French group Paris Combo will play 3 concerts at Adelaide Cabaret Festival 2023 next month in an Australian exclusive. These concerts will be a vibrant tribute to their charismatic singer and songwriter Belle du Berry, who died suddenly in 2020 at the age of just 54 following a brief battle with cancer. Her passing is a tragic loss for all those who were touched by her charismatic presence as a performer and songwriter during a career spanning 30 years and over 100 songs.
Paris Combo plays a mixture of swinging gypsy jazz, cabaret, French pop and Latin and Middle Eastern rhythms. Their career has spanned several decades, they have released 7 studio albums and have gained international recognition, which has seen them perform at renowned venues and festivals such as the Olympia, the Grand Rex, the Cité de la Musique, the Nice and Montreal Jazz Festivals, SF Jazz and the Hollywood Bowl, to name but a few.
They will perform as 10 at Adelaide Cabaret Festival 2023, with some guest singers: Carmen Maria Vega, Billie, Aurore Voilqué and Mano Razanajato. You can read more about them at the end of the article.
We chat to David Lewis, pianist and trumpet player in Paris Combo since 1995 and husband of Belle, who tragically passed away shortly after the recording of their last album Quesaco?
Firstly David, I want to offer my condolences for your loss of Belle. It’s very sad and it must be very difficult for you.
Thank you very much. Yes, it’s not easy but with this event, I think it helps to comfort people, people who loved her work very much. It also comforts those who are participating in the event. It helps the musicians in the group, and the other singers who loved Belle very much too.
And is it comforting for you too?
For me too. It was difficult at the beginning. Last year we did a tribute at the New Morning in Paris. It wasn’t easy at first. I remember the first rehearsals where we played songs without her, then with other singers. But there’s something very beneficial about music and sharing it with each other and with the audience. It helps everyone to heal a bit
You just mentioned the concert you did at New Morning in Paris. Are the concerts that you are going to perform at Adelaide Cabaret Festival the same as the New Morning concert and with the same songs?
Yes, there will be a lot of the same songs, but it will be different in the sense that, at New Morning, there were a lot of guests. There were a lot of people, I think, we had between 10 and 15 people who came on stage with a kind of group of four singers who were a bit the pillars of the show. They were Carmen Maria Vaga, Billie, Aurore Voilqué, Mano Razanajato, who was the former bass player of the band too. And so for Adelaide, we’ll be back with these four people, which is already quite good.
That is good. And have you worked with them often?
Yes. In fact, Carmen has worked with Belle quite a bit. Belle wrote songs for one of her albums. In fact, we both wrote a song for her on one album. We were linked and followed each other. And I think we also share an affinity musically and as artists.
But in fact it’s the case of all four singers. For Mano, we were together for ten years. In the first ten years of the band, he was bass player and singer. Aurore Voilqué is a musician who is very active in jazz, especially in gypsy jazz. And she also programmed us in her club at the time. And the other singer, Billie, Belle has written songs for her as well, and she is someone who knows us well and knows a lot of the band’s songs.
So they’re all kind of connected to the group anyway.
In fact, from the beginning, even at the New Morning, that was really the principle. We didn’t necessarily go looking for stars, even if there are some like Carmen, who is also very well-known in her field and she is very well known. It was more so people who had a real link with Belle and with the work of the group.
Yes, that’s important.
Yes, and Yes, and it’s important afterwards to make something that has a real coherence as a show. Because with Adelaide, in a way, it’s also a tribute, but in a way, it’s a unique event and we try to make something that really stands up as a show around Belle’s songs and the group.
And what can the audience expect from these concerts at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival?
Well, they can expect a lot of songs that people who know the band well already know. There are songs like ‘Living Room‘, ‘Señor‘, ‘Moi, mon âme et ma conscience‘, ‘Fibre de verre‘ [which is part of the soundtrack to the film ‘Something’s gotta give‘] These are songs that are sung a lot by everyone, sometimes as a duet, sometimes as a group, sometimes as an ensemble, and also songs from the album that we finished in 2020 and released last year, which is called Quesaco?
What does Quesaco mean? I tried to find out online and I’m not sure I found the right answer.
Quesaco ? is a Provençal expression. It’s French, but you can find it in some 18th and 19th century writings. It is an exclamation that means in English, for example, “What’s happening?” “What’s this all about?”.
You said that there will be songs we know if we know the band well and also songs from the Quesaco album? I also read that you will present some favourite songs. What is your favourite Paris Combo song?
Good question. It’s difficult, it’s a bit like saying who’s your favourite child?
I can imagine.
I’m actually very happy to have created this album in the studio. I think there are over 100 songs that Belle wrote lyrics to, she wrote lyrics and often music as well. So it’s hard to answer.
But of course, songs like Living Room or Señor, which I think is a very, very beautiful song, but it would be a bit reductive for me to mention just one song. You have to ask the fans that. They often have an opinion, strong opinions.
I also wanted to talk a little about you. You are a trumpetist and you studied at the Paris Conservatory. Why did you choose the Paris Conservatory at the time?
I didn’t exactly choose it, but I think I had a desire even as a teenager to come to Europe, to come to France. My mother was a French teacher, and is a writer and translator, so she gave us this love of the language and the country.
As for me, in my musical studies, it so happened that at a certain point, I met musicians who were based in Europe and who had connections with Paris and the conservatoire and the teachers and so, I had opportunities.
But I don’t think it was by chance either. I think you’re always attracted to something and you reach out. So there you go. And just as an aside, in the band, I play the piano as well.
But the trumpet is your first love. Or is that also like asking you what your favourite song is?!
No, I think the trumpet is the number one instrument.
You’ve played it since you were a child.
Yes, since I was ten or eleven years old. I played in marching bands in Hamilton in high school.
And why the trumpet?
Because, at that time, it was the same. It’s a bit of an opportunity thing. I had played the clarinet in elementary school and the teacher left town and so I continued with another teacher. But he was a trumpet player so it was more natural to play the trumpet and cornet in the high school, there was the brass band like in many high schools. And we used to come to Adelaide, to Hahndorf, to compete.
And you started out in cabaret and theatre, I believe?
Well, not exactly. As far as I’m concerned, it was more in music, but my encounter with Belle was in a show in Paris in ’94-’95 called Cabaret Sauvage. It was a kind of musical revue with clowns, acrobats, comedians, and contortionists. It was a real cabaret show in a Magic Mirror, a Spiegeltent.
And I was with the team of Arthur H, the singer. Afterwards, we no longer played with him, but the team remained intact and afterwards, we welcomed many artists, including Belle who sang. And that’s when we met and started working together.
The Cabaret Sauvage still exists, but it’s a place in fact, it’s a name of a Spiegeltent in Paris.
We talked a little bit about the fact that it was difficult at the beginning to do the rehearsals for the concerts at New Morning. Are there any songs that you can’t perform because they are too personal, too difficult?
No, I don’t think so. If it’s in a certain sense, it was very difficult to listen to songs from the last album again.
Because you recorded it not long before…
Yes, we had just recorded it and there is also the association with that period. In the lyrics of the songs on the last album, it’s a bit difficult because when someone leaves us, we interpret everything that was said or done in the light of their death.
It’s true that in the lyrics of the last album, there are things that seem to go straight to the heart. It’s more difficult with the lyrics of the Quesaco album? I think it’s the most personal album Belle has written. Often on the other albums, there is a narrative side to the songs that is a little removed from someone who is speaking in the first person. Whereas on the last album, I think it’s more personal, more intimate, so it’s all the more moving in terms of what happened.
For the French audience, apart from a few words in English but your songs are in French so French speakers don’t have problems understanding Paris Combo songs.
Yes, there are some songs, there are a few words in English in the lyrics, but for the most part, the lyrics that Belle wrote for Paris Combo are very much in French.
Then there are things like the chorus of Living Room. Living room is a French word too. There’s a Gainsbourg song that talks about living room too. [THE SONG IS INTOXICATED MAN].
So there is no problem with the French or Francophone audience. But how do you make sure that non-French speaking audiences can understand your songs?
That’s a good question because I think it’s also a question in relation to our coming to Adelaide. That is to say that Belle had a real gift for, in a few words between each song, giving the framework and without translating the whole text, really giving the meaning to the audience by speaking in English.
And the two of us were almost doing a clown act because I helped her a bit with her English. Belle spoke it well, but it was a bit of a playful relationship we had and it was a way of already sharing the meaning of the song and the text with the audience.
So in Adelaide, as I said, it’s really a show – it’s a tribute – but it’s a show. So, I and the other artists will also try to make it easier for the audience to understand the texts. However, I don’t think it’s essential that someone understands all the words and in any case, it’s impossible to have a totally French-speaking audience. But you have to give it a little bit of a window so that people can see.
And then what we’re going to do as well – there will be a purely musical and spectacular aspect – is to have these four very beautiful artists who are very motivated as well. They are very happy to come to Australia. I know that Carmen Marie Vega has already come – it was for So Frenchy So Chic, I think.
So there’s a lot of enthusiasm and motivation. It’s very touching for me to see the support of the artists for this project. To come back to what we said at the beginning, it’s what comforts us and helps us to face up to it.
Also, our daughter Ella will be singing in Adelaide. So she’ll be singing a song.
And you’re only coming to Australia for the Adelaide Cabaret Festival?
Luckily the Adelaide Cabaret Festival decided to take on and embrace this show as an exclusive. After that, of course, we would have liked to eventually do other cities in Australia, but it was very difficult with everyone’s schedules and the venues’ schedules to do that. So that’s why we’re coming to do these three shows [in Adelaide].
We thank David Lewis for this interview and look forward to seeing Paris Combo at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival next month.
KEY INFO FOR PARIS COMBO AT ADELAIDE CABARET FESTIVAL 2023
WHAT: Paris Combo, exclusively at Adelaide Cabaret Festival 2023
WHEN: 3 concerts only:
- Friday 9 June, 8.30pm
- Saturday 10 June, 5pm
- Sunday 11 June, 7.30pm
WHERE: Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, Adelaide
HOW: Buy your tickets via this link
HOW MUCH: Ticket prices are as follows:
- A Reserve: $84
- Premium: $89
THE MUSICIANS PERFORMING WITH PARIS COMBO AT ADELAIDE CABARET FESTIVAL ARE:
Carmen Maria Vega – vocals
Billie – vocals
Aurore Voilqué – vocals, violin
Mano Razanajato – vocals, double bass
David Lewis – trumpet, piano and musical direction
François Jeannin – drums, backing vocals
Potzi – Guitar
Benoît Dunoyer de Segonzac – double bass
Rémy Kaprielan – sax, percussion, backing vocals
Julien Mathieu – sound engineer
Guest artist bios
Carmen Maria Vega was born in Guatemala before being abducted by child traffickers at the age of 9 months. She was adopted by a French family who knew nothing of her situation. She grew up in Lyon. She has been singing since the age of 15 and released her first album in 2009. She has 4 albums and has appeared in two films; Le Jour de la grenouille is the best known.
Billie is a singer from Lyon who will be performing with Paris Combo at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival. Belle has written a few songs for her solo albums too. Her first album called Le Baiser was released in 2014 when she was 30 years old. She has been dubbed the Vanessa Paradis of Lyon by the website Arlyo.
Aurore Voilqué has been playing the violin since the age of 4. She has played in classical orchestras but also earned her living playing in the Parisian metro for several years before setting up her own quartet, the Aurore Quartet, in 2003. Over the years, she started playing gypsy jazz. Now she plays in the major French jazz festivals and on the stages of famous jazz clubs.
Mano Razanajato is a Madagascan bass player who played with Paris Combo for ten years from 1996. He also participates in the singing and scatting that adds to the Latin atmosphere of Paris Combo.
What’s your favourite Paris Combo song?
For other events with links to France, French culture and the francophonie, check out our What’s on in May article.