Twenty-five years ago Barbara died, leaving one of the strongest and most modern works of song. This Sunday, November 27, the actress Anna Mouglalis pays homage to him at the House of Poetry, in Paris.
The book Once Upon a Black Piano… Unfinished Memoirs was published in September 1998 and it was a shock: Barbara, who died the previous year, told of her life as an artist, her relationship to writing, to the stage, to the public… But also what she had never said publicly – even if several songs echoed it: the incest suffered during childhood; and the way the song had imposed itself on her, as a lifeline.
As we celebrate this fall the 25e anniversary of his death, his nephew, Bernard Serf, wanted to bring the text of these Memoirs to the stage. For this, he asked the actress Anna Mouglalis, who will read excerpts from it this Sunday, November 27, at the House of Poetry – and who has invited the singer Pomme, another great admirer, to his side. A quarter of a century after her death, the figure of Barbara remains surprisingly alive: it is clear that she is taken up, or claimed as a reference, like no other artist of French heritage. Anna Mouglalis, who talks about Barbara in the present tense, explains what she means to her.
What touches you most about Barbara: the work, or the woman she embodies?
It is inseparable! Even when she writes her book, she writes what she sang. She writes her life, and her life is that of a woman who sings… What touches me the most is the tremendous vitality she shows. This way of bringing joy to life even in the most painful place. To me, this is akin to genuine heroism, running through his work and his life. Including in her relationship to music elsewhere: without ever having learned it, she manages to compose music that is completely hers, recognizable among a thousand. In multiple ways, Barbara transforms her vulnerability into strength, without ever hiding it or pretending. In this, she is the embodiment of a profoundly modern woman.
Modern, she was also modern in her way of living her loves: both a great lover and a resolutely free woman…
In the Memoirs, she says very clearly that a man, in this case the one who will inspire her Tell me, when will you come back ?, imposes a choice on him: to love him or to create. And for her, the choice is clear: to create! Even if she continues to love thereafter, and sometimes to live passions, her greatest love remains the public. When she sings to him My most beautiful love story, it’s you, she does not lie. But this choice between creating and loving a man, many women continue to be confronted with; and unless you meet someone who agrees to accompany you on your path as an artist, many cannot live both… Barbara will have led the life of a free woman who is totally devoted to her vocation. When reading her Memoirs, I was very struck by everything she expressed there about her relationship to work, to texts, to singing…
“Pomme is for me in a direct filiation of Barbara. It seemed natural to me to ask him to participate in this project.”
She also returns to her childhood, and in particular incest.
We talk much more than before about the pain of incest and other abuses committed on minors: since the establishment of the Ciivise (Independent Commission on Incest and sexual violence against children) last year, and the release, just before, of Camille Kouchner’s book, The Big Family, or Consent, by Vanessa Springora, in January 2020… It is ultimately very recent. Barbara, she already told it twenty-five years ago. And before she evokes it in songs like Nantes Where The black Eagle. If she had decided to make a book, as she explains from the first lines, it is moreover to continue the dialogue, at a time when her health prevents her from going back on stage. This testimony, the form of writing that she adopts in it, the humor that she demonstrates in it carry out a real exposure. It is extremely valuable. Reading this text in a theater is a gift from Bernard Serf, his nephew. He selected excerpts from black piano, then we exchanged and finalized together the passages that I will read.
Pomme will join you for two songs…
For me, she is in direct line with Barbara: she, too, exposes herself a lot in her texts, and places herself in a demand for the feminine – and for feminism. It seemed natural to me to ask him to participate in this project.
If you had to name three Barbara songs…
Only three? Alright, I’ll start with Raptors. It is not one of the best known but touches me deeply. A text on the exercise of the profession of artist and the loneliness induced by notoriety, with these people who come to claim you as if they had made you; who swear they helped you “in the time of water and black bread”…when they weren’t there and rushing in because you’re in the light. Barbara describes it but, again, she makes it beautiful. For me, her song also says what talent is because this light that ends up enlightening her, she is the one who invents it. She only owes it to herself.
Another important song for me, Tell me, when will you come back ? It dates from the early 1960s, that is to say a time when she began to write her own texts after having sung a lot of those of others, in this case men (Barbara was, with Nicole Louvier and Anne Sylvestre , one of the very first female singer-songwriters, editor’s note). Suddenly, with Tell me, when will you come back, Barbara begins to invent the feminine love song. And it’s sublime.
A third ?
Göttingen, The Little Cantata, My childhood… It’s terrible to choose, I love so many! I really grew up with his songs, I don’t even know at what age I discovered the first ones – and this is transmitted since my daughter was very young when she started singing Barbara… But since you have to choose, let’s say Blues. Because we hear precisely what touches me so much: both vulnerability and vitality. Beyond its title, the song ends with these words: “come live it, your joy of living”…
Recently, you were on stage for a musical reading of witches, a book by Mona Chollet that has become a feminist manifesto. We saw you in a video supporting Iranian women. And there, you carry the words of an artist who will have sublimated in her work the outrages suffered, and knew how to emancipate herself from the shackles of society… Should we see in your choices a form of commitment?
Sure. Often, as women artists, we have the impression of being orphans… when we are not at all! Others preceded us, and it is essential for me to recall this historicity, to share the texts of all these women of whom we are the direct heirs. Many extraordinary artists who have crossed the ages and continue to inspire us. Obviously, Barbara fits powerfully into this story.
Reading by Anna Mouglalis, accompanied on the piano by Antonin Tardy, with the participation of Pomme, Sunday November 27, 6 p.m. Info. : House of Poetry.
He was a black piano… Unfinished memoirs, Barbara, ed. The pocket book.