When the world all around you seems to be in turmoil, the music of Jacques Brel is somehow comforting. The tumbling lyrics of his songs remind you that life always has been and always will be a tussle, a drama, a disappointment, a riot. And that if it isn’t, you’re short-changing yourself emotionally. By LESLEY STONES.
Bonjour Monsieur Brel is a fine show spanning a collection of the Belgian musician’s work in English, French, Dutch and Afrikaans. They’re brought to rip-roaring life by Jannie du Toit, who has translated many of the songs himself and performs them with the spitting, striding intensity that the man himself would approve of. These are big, sweeping, theatrical lyrics that weave grimy stories of characters and spill out the deepest, darkest emotions, and need strutting and acting out, not merely singing.
Du Toit is superb, with the gravitas and vocal power to do the songs justice.
He slides into the character as he reads through some of Brel’s prose or segments from press interviews, clinking a wine glass and looking suitably hangdog, or hung over, as he implores the barman for one more drink or begs his lover not to leave him.
Ne Me Quitte Pas is recognisable as the tune that became the prettied-up and emotionally filleted Seasons in the Sun, while this original carries a desperately bleak foreboding.
The music is provided brilliantly by Susan Mouton on the cello and piano and Chanie Jonker on piano and accordion. A young woman playing the accordion is a rare thing indeed, and she swirls the notes to recreate the backstreets of Paris or the flurry of snowflakes for Il Neige Sur Liege.
The cello must be the saddest instrument in the world, and its melancholy moan makes the perfect accompaniment to Brel’s deep and intense creations. La Tendresse is a beautifully moving song about the search for tenderness, sought out by sailors with the whores and any other human whose loneliness could be relieved by some tender loving contact.
Many of the songs are in their original French, and it’s a great opportunity to mentally practice your languages and see how much of the meaning you can comprehend. At other times my brain was drifting away on the unfamiliar words of Dutch or Afrikaans, the gist of the lyrics taking me into poignant memories of my own. That’s the power of perfect music.
In a time of throwaway pop and shallow lyrics, Brel is a genuine case of “they don’t write songs like this any more”. This is like reading the man’s diary, or directly touching his battered, expansive and well-used heart.
It makes you want to go out and fall in love again, knowing you’ll get hurt again and still be willing to risk it, because the hurt and the happiness will at least prove you’re alive. DM
Bonjour Monsieur Brel runs at Sandton’s Auto & General Theatre on the Square until 16 July. Book on 011 883 8606 or with www.computicket.com.