‘It’s the red squares in Rue Saint Denis, it’s the homecoming in Kigali, it’s the Maghreb in spring, it’s president Mandela’. These lines, originally sung in French, from the opening track, Le sommet de nos vies (the peak of our lives) are probably the best possible synthesis of the content of Corneille’s newest album, Entre Nord et Sud (Between North and South).
The title itself expresses the singer’s multiple identities well: born in Germany in 1977 from Rwandan parents (a Tutsi father and a Hutu mother), he moved back to Rwanda with his relatives during his childhood, but in 1994, the year of the genocide, when he was 17 and already making his first steps in the musical field, his entire family was slaughtered. He miraculously survived the massacre, but – left on his own – had to flee to present-day DRC and then back to Germany. Some years later, he decided to go to Canada, where he finally settled down and married.
Entre Nord et Sud – as the artist’s previous albums – mirrors in a more or less direct way all these experiences but, at a first glance the African roots of its author are not so evident, at least from a musical point of view. The album owes much to the American Rhythm&Blues singers and to electronic music, even if some of the riffs are taken from Congolese rumbas and Corneille asserts – as regards the style – that he was inspired by the way of singing he came to appreciate when he was a child in Kigali. After all, despite keeping on saying that the more he ‘evolves’, the more he hears ‘the call of Africa’, the Rwandan-born singer has grown up listening to Prine, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Otis Redding – and even old French ‘chanson’ classics such as the likes of Brassens, Aznavour and Brel – more than to African artists (a notable exception is Fela Kuti).
Despite its 17 tracks and several featuring artists (among others, the French rappers Youssoupha and Kery James, and the Nigerian hip-hop star Ice Prince) there is not much musical variety in Entre Nord et Sud, and that is its main weakness. Things, however, are totally different when we come to the lyrics: ‘This record is a way back to square oneî, Corneille said when presenting it. That, he explained, is because ìI realized that my history was in part slipping away from me, that everything was going too fast’. Entre Nord et Sud was the instrument he chose to get, so to say, back in control of it.
What one witnesses when listening to the album can be described as a stage of a personal transformation: the autobiographical element has always been present in Corneille’s music, since his dÈbut; in Parce qu’on vient de loin, the singer spoke out about his personal history and the Rwandan genocide, and this element – as he himself acknowledges – contributed to his fame, even if at the time (in 2002) he was not yet ready to face the pain that the 1994 events had brought into his life. In his latest album – the sixth in all – the past is still something hard to remember: ìWe are’t going to war anymore / for to gain peace we paid a high price’, reads the translation of C’est notre annèe (It’s our year), and Fais moi la paix (literally translated: Make me peace) is even more explicit: ‘I’ve suffered enough blows, I leave the field, I don’t want the past to wear me away’.
On the other hand, a change is underway, as can be easily perceived first of all by the multiple references to paternity (an affinity with one of Corneille’s previous albums, Sans Titre, recorded in 2009: the artist’s wife, Sofia de Medeiros, gave birth to the couple’s son, Merik, in April 2010). This same feeling is well depicted in other songs, such as A l’horizon (On the horizon), whose lyrics read: ‘You can build something also on ruins / start everything anew and change your lifeî. So, even if the ‘peak of life’ seems sometimes far away in the past, Corneille has not given up hope and can now look not only at his youth and at his present life, but also at his future (as shown by the lines quoted at the beginning of this article, with their reference to a ‘homecoming in Kigaliî). Toujours l‡ (Always there) is probably the song in which this feeling is best expressed, when the artist says: ‘these tears are the past perspiring / at last my chains are light / I’ve got love in my veins, the reason for this smile / Stop singing my pain / I hope to get there someday’.
Generally speaking, Entre Nord et Sud is an attempt to express an African experience (with both political and personal elements) in a mainly non-African form, a challenge not easy to win. In the end, Corneille probably manages to do it, but most likely a casual listener will not fully understand the deepest meaning of the entire album, staying focused only on its quite easy musical structure.