A song of three cities.

In Belgium, Europe, France, India, Places, Random, Travel on March 24, 2012 at 1:05 am

I almost planned my next holidays listening to Jacques Brel’s “Bruxelles”. It made me so nostalgic for the city, that I almost bought my tickets. However, I have already been there twice and since we are unable to take as many breaks travelling in a year as we would like, we ultimately decided to go somewhere else.

Jacques Brel captures the spirit of Brussels like no one else has managed to do. He might be talking of bygone times but the tempo of the song and the image that he creates is very much the Brussels I remember. Of course, one would hardly find men in Top Hats, nor women in crinoline (a stiff fabric worn by women under their skirts to support it and give it shape) today. However, Place de Broukère, which has over the years seen many ups and downs, remains one of the most frequented areas of Bruxelles. Jacques Brel is of course talking of the time it was a posh place to shop, which is why he says: “Place de Broukère on voyait des vitrines” ( Place de Broukère, we window-shopped and not “Place de Broukère, we saw windows“as the subtitles in the link below mention). The architecture is early Haussmanian but today it houses a cinema chain, fast food joints as well as luxury shops and chic cafés, which makes it a good destination for any budget.

At Place Sainte-Catherine, where concerts are often held on a fine day, men and women still dance, enjoy the music, the sun and you can almost hear the words of Jacques Brel floating through your head,

“Sur les pavés de la place Sainte-Catherine
Dansaient les hommes les femmes en crinoline…”

On the cobbled stones of la Place Sainte-Catherine,
Danced the men and the women in crinoline…

There are a lot of songs on travel and travels, on places and on cities and on continents but I find that there are very few that can actually capture the spirit of the place. Of course, you can say that is totally subjective. And I would have to agree. Paris is a case in point.

A lot of people relate to Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “I love Paris”. Apparently, it captures the spirit of Paris which is timeless, a classic beauty. Personally, I find the version quite superficial. It is the version of either a super rich bloke living in Paris or a tourist passing through the city who has only seen the city in its grey classic European beauty.  Contrary to popular perceptions, Paris comprises of a large number of young people in its residents. Students, young professionals etc. Since real estate is so expensive, once you start a family and need more than 30 square meters to live, well unless you are super rich,or extremely lucky, you have no choice but to move out into the suburbs.

So I like what the French band, Les Negresses Vertes have done to it. I like how it is cheerful and young and does not give me the impression of living in a dead and cold city. And so no offense to any other version of this song and there have been many, but for me, the version by Les Negresses Vertes, with their heavy French accents, wins hands down when it comes to capturing the spirit of the place. It is also an example of music telling you more than words because the words in itself don’t say much of the city. It is ultimately the music and the rhythm that builds the picture.

In the same vein is the Bollywood song, Yeh hai Bombay, meri jaan ( This is Bombay,my love) which captures the turmoil that every person has with this incredible city in India. You hate it and you love it and ultimately you are not sure what to think about it. Amongst cities in India, daily life in Bombay is probably the hardest it can get. This is again an old song but it could have been written today and still hold true.

“Aai dil hai mushkil jeena yahan,
Zara hatkey, Zara bachkey,
Yeh hai Bombay meri jaan..”

O heart, it is a difficult life here,
Step aside, Be careful now,
This is Bombay, my love

Bombay or Mumbai, whatever you’d like to call it, is a city known for Bollywood, for glamour and lights, as the land of opportunities and of proud inhabitants. It is also known for the violent underworld, the greasy politics, the cut throat competition, the sleasy night-life and what not. Love it or hate it, it will definitely not leave you indifferent. In the song, the conflict is expressed by the man singing the negative aspect, evoking the hard life etc. while the woman talks of fair play and how it is in fact easy to live in a city which is just and treats everyone equally.

There are innumerable songs that talk of cities. I have listed only three but three songs that speak more to me than any other.


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