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Listening to Belgian musician, Stromae (Maestro in the French slang, Argo) is like hearing a strange new country. The mix of electronic beats with splashes of influences that could be Arabic, Congolese, Salsa or anything else, holds me captive. It’s a taste of something sad and true and human and joyous, what Brazilians might call ‘saudade’. It’s bitter, it’s sweet – and this particular flavor is completely new to me. 

Stromae came to my attention one morning while listening to CBC radio’s French language station. I heard ‘Papaoutai’ (Papa where are you?) for the first time. It was a tragic, pleading call to absent fathers, set to electronic music. I wanted to weep and dance at the same time.

I soon discovered that Stromae was just as compelling to watch as to listen to. He’s a tall, angular, immaculately dressed modern day dandy. Tragic or morose observations of life are delivered with alternating scowls and grins. He is articulate, insightful, poetic and very, very funny.

Belgium-Rwandan Heritage

Paul van Haver aka Stromae is of mixed Flemish-Rwandan heritage, born and raised in Belgium.

The 28 year old discovered an ingenious way of marketing his music. He constructed a series of lessons on how to make a hit song in four easy steps.

Record the following: a track of percussion, a track of bass, then brass. Add lyrics, play them all together and then – boom – hit song. Not so easy for the rest of us. (Also note, instructions are all delivered in rapid French). For him, this unique way of reaching out to, entertaining and empowering an audience has worked out well.

UK newspaper, The Guardian claims that Stromae expresses the ‘malaise of the eurozone’.

His influence however, is rapidly spreading far beyond Europe. The haunting ‘Papaoutai’ has been covered by many, from Denmark’s Giovanca to Morocco’s Meezo L-Fadly.

Remixes and Samples

Latin American artist Lady Cultura has choreographed to it envisioning an alternate, more uplifting ending. Kanye West has remixed ‘Alors on danse’. Canada’s Kellylee Evans has recorded an acoustic jazz version of the same song with new English lyrics. Will.I.Am shared the stage with him in Paris last year.

In the video for yet another hit song, ‘Formidable’ from the latest album ‘Racine Carré’, Stromae is convincing as a distraught and drunken lover. At the end of this heartbreaking performance, he winks, clicks his heels and dances off down an alley.

Stromae entertains, teases and also makes us feel as if we are all in on the same cosmic joke – a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ that we cannot always articulate. We’re sad, and we’re not sad.

Nothing is perfect. We notice – and we’re still going to dance.

© Gloria Blizzard is a Toronto-based writer

      Photo: Stromae

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