Back in time

Published in Al Ahram Weekly

The son of Italian immigrants, Salvatore Adamo was raised in Belgium. At the age of 23, he won a Radio Luxembourg Contest (1960), which propelled his musical career. One of his first hits was Sans toi, ma mie (1963 – Without You, My Dear) but his Tombe la Neige (The snow falls), released the same year, was at the top of the charts for over 70 weeks, bringing him international recognition. The song was followed by the equally successful Vous permettez Monsieur (May I, Sir, 1964), and the 1965 Les filles du bord de mer (The girls at the beach) as well as Mes Mains sur tes hanches (My hands on your hips, 1965).

Over the last few decades Adamo’s popularity, evidenced by a string of international honours and over 80 million records sold, has placed him among the most notable French-language singers of the 20th century. His career made the passage into the 21st century in spite of a short period of silence, but now he seems to stretch his dynamism to an ever wider global audience. In the last decade his tours covered Japan (2000), Turkey, Canada, Germany, Belgium (2001), Hong Kong and Chili (2002). His tours are often accompanied by new album releases: La Part de l’ange (2007), and Le bal des gens bien (2008), which includes older classics sung in duet.

Adamo has never lacked for fans among Egyptian audiences. Francophone households are understandably the biggest admirers of the French chanson, cherishing singers of the 1940s to 1970s in particular and placing Adamo’s records on the shelves next to other well-known francophone singers. It was in 2008 that Adamo visited Egypt for the first time, however, performing with his band in a concert held under the auspices of the French Embassy.

No doubt Adamo has many beautiful songs in his repertoire and their poetic lines tell the most touching stories. Understandably, back in the 1960s, Adamo captured the hearts of his listeners with musical awakenings of memory and reflections on life enveloped in a variety of styles, ranging from ballads and soft blues, through contemporary French chanson (in which music serves as the rhythm of the language) and Italian canzonette, to tango and some catchy pop elements. Adamo’s repertoire includes songs in other languages (English, Italian, Spanish), but with French songs in particular he created a perfect formula which placed him deep in the hearts of his audience where obviously he remains, 50 years on, today. As if frozen in time, Adamo’s audience consists mainly of older generations which on 16 April filled the Cairo Opera House Main Hall to overflowing. They came nostalgically to recapture their memories.

Adamo was accompanied by remarkable musicians on many instruments — piano, guitar, mandolin, cello, clarinet, accordion, trumpet, trombone, to name but a few — and many of the musicians performed on more than a single instrument; the pianist became the guitarist, while the female vocalist played trombone and violin.

This music captures the essence of the French language, its pulse and melody; the poetic lines, while very simple, are poignant and moving. Clearly romantic poetry is the driving force behind Adamo’s ability to build metaphorical images, expressed in a highly melancholic vocabulary in songs such as J’avais oublié que les roses sont roses (1971 — I had forgotten that the roses are pink), A demain sur la lune (1969 — See you tomorrow on the moon), which fluctuates between dreams, longings and reality.

Adamo’s 1960s chimes with yet another side of his poetic sensibility, expressed through responsiveness to some social issues, evident for example in Mourir dans tes bras (I would like to die in your arms), a song inspired by Jan Palach, a Czech student who, in 1969, set himself on fire in an act of political protest (following an event known as The Prague Spring), or Mon douloureux Orient which provoked much controversy in the Arab World.

Even Adamo’s new songs involve nostalgia, together with introspection into life, memories, things lived and achieved — all wrapped up in vibrant rythms, Latin and blues musical elements. La couleur du vent (The color of the wind – from Adamo’s 2007 album, La Part de l’Ange ), for example, traces his own footprints engraved in time. The same album includes Ce George (This George), a more rhythmic song which is a comic reflection on the jealousy.

Adamo’s passion and dedication is unquestionable. However, he seemed to be warming up in the first few songs performed on the Cairo Opera House stage, but his energy emerged soon afterwards and remained on the high level for three hours. Salvatore Adamo is a professional with a good stage presence. However, understandably, his vocal qualities are no longer among his strongest assets, but his age is an indication of just how powerful his voice is. Of course we should also realise that singing over 30 songs nonstop in one evening is a challenge to any singer, and listening to them also demands attentiveness from the audience, especially when songs carry poetic vocabulary and strong emotional elements. Adamo’s persistent dynamism and his interaction with the audience found expression in many fans singing along to his lyrics.

History, nostalgia frozen in time, repetitive reflections enveloped in a pretty language, romantic and rather démodé in both form and contentÉ the Cairo Opera House invited its audience on a journey through time. Disconnected from reality, it was a form of time travel, covering a distance of almost half a century. It seems Adamo’s formula, set in the 1960s, became a crucial factor for upholding his popularity among an older generation of Egyptians. And the success of the concert reflected that generation’s longing for better, distant times.

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