Bernard Lavilliers

Now here’s a man that walked the walk and talked the talk. Today’s track of the day, the unique groove of “San Salvador” by Bernard Lavilliers introduces us to the sound of the Southern hemisphere via the offbeat French pop we all might not know nor love. There’s something about Bernard that informed the sound he reaches in the track. Ever the traveler, wherever he went he’d absorb the sights and sounds of the culture then mix it into his own musical style. Largely influenced by Leo Ferre, he knew the importance that well thought out and dramatic music could play in setting some kind of mood.

“San Salvador” from 1975’s Le Stephanois presents the type of music Bernard became well known for in Francophone countries. The song itself recounts his travels as a young man in San Salvador, Brazil. As a young man, he never lived the life of luxury other kids did, he was born with a pulmonary disease. This disease forced his family of meager means to sell their country home and live in the housing projects of St. Etienne to pay for his medical bills. In the ghetto, he was a tough child to raise, going in and out of high schools or running into trouble with the law forcing his parents to pick him up from youth detention centers.

The only things giving him comfort at that age was his boxing training and his love of music. Those loves had to constantly be set aside because he had to earn a living, either working odds jobs as a day laborer or machinist. It was during this bleak period that he wrote his first songs and performed his first gigs. Something had to give, and he realized that to escape this empty dead end routine he had to go somewhere. In Brazil, he saw his chance.

Arriving in Brazil in the late 60s he was faced with more setbacks. His attempt to find work as a stevedore/longshoreman was unsuccessful, then to make things worse he traveled north to San Salvador and Belem to work as a truck driver. Finding work as a truck driver in the oppressive Amazonian heat was painful, the only thing meaningful he gained from it was a love of the Brazilian music and countryside he would experience. However, a year and a half later he returns to France to find that he had been considered AWOL for avoiding military service during those years. This forces him to be stationed in Germany, truncating a young musical career he just started to explore again.

During the May 1968 Riots in France, rather than have music released he’d prefer to go out and protest thinking profound change was around the corner. After the disillusioning ineffective change of power, and social entitlement programs he was counting on not going through, Bernard was now broke forced to beg in the streets of England to make some money. Somehow, in England he met his wife who gave him his first child. Bolstered both by a need to change his life and a loving wife who believed in his artistic vision, they moved to Marseille and Bernard gave another go to his music career.

Le Stephanois album cover.

This second time around was far more fruitful. He would perform to sold out crowds at Discophage the largest Brazilian-like cabaret in France. His early fusion of Brazilian music through French interpretations was a hit. Right away he was snapped up and signed a contract to record. His first album Poets, released in 1971, showed the huge influence Leo Ferre’s work had on his writing style but something was lacking, his own mark. This mark appeared finally, brilliantly in 1975’s Le Stephanois (The Saint-Etiennes). His most personal and experimental record to date.

Le Stephanois is very much a product of France’s great mid 70’s period. Its a time when other artists like Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Fontaine were fusing world music with their own roots in Chanson. The world music of Bernard, at that time, was Latin and Brazilian musics. You hear this unique combination in the art-samba of “San Salvador”. Its such an interesting mix. There are obvious notes of art rock in the phased out acoustic guitar rhythm and snaking fretless electric bass melodies but the sound as whole is very MPB, and post-bossanova sounding both dreamy and complex like that style, yet thoroughly French because of Bernard’s vocal phrasing and production techniques.

This album has other tracks like “Les Aventures extraordinaires d’un billet de banque” and “L’Espagne” that sound unlike anything else and are some that pointed at future sounds that had yet to exist. Its no wonder that after the success he received from this album he’d go back on the road to Jamaica, then Africa and Central America and use these trips to expand on his idea of world music. When his mind starts to ramble his music goes places few would think of going…


Listen to San Salvador at Grooveshark.

Bonus track time, the f’ing brilliant French art pop opening track that mixes acoustic instruments with electronics “Les Aventures Extraordinaires d’un billet de Banque”…


Listen to Les Adventures etc. at Grooveshark.