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Europe: French Singer's Death May End Cabaret Tradition

  • Joel Blocker



Prague, 26 November 1997 (RFE/RL) - The death yesterday in Paris of the popular singer-composer who called herself "Barbara" may spell the end of the singularly French tradition of "chansonniers" --literally, cabaret singers-- that had its fullest flowering in the 40 years after World War II.

Many have long believed that, with her gift for true pathos and throaty but full-ranged soprano voice, Barbara was the tradition's finest flower.

An honored national institution in her last years, Barbara was hailed yesterday by conservative President Jacques Chirac --who was a personal friend-- as "a great lady for all those who loved her, and they belong to all generations." Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin called her "a very great talent...a complex personality who had a sense of suffering and was sensitive to the suffering of others." Culture Minister Catherine Trautmann described Barbara as a "unique voice (and) mysterious presence who knew how to bring herself close to those who listened to her and became friends for the length of a song, and often for much longer." All will mourn her, as will the thousands likely to attend her funeral outside of Paris tomorrow (Nov. 27) and tens of thousands of other Francophones who will be there in spirit.

Born Monique Sers 67 years ago, Barbara studied classical piano and voice at the conservatory in her native Paris, but early on decided to pursue a career on the cabaret stage. Her first appearance, in 1950, was in a tiny club in Brussels, where she made herself known for poignant interpretations of emotion-laden ballads by her great chansonnier predecessors: Georges Brassens, Leo Ferre and Jacques Brel, all singer-poets for whom words counted at least much as music --and all now dead as well.

She was soon booked into Paris' "l'Ecluse" (literally, the lock), a 60-seat theater that launched some of France's finest postwar talent. There, she began singing her own songs --of loneliness, unrequited love, even guilt, but also of "joie de vivre" and biting irony.

One of them, "Goettingen" (the German university town), a tribute to German friends, probably did more to cement Franco-German rapprochement than the combined efforts of Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer. Another, "Le Mal de Vivre" (roughly, the pain of living), beginning in depressive melancholy and ending with a triumphant affirmation of the joie de vivre, became her first trademark song and helped make her a household name by the late 1960s. It was at that time that our correspondent first attended one of her Paris concerts at the Left-bank Bobino music-hall (which has since become a stage theater). Here are his recollections:

"For me, as for many others --male and female alike-- it was love at first sight, "Le coup de foudre" (literally, the bolt of lightning) in the French expression. I didn't merely hear or see Barbara on stage --I e-x-p-e-r-i-e-n-c-e-d her. I'm still haunted by the memory of her black-robed, long svelte figure, finely chiseled face, short black hair, dark eyes and easy manner that told the audience she was happy to be with old friends again.

Often playing piano for herself and with a minimum of musical back-up, Barbara went through a whole rainbow of emotions during the evening. Her numbers ranged from torch-songs like "La Solitude" and "l'Aigle Noir" (literally The Black Eagle, a transparent portrait of her solitary self), through genuine tear-jerkers like "Nantes" (the rainy eastern city where her father died) to the always last scheduled song, "Ma Plus Belle Histoire d'Amour" (My Most Beautiful Love Affair), which ended with an emphatic gesture to the audience -- C'est Vous! (It's you!"). We all believed it, too, because it was true.

But the program, draining for the audience as well as for her, was not enough for her admirers, who brought her back for some 10 encores. Forty years of her songs were not enough either, for them and for me. Perhaps we can all console ourselves somewhat with the obituary she wrote for herself many years ago, "Le Jour de Mon Interment" (My Burial Day), a merry ditty with bittersweet overtones. I hope they'll play it at her funeral."
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