While his name may be unfamiliar to post-baby boomers, during the 60s and 70s the Belgian singer Jacques Brel was one of the giants of Euro-pop. He sang dramatic, bittersweet songs of love and loss, and I cherished the single cassette my parents thoughtfully brought back from a trip to Europe. I recall that he was reputed to be alive and well and living in Paris, then was aware that he had cancer and finally, and sadly, that he died. After that he slipped from my consciousness and there he remained for over three decades.
So it came as a surprise to learn that he has been resting all these years on the Marquesan island of Hiva Oa, not far from fellow expatriate Paul Gauguin. There is a wonderful story of his arrival on the island in the mid-70s. Since everyone was expected to contribute to the greater good of the community, he was asked what he could do.
“I’m a singer,” he said.
Referring to the rich Polynesian tradition of communal singing and music-making, the islanders replied “Everyone here is a singer. What else can you do?”
So he responded “I’m a pilot,” which, apparently, he was. He then purchased a twin-engine plane, named it “Jojo” in memory of a friend, and lived out his remaining years making mail runs and providing medical evacuations.
The islanders honor his memory in a converted warehouse known as “L’Espace Brel.” For 500 FPF you can view an assortment of memorabilia, including photos, song lyrics, artists’ renderings and movie posters – I hadn’t realized that this astonishingly multi-faceted man was also an actor and director. Over it all hangs Jojo, his ticket to a home and idyllic resting place in the Marquesas.
Et par manque de brise
Le temps s’immobilise