Wednesday, 9 July 2008

A few people I won’t be slapping

Brian of BRIAN SIBLEY: the blog tagged me the other day. Sorry for the delay in responding to the challenge.

The brief was: List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they’re not any good, but they must be songs you’re really enjoying now. I can’t really do the ‘enjoying now’ thing because I don’t listen to music all the time: I can’t work with it, although I can perfectly well with the radio or television on. Furthermore, I’m not that au fait with what’s currently ‘in’ (I hear songs that are in the charts in shops or cafés, nowhere else), so I can only talk about singers and songs I’ve always loved.

Thanks to all those nice people who upload videos on YouTube, I am able not only to tell you about my favourite singers, but to let you hear them too. I am a YouTube fan, just like Norman Lebrecht, who enthused about it recently in the Evening Standard. Funnily enough, he singled out the singer whom I listened to most when I was a teenager (at the same time, I was learning English with Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack). Her name was Barbara. All her life, she was a huge star in France. She died in 1997. I remember seeing her for the first time on television in 1959. I was 11 years old and she frightened me a little bit: she was dressed all in black and looked like a bird of prey. She was an auteur-compositeur in the tradition of Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel. I saw her on stage several times in Paris in the ’60s; she had an amazing, if slightly affected, presence.

Serge Reggiani is mostly known abroad as an actor (he played opposite Simone Signoret in the wonderful Casque d’Or), but in the late ’60s he started singing. His parents were Italian so he had a head start. He was fantastic.

I am a fan of so-called World Music, or, as my partner’s mother says, ‘songs in languages no one understands’. That’s true. It comes from not really listening to the lyrics and not being able to remember them at all. I could never quote a verse from a Beatles song, for instance, to illustrate a point. Still, as you can see, not all my favourite songs are in foreign languages (obviously, French isn’t a foreign language to me, LOL!).

I couldn’t find any of the tracks from my favourite album of Joan Baez on YouTube, but here’s a lovely old ballad in a recent interpretation. Her voice is as limpid as ever (and she looks as gorgeous as ever too).

I love folk music. So there. My favourite English folk singer is John Tams. I heard him for the first time in the National Theatre’s production of The Mysteries , back in the ’80s. He was extraordinary. I was very chuffed last year when I had to translate the script of a BBC programme entitled The Song of Steel, whose music and songs had been written by John Tams. You can't hear that fascinating programme any longer, unfortunately, but some of the songs are still here: The Song of Steel

But if you don’t know what John Tams looks like, here he is (he is the walrus on the right). Oh, one more thing: he always makes me cry (just like Anthony Hopkins).

The singers that follow express themselves in languages I don’t understand (and you may not either), but they never cease to charm me.

Lhasa de Sela (she’s Mexican): I heard her for the first time on France-Inter, some years ago. The song was ‘Los Peces’. I missed her name when they broadcast it and spent the following week ensconced in the Nice FNAC, listening to masses of CDs and trying to describe to the sales assistants what the song sounded like. Finally, on the eve of my departure, a clever young man persuaded me to listen to just one more CD and there it was – no.6 on the album entitled ‘La Llorona’. Here Lhasa sings another track from that album (there is no YouTube video of her singing ‘Los Peces’, unfortunately).

I will never forgive myself for missing her concert at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire – only a few hundred yards from where I live.

Paolo Conte: a long time ago, one of my partner’s colleagues, who is Italian, made us a CD of one of his albums. We subsequently heard him live at the Barbican. He was wonderful, of course.

Esther Ofarim: there is no purer voice. Here she sings – with her then husband Abi – a song written by my ‘famous uncle’ (as opposed to the ones who were not celebrated writers). The song is so well known that most Jewish people think it’s ‘traditional’.

Another Israeli singer, but one who, unlike Esther Ofarim, never got a worldwide audience, even though he deserved it (perhaps he wasn’t cute enough) – Arik Einstein. I first heard him in Israel, in 1977. He was a big star there at the time. He probably still is. (The sound on this clip is quite faint: you’ll have to turn up the volume.)

I know I’ve already gone beyond my brief and mentioned eight singers, instead of seven, but I want to talk about one more: Petru Guelfucci. I discovered him somewhat like Lhasa, during a short stay in Nice, about ten years ago. The night before I left to return to London, I saw a documentary about the marvellous ballerina Marie-Claude Pietragalla. They showed an excerpt from her ballet ‘Corsica’ and I became haunted by the music and the voice (I especially love the polyphonic choral bit). It took me several months to find out what it was. This is the song I couldn’t get out of my head. Pity Petru Guelfucci can’t actually be seen singing on this clip.

The one singer that is missing from the list is, of course, Leonard Cohen, but I have mentioned him often on this blog so you all know I adore him. I don’t like to wish my life away, but right now I can’t wait for next Thursday to come.

I am supposed to tag seven more people, but, just like Brian, I’m finding it difficult because I don’t read that many blogs these days, so if you’d like to tag yourself, please feel free to do so – on your blog or here.

Addendum: I have to add two more singers (because they belong together and with the others). Milva. I saw her in Paris in the mid-’70s in a show entitled Io, Bertolt Brecht devised by the great Italian theatre director Giorgio Strehler. She was unbelievable. But I only like her when she sings Brecht and Kurt Weill. And while I’m talking about those two, I can’t possibly omit Lotte Lenya (Weill’s wife), who obviously knew better than anyone how to perform their songs. Here are Milva and Lotte Lenya singing the same repertoire – the former in Italian (the clip is from the above-mentioned show), the latter in German. I can’t choose between the two.


  1. A wonderful selection! Beautiful voices and songs! Thank you. Much better than my choices! John Tams' music is wonderful - I too saw The Mysteries and bought the LP though, at the time, I couldn't really afford it! Sadly the links on the BBC web-pages relating to The Song of Steel no longer connect.

    But thank you also for Barbara, Petru Guelfucci and the rest... And lucky you to be seeing Leonard Cohen! Enjoy!

  2. Thanks very much, Brian. I enjoyed your choices too - much more 'fun' than mine. :-)

    I should have checked the link to The Song of Steel. It's a shame, but you can still hear the songs. I've put up the link to them.

  3. What fun, thanks! And you are going to post after you see Leonard Cohen, I hope!

  4. Thank you for the clips - isn't YouTube wonderful?! Who'd ever think you could see 1970s TV programmes, even little bits of them. Some of these people were only voices to me before.

    Based on these two clips alone I would say I prefer the Lotte Lenya. But Milva has a more operatic sound. Just like with productions of Shakespeare, there's room for more than one interpretation, isn't there?

  5. Wow! Wonderful job you've done here. I love it.

    I also like Joan Baez very much. I enjoyed all the videos that you linked. Thanks.


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