Ne me quitte pas and Les bourgeois. As his command of this language was scarce, the translation was done by Ernst van Altena, renowned translator of French songs.
His attitude towards flamencos seems contradictory: he sometimes declared himself flamenco and presented himself as a singer from Flanders, but he also parodied the flamenco folk life with the comic song Les Flamandes. Later he directed his fury against the flamingants, the supporters of the flamenco movement. In La, la, la (1967) sings “Vive les Belgiens, merde pour les flamingants” (“Long live the Belgians, shit for the flamingants”). In Les F … (1977) Brel describes the flamingants as “Nazis durant les guerres et catholiques entre elles” (“Nazis during the wars and Catholics among them”). Apparently, for Brel all the flamingants were right-wing extremists.
Although France was the “spiritual nation” of Brel and made contradictory claims about his native Belgium, many minimize the importance of these facts since many of his best compositions pay tribute to Belgium, such as Le plat pays or Il neige sur Liège.
In 1966 he decided to abandon the song. On May 16, 1967 he gave his last recital in Roubaix, a city in northern France, bordering the Belgian border. But this fact did not mean Brel’s inactivity. Already in the same summer of 1967 he acted in his first feature film, Les Risques du métier by the director André Cayatte. Later, he achieved fame as an actor playing Claude Jade’s opponent in the film Mon oncle Benjamin. He acted in the musical L’homme de la Mancha (The Man of La Mancha), which he also directed. He participated in other films, although his cinematographic performances are not of the same caliber as the musical ones. For more than 20 years he was a big star, gaining recognition beyond the French audiences.
Tomb of J. Brel.
In 1973 he abandoned everything and retired to the Marquesas Islands, in French Polynesia, where he would sail on his Askoy sailboat and pilot a twin-engine plane that he would use as a taxi-plane to help the inhabitants of the islands. He remained there until 1977, when he returned to Paris and recorded his very well received last album, in very difficult health conditions. The song Les Marquises that closes the album could only be recorded once. At the end of the recording, he returned to Polynesia.
Brel died of lung cancer in Paris in October 1978 and was buried in Atuona, Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands, in French Polynesia, a few meters from the tomb of the painter Paul Gauguin.
In December 2005, the public of the RTBF (Belgian French-speaking public radio) chose him as the most important Belgian of all time.
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