News travels so quickly now that it’s hard to keep up with the cycles of life. Word of Pierre Barouh’s passing, at the end of December 2016, didn’t come recently to me, it came to me this week. It came when I discovered them while researching this thought in my head – of sharing his work at FOND/SOUND. A true pioneer in French music, it was he, through his Saravah label, that would introduce the sounds of Brazil and out-there visionaries like Brigitte Fontaine, Areski, and Nana Vasconcelos (to name a few) to Europe and, in essence, to the world. He was the type of artist, that even at his older age, found a way to start anew and forge an even more vital path than where he started, ignoring all the baggage he could have chosen to take with him. Le Pollen, which combines so many genres – MPB, samba, jazz, chanson, Japanese techno-pop and minimalism – in search of a third way and a fourth world of music, is exactly the reason I started this blog. When we shed so many barriers and try to find the worth in the different, we always remain the benefactors of the surprise. In loving memory, I reshare his story, and that of Le Pollen with you. Merci, Pierre, adieu…
Such are the vagaries of life, that albums like Pierre Barouh’s Le Pollen serve as meaningful reminders to what, the all-encompassing what, we stand to lose when we don’t do some kind of meaningful wandering from our known hemispheres. Born in 1934, in the slums of Paris, Pierre spent most of his early life in hiding. As a child of Sephardic Jewish parents, it was persecution that drove his waking day. At the time, freedom, the barest one could have (the one to move around), was a luxury they was ill-afforded. Spending the day hiding in ditches and at nights trying to survive on whatever goodwill other peasants provided, was the daily routine of Pierre’s family.
By the time World War II was over, reintroduction into society had come at a cost: Pierre. Barely literate, and struggling mightily to comprehend the educational system he was now introduced to, a certain feeling of powerlessness overcame him, making him feel unattached to a reconstructing France. In a France that valued intellectualism and class, he had little of that currency. Thought of as an imbecile, his family ventured that Pierre’s life was doomed to poverty. Twists of fate deemed it differently. One day, when he was 14 or 15, he experienced something that changed his path.
On that day, he was granted permission by his parents to attend a cycling competition in Paris. Warned not to stay past 21:00, he heeded their request and decided to come back, leaving the competition early. Enamored by the cinema –something he could understand– Pierre wandered off and attended the only film showing that day: Les Visiteurs du Soir by Marcel Carnes. Released in Vichy France during the war, the movie itself was a unique piece of art. Shot in the style of “Poetic Realisme” it mixed less-mannered (some would say fatalistic) ideas of class with much more complex lyrical dialogue, all of it driving at some uncertain certain thing in life. What fascinated and ultimately changed Pierre were these three phrases written by Jacques Prevert and sung in that movie:
Demons and wonders, odds are, that for me the sea has already receded. – Jacques Prévert
It’s in that song that a whole new world of poetry had opened for him. Poetry that could be romantic, realistic, and deeply moving, in ways that were intrinsically tied to music sharing that same spirit. Its this first, modern era of French Chanson that now concerned him. As he started to inculcate himself in the words of other modern French lyricists like Georges Brassens, Charles Trenet, and Blaise Cendrars, his own spirit started to move into writing and creating music. In doing so, he would obtain the kind of education he never was able to receive before. This then set into motion what would be his greatest realization.
Its realizing that if he wanted to know the world, before it receded from him, he needed to go out there and discover it (demons and wonders, wherever they may be). Making a contract with himself, he pledged to walk the world until he turned 30. Passport in hand, he lived the Bohemian life, hitchhiking his way through 7 or 8 other countries. When he finally reached that age, when his personal contract was deemed null and void, the vagaries of life had led him to make a living not as a musician (as he had hoped), but as a sports writer, and then an assistant theater director.
Then certain fortunes, little things that set the path on again, like getting bit roles as an actor, transitioned into bigger ones like getting his first record contract based on some existing songs. In spite of getting closer to his original beat, Barouh felt that this certain dream wasn’t what he hoped for. Its path easing a certain restriction he didn’t want to set in. Tied to a contract world where fame, cars, and money were the driving force, felt oppressive at a time when his past availability (to sing, perform, and collaborate with whom he pleased) was readily more tenable when he didn’t have this limitation and could walk when he pleased. In the mid ’60s, a chance meeting with jazz musician Maurice Vander and composer Francis Lai presented him with an option towards a third way through.
You see, a few years earlier, Pierre had gotten the idea of setting his sight to Brazil. Working on a cargo boat sailing from Lisbon, he arrived in Rio hoping to discover the land and its people. What he came back with, was a love for something else: its music. Idealistic, but realistic, he had to head back realizing that he’d lost his chance of meeting some of the musicians whose music he’d only started to fall in love with. However, within a certain amount of time, and a certain amount of chance, fate smiled on him, and he was invited to a dinner party in Paris.
At that party, Samba visionaries Vinicius de Moraes and Baden Powell were in attendance. Hitting it off instantly, Pierre struck up a friendship with them. With time, they would be introduced to other French musicians like Georges Moustaki and Claude Nougaro, all like Pierre, with ideas signaling a change away from the darker hues of traditional Chanson he heard of as teenager. As he travelled more freely back and forth to Brazil, meeting and socializing with other Brazilian musicians, he learned something else. In Brazilian music, the bittersweetness of it all, there was a certain freedom that had yet to be introduced to French audiences.
Working with Maurice Vander and Francis Lai, he’d adapt, or explore, a fusion of these two styles and the much more expanded emotional/musical palette they could exhibit. Songs that would later become immensely popular like “Samba Saravah” or “Un Homme et Une Femme” were deemed too different from what was already out there. However, sometime later, filmmaker Claude Lelouch caught wind of these recordings. Interested, for the first time, in setting his films to a soundtrack he struck an interesting proposition to Pierre.
To match his revolutionary filming technique for the film, one that would mix color, black and white, and films of different stock, with scripted realism, Maurice wanted Pierre to play a role as a prominent actor in it. Playing the soundtrack as he filmed, they were instructed to use it as a way to influence their line or improvisations. Separating the line between soundtrack and realism, this film would end on an upward beat as a true-to-life affront to a lot of the unfailingly nihilistic or depressing films coming out in France then. Presenting this France that could be something other than gray, in vivid color, tone, and fashion, it (and the accompanying soundtrack) became the massive hit of the year. While Claude and Francis would garner the accolades (be it a Palme D’Or, BAFTAs, or Oscars), Pierre gained something he always wanted: the financial clout to explore more freely his artistic vision.
Taking advantage of a trip filmmaker Pierre Kast made to Brazil, Mr. Barouh took it as an opportunity to reacquaint himself with musical friends of his in Brazil. In short time, Pierre Barouh was given by Mr. Kast an allowance to use his film and video/sound crew to document something that was of interest to Pierre. Learning as he went, Pierre started the fruitful task of documenting the rising bossa nova scene, and its roots in the folk music of Brazil. When he had enough film, he set back to France and released it, and in doing so, planted the seed for a new kind of world music. It’s now this footage that serves as an immensely vital piece of musical history. It’s this film and music that would serve to introduce French listeners to other Brazilian styles living alongside the bossa nova.
When he realized that no one saw fit to publish the songs from Un Homme et Une Femme, Barouh used his earnings from this film to start his own record label Saravah and, in turn, chart a new course: as the first truly independent French record label. Using this same money Pierre would also build a recording studio where artists were free to experiment, and in due time, a sizable list of vanguard French musicians.
From a small roster featuring the likes of Brigitte Fontaine, Jacques Higelin, and Francis Lai, he was able to present this vision of Nouveau Chanson, one where influences far from the Western Hemisphere and Europe itself, could easily traffic in the same wavelength as modern chanson. When you’d see an artist like Brazilian Nana Vasconcelos appear in the catalog, one wouldn’t bat an eye, because such was the accepted/looked for mercurial sound of Saravah. Such was his wont, to sell just enough to launch, and maintain, theaw budding talents , before they headed elsewhere altogether. With Saravah, Pierre ethos was to remain experimental, free from restrictions.
Barouh’s music remained its own entity. Still finding ways to push his own Brazilian influences in different directions, his initial foray, 1972’s Ca Va Ca Vient featured a sophisticated, studied take on Brazilian styles blended with French mannerisms. It was during this time of his career when he’d choose to reside much further behind the limelight, letting his explorations remain personal, while his own artists would do the musical envelope pushing. When 1976 rolled around though, Barouh finally attempted to recapture some new kind of progress.
For Viking Bank he opened up his music for others to reimagine. Drawing from that same stable of artists, Barouh would encourage them to drop in and contribute piecemeal to the grander picture. Updating songs via luxurious arrangements, or dropping intricate, electronic adornments as needed, Pierre produced the album as a blend of what the Saravah sound could stand to be. Songs like “Altitude,” “Viking Bank” or “La Bicyclette” showing giant steps Chanson could place in areas where the style had unique strengths.
Strings that lingered like the densest of air, bass lines that pumped directly at the heart, pianos that transformed in the ether, and vocals that absorbed all of this headspace, Post-modern and Technopolitan (much like Scott Walker’s Nite Flights or Joni Mitchell’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter) it was beyond what many people, at that time, were ready for. In 1977, Viking Album was released and promptly forgotten by French audiences unsure of what to make of it. In Japan though, it became an underground masterpiece, and Barouh became a musician’s musician.
For all intents and purposes, artists on Pierre’s label were somehow never as popular in France as they were in Japan. Maybe, in that Saravah sound, Japanese artists saw something that spoke to their own attempt to reconcile tradition with modernity –through music. It was in those early ’70s that many of these same Japanese artists who had grown interested in yé yé, chanson, European jazz, and samba, would in turn digest the work of Saravah. This discovery led Pierre, in 1981, to entertain a fantastic proposition. A Japanese label offered to have him come to Japan and record an album with local musicians. Pierre, never one to shy away from an adventure, took him up on his offer.
Arriving in Japan, Pierre was surprised to learn that the musicians who offered to work with him weren’t nobodies but Japanese artists at the peak of their career: Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi (both Yellow Magic Orchestra members). Another surprise was how much younger they were than him. Rather than make these artists bend to his sound, Barouh wanted to meet them in balance. It was prime importance for them not to look at his past work with reverence but for him to have something new to offer this generation. As surprised as he was with how well versed and influenced they were by his previous work, he didn’t want them to feel hindered by it. Armed with new songs and an open mind, he wanted them to attempt to blend all this tradition into some new other.
What transpires in the album, and in the spirit of the music, was this special place all these artists were able to uncover. A truly special time for music can be found here. Joining them would be others such as David Sylvian, Yasuaki Shimizu, other members of Mariah and Moonriders, all injecting experimental pop ideas into another world a bit more ready for this even further hyper-cosmopolitan vision of Chanson music. Songs like the Shimizu-composed “Parenthèse” feature bits of otherworldly torch song atmosphere, where traditional instruments and arrangements mix seamlessly with untethered electronics and sequences. In the towering highlights of the album, the dramatically updated “Perdu” and “Le Pollen”, you hear all the roots of these musicians, those found in ambient, minimalism, dub, techno-kayo, R&B, chanson, Japanese folk and many more styles – filtered through an open mindset. In these sessions, this is where these same musicians would be able to stitch those endings together with the finest thread creating this whole new fabric that could be its own source of inspiration.
Its albums like these that are even more vital in this era when the demons of the world try to make us build borders at the water’s edge and separate us from the vastly larger, and more fulfilling wonders waiting for us.
“Le Pollen” itself reveals the most important source for the why. It’s this idea, not of acquiring culture for superficial reasons, but of acquiring it to advance personal communication. United through music, all these gifted musicians were able to have a dialog that goes beyond mere language and vocabulary. Beyond the timeless music, these words still stick with me from “Le Pollen:”
Nous sommes qui nous sommes
Et tout ca, c’est la somme
Du pollen dont on s’est nourri”
Pierre: “David, can you translate that for Yukihiro?”
David: “Yes, I think so.”
David: “Today, I am who I am
We are who we are
And everything is, as it is
The pollen which we feed on”
Pierre: “Yukihiro, can you say that in Japanese?”
David: “Today, I am who I am”
David: “We are, who we are”
David: “And everything is, as it is”
David: “The pollen which we feed on”
– a conversation between Pierre, David, and Yukihiro as heard on “Le Pollen”
At the end of the day I may just be a peasant, but here, here is my bit of grain. And here, right here’s a bit of territory we can dig in.