Returning to a genre he helped inspire, the French singer serenades the listener with charming bossa nova-inspired chanson
If I were to ask you what is France’s longest land border, what would you answer? Germany, maybe? No, surely it’s Spain, with that long stretch of border along the Pyrenees. Or perhaps it’s Italy, what with all those little curved ridges along its border by the Alps. All of these, however, would be incorrect, as the answer is Brazil. Despite being on a different continent from Metropolitan France, the French overseas department of French Guiana shares a 453-mile-long border with Brazil, and it is very much a part of France in every respect, from electing the president to membership of the European Union. For those of you who are curious, if you said Spain, you weren’t far off – that is France’s longest European border. That said, it is in this lesser-known South American portion of France where we find ourselves today, examining the musical traditions of both France and Brazil through the work of French Guianese musician Henri Salvador. Born into a family of Guadeloupean descent, his family moved to France, and after the Second World War, Salvador became one of France’s most popular recording artists and comedians. His 2000 album, Chambre Avec Vue, proved something of a comeback for the veteran entertainer. After many years of relative obscurity, he was able to relaunch himself back into the French public consciousness with a hit record.
“The music feels both modern and old all at the same time, harking back to the heydays of French chanson and Brazilian bossa nova in a way that feels fresh, coherent and contemporary. ”
Though lesser known in English-speaking countries, Salvador has had a large impact on both the music of France and Brazil. Under his pseudonym Henry Cording and working alongside songwriter Boris Vian, he is considered to be the first French musician to release a rock’n’roll record, kickstarting the yé-yé (that’s French-language beat music to me and you) craze of the 1950s and 1960s. On the other side of the Atlantic, in 2005, Salvador was awarded the Grand Cross of the Brazilian Order of Cultural Merit, not just because of his immense body of work, but also because of his crucial role in inspiring bossa nova. His 1957 song Dans Mon Île is credited with inspiring Antônio Carlos Jobim with the formulations of bossa nova’s distinctive rhythm. Salvador had a truly unique impact on music, and Chambre Avec Vue allows us some insight into what a talented performer he was.
On Chambre Avec Vue, Salvador performs in a style that can only be described as chanson bossa nova. The instrumental arrangements, from the guitar to the drums, are extremely Brazilian, while his singing style is akin to the chanson greats of the 1960s and 1970s. Largely a collection of romantic songs, Chambre Avec Vue featured both classic chanson tunes reworked into his style, as well as newer songs written for his style. The most notable of these is the opening track, Jardin D’Hiver, which was written by the producers of the album, Keren Ann and Benjamin Biolay. Alongside the title track they are perhaps the most purely bossa nova songs of the album. If the lyrics weren’t in French, you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a song by a Brazilian singer, with the guitar track being something that wouldn’t be out of place on a Caetano Veloso record. The song itself has lyrics that seem pertinent to Salvador’s own life. In 2000 he was already 82, and though the song is ostensibly on one level a love song, he sings of both his nostalgic desire for the past, exemplified by his wish for “some Fred Astaire”, and also of his desire to continue, despite feeling the “November rain” (not that one). In some ways, this is an album of a man who is both looking forward, and looking back.
There are also two lovely collaborations on this album. Belgian harmonica maestro Toots Thielemans pops up on the track Un Tour De Manège, a jazzy tune with a beautiful harmonica solo. It can be hard to wring real emotion out of a harmonica, but Thielemans manages it, creating a bittersweet and melancholy melody out of the most cheerful of instruments. He also duets with iconic French chanteuse Françoise Hardy on Le Fou De La Reine, a song which once again evokes a wistful nostalgia. That beautifully bittersweet feel is one that defines the album. Salvador is on top form throughout, with his characterful voice carrying the listener from track to track, and the music feels both modern and old all at the same time, harking back to the heydays of French chanson and Brazilian bossa nova in a way that feels fresh, coherent and contemporary. As such it acts as a fitting swan song to a fascinating and varied career.