Singing his way back home

8 décembre 2005 at 3:02 Laisser un commentaire

It took Corneille 11 years to work up the courage to go back to Africa.

Click to enlargeWho could blame him? Plenty has been written about his narrow escape from death – by hiding behind a sofa while his parents, two brothers and sister were gunned down by rebels in Rwanda, where he grew up. After the tragedy in 1994, the singer moved to Germany, eventually landing in Montreal. Although he is still working on a return to his native country, he performed in Dakar, Senegal in March.

« It was an amazing experience, » he said. « After that, I felt like my African identity was given back to me. I was thousands of miles from Rwanda – and still I was welcomed as if I was one of theirs. When you leave a country or continent in particular circumstances, such as a civil war or genocide, there’s a risk of completely detaching yourself from that culture and rejecting it as a reaction to what you’ve seen.  »

His desire to return to Rwanda surfaces in the recently released Les Marchands de reves, a follow-up to his 1.1-million-selling first album, Parce qu’on vient de loin. His much-anticipated English-language debut will be completed next year, he said.

The new disc’s Sur la tombe de mes gens tackles his need to go home, over a typically smooth chamber-soul backing. « I haven’t been ready, really, to make that step, » he said. « Instead, I wrote a song to get closer to that idea of going back one day. That song talks about my fears and what I miss of my country. »

In the meantime, there are other destinations. Corneille was squeezing a Gazette interview into the middle of a tightly scheduled day of promotion because the next morning’s plans called for him to fly to France. His fan base there continues to grow, but fame a la francaise is a slightly different animal from the homegrown style, he said.

In France, celebrities « are looked upon as being different – not necessarily superior or inferior, but just different, maybe belonging to another world, » he said. « That’s not so much the case here in Quebec. It’s normal for a public person to walk down a street like Ste. Catherine and not feel like all eyes are on him or her. »

Growing popularity has its downside, however. The new song Toujours le Meme deals with the singer being told by a casual observer to sell his Porsche, go home to Rwanda and use his cash to help his own. He responds in verse that he can also give back to humanity right here. The story is true, he said. « It’s the general public’s perception (toward performers) that changes with success, » he said.

Accordingly, he bristles at the thought that his right to denounce injustice – as he does in Lettre a la Maison Blanche – should be less than those of a non-performer. Clearly, the notion that musicians should stay out of politics does not sit well with Corneille, who praises the activism of artists like Bono. « As a citizen of the world, you have to make that choice, » he said. « To get involved in world politics is important because we’re all responsible for the state of this world today and tomorrow. As artists – especially those who have access to the media and the masses – it would be a shame not to be vocal about things that need to be talked about, to provoke debates. »

Politics and songwriting have a tradition in popular music. One need look no farther than three of Corneille’s idols: Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley and Sam Cooke, whose sweet, soulful phrasing is often echoed in Corneille’s singing. Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come is « one of the most socially involved and relevant songs in history, » he said. « (Cooke) was a black man at a time when post-slavery America was most torn by ethnic and racial segregation – and he still found the courage to see both sides of the problem and never

really turn anybody against anyone else. I think that’s what real strength and courage is: despite everything that might lead us toward anger and revenge, to find some hope. To stay and realize that we have to deal with each other. »

It’s that very hope that Corneille tries to keep in most of his songs, he said. And, really, how many people would emerge from the trauma of witnessing the massacre of their family and declare to the world that their belief in God was intact?

« To me, God is the good that lives in all of us, » he said, explaining that the compassion for his people coming to him from fans shows their true nature. « Part of my faith in God also comes from the fact that I’m still here today – still breathing, still doing what I’m doing and still living the wonderful experience that I’m living today, » he said.

Les Marchands de reves is in stores.

Source: BERNARD PERUSSE, The Gazette

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