This month, a crash course in Germany’s musical obsession with our baguette-eating neighbours.
If you hadn’t noticed already that Germans have a thing for French music, the reactions to France Gall’s death last month probably taught you otherwise. Of course, people everywhere can rumble along to Édith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien” and recognise Jane Birkin seductively whispering “Je t’aime” in Serge Gainsbourg’s infamous song. Nevertheless, Germany’s Francophilia goes above and beyond, with 1200-plus concerts by French musicians every year (according to the Institut Français’ website). Most of those take place right here in the Hauptstadt, where Piaf-Gainsbourg-Brel cover acts like duo B&B or throwbacks like Mélinée, whose accordion-accompanied chansons are mostly inspired by Berlin itself, prove it’s possible to make a living exclusively off Germans’ imagined nostalgia for la belle vie.
The connection started in the early 1960s, when Schlager was booming and the French simply wanted a slice of the cake. Under the guise of bridging the cultural post-war gap between the two countries, an elaborate marketing scheme was conceived: existing French songs were either translated into German, or new ones were intentionally written for the new target audience. And so Gall made it across the border with rather ridiculous songs like “Computer Nr. 3”, a quirky, almost-prophetic tale of a computer dating programme, and “Ein bisschen Goethe, ein bisschen Bonaparte”, citing the most well-known figures on either side of history as a perfect match. Attempts from the likes of Françoise Hardy, Dalida and Mireille Mathieu were similarly cringe-worthy, with the possible exception of Barbara’s “Göttingen” – which only made it big in France ironically. Solely French-singing musicians like Mylène Farmer (France’s very own Helene Fischer) and Les Rita Mitsouko weren’t so much as a blip on the radar.
Thankfully, it’s a little different today. Take Fishbach (photo), the next promising up-and-comer to hit mainstream radio if she plays her cards right. After celebrating her Berlin debut at last year’s Pop-Kultur, she returns this month with her debut album À ta merci, transcending her 1980s influences to become part of a new generation of 21st-century chanson successors. Just like Julien Barbagallo, who, after drumming for Australia’s Tame Impala, went solo by adding a little chanson feel to his psychedelic roots. He released his second album Grand chien last year, with follow-up Danse dans les ailleurs just announced for March.
In the 1980s, Gall distanced herself from her foray into German and aimed for international success with an ode to Ella Fitzgerald, “Ella elle l’a”. Others branched out too: from Jean Michel Jarre to Desireless to David Guetta, France and Germany’s monogamous relationship soon turned into international polyamory.
Nowadays, Berliners no longer need to confine their Francophilia to France: Tuareg band Les Filles de Illighadad from Niger reminds us that France’s historical influence reaches farther than its European borders. And let’s not forget the Francophiles abroad, like the definitely-not-French Circuit des Yeux from Chicago, whose haunting live concert should nonetheless not be missed. That should give you enough musical fodder to get you through the drought until Berlin’s favourite French-German connection, Stereo Total, re-emerges from Rauch-Haus with a new album in hand.
Les Filles de Illighadad Feb 3, 20:00 Roter Salon, Mitte | Mélinée Feb 3, 21:00 Zimmer 16, Prenzlauer Berg | Circuit des Yeux Feb 9, 21:00 Kantine am Berghain, Friedrichshain | B&B Feb 14, 19:30 Café Lyrik, Prenzlauer Berg | Barbagallo Feb 19, 20:00 Kantine am Berghain, Friedrichshain | Fishbach Feb 27, 20:00 Frannz, Prenzlauer Berg