Belgian phenomenon Stromae takes music to North America
If Europe can dance to English-language music, North America can learn to do the same with French, says Belgian singer-songwriter Stromae, as he takes a new continent by storm.
A phenomenon across Europe, the lanky 29-year-old electronica star -- whose upbeat, danceable tunes often belie heavy lyrical themes ranging from abandonment to marital violence -- has played sold-out concerts in Montreal this week, with another in New York on Friday, ahead of his first major North American tour later this year.
"The challenge though is to come and sing French in someone else's backyard," the artist told AFP.
In English-speaking North America, he said, carrying off French songs is "a little more complicated than for some other countries that speak a different language".
The son of a Flemish mother and a Rwandan father who died in the country's 1990s genocide, Paul Van Haver, alias Stromae, was raised by his mother alongside three siblings in the Brussels suburbs.
Even as he sets out to conquer the Americas, the singer-songwriter, who sees his music as "a mix between song, Congolese rumba, salsa, hip-hop music and dance music" says he has no desire to perform in English, even if he speaks it well.
"I don't foresee doing it in the near or medium future," he said, without ruling out "collaborations with people who sing in English."
"When you hear people express themselves in a language that's not theirs," the music suffers, Stromae said -- especially if the reason for it "is only strategic."
Of singing in English, he said: "I wouldn't be convinced in the least, and I have to be convinced before others can be.
In mid-September, he will return for a dozen concerts across the continent from Boston to Toronto to Los Angeles, having already performed a series of 90 often sold-out, back-to-back performances in Europe and Morocco this year.
Notable hits include the 2009 "Alors On Danse" but two songs on his second album "Racine Carree", which has sold more than two million copies since its release last year, helped shoot him to fame.
One is "Formidable", whose amateur-looking YouTube video has received more than 80 million views, while the slicker "Papaoutai" - a play on the French words for "Dad, where are you?" -- topped even that with more than 158 million views.
Stromae's beat is infectious but the words are often personal, even painful. In "Papaoutai", he plays the "missing" father, a robot-like man who seems not to see or hear his son.
"Where are you, papa? /Tell me, where are you papa? ," he sings. "Everyone knows how to raise a child/But no one knows how to raise a father."
- Vulnerable -
Stromae -- whose stage name is an anagram of the word "maestro" in the "Verlan" French street slang that reverses words' syllables -- is regularly compared to 1950s and '60s Belgian singer Jacques Brel.
"He's one of the people whom I listened to a lot and whom I still listen to," Stromae said, claiming that they both share "a certain vulnerability".
"That's what interests me the most. People whom I respect more and more are those who show themselves genuinely (emotionally) naked."
"It's maybe also very Belgian, it's a way of presenting yourself as human, to say 'I can be very ridiculous and I can be very stupid, and be someone great, and I am a human being like everyone'," he said.
Stromae says his other influences include Motown, which he says his mother listened to, as well as Michael Jackson and hip hop stars such as the Notorious B.I.G.
It is this diversity that has perhaps helped his songs transcend the generation gap in many households.
"It's really great to hear of whole families who listen, from the smallest child to the grandparents. It's really touching," he said, adding however that he was not completely at ease with the "scary" level of success he has found.
Of all the temptations that can greet a pop star on tour, however, Stromae is currently focusing on one thing: finding a bar in which to watch Belgium play in the World Cup.
"There are Belgian bars in New York," he said.
"But I don't know if it's the best idea, if I want to watch my match in a calm and concentrated manner."
© 2014 AFP