Des de Moor
Press Cuttings: Chanson

The Stage 27 June 2002
Des in action
Photo: Eve Matthews

The Euro vision

Examining the differences between British and European cabaret, Sandra Lawrence suggests the UK has some catching up to do

"There seems to be a lot of confusion," admits Des de Moor, chanteur and host of London's premier European cabaret club Pirate Jenny's. "Up until recently, even Time OUt was referring to comedy as cabaret."

But it is not so amazing that big listings magazines should get it so wrong. Cabaret means so many things to so many people that it is incredible that some bright spark has not invented a whole new set of words to differentiate a few terms.

Barb Jungr, one of the doyennes of British cabaret whose Linn album entitled The Space In Between was a huge hit last year, is sure about what does not constitute cabaret.

It's not about just collecting a few loosely linked standard and putting them together on stage," she says. "Those endless collections of Sondheim carbon copies have their place -- but don't call it cabaret."

She feels that cabaret seems to have become some sort of bag for "stuff that's not good enough" for any other genre. "It's an insult," she fumes.

Perhaps we get so confused about the word because our island lies in between two continents, both of which have very strong cabaret traditions. In the blue corner there is the much-revered American 'supper' cabaret, personified by legends such as Liza Minnelli and the superb Barbara Cook. [...]

In the red corner -- so to speak, of course -- is the far more threatening European cabaret. This art form emanates directly from pain, poverty as well as political impotence.

"It is born of desperation after the Second World War," explains Jungr. Weill, Brecht, Brel and Paif are all examples of the kind of cabaret that the new British breed of artists seeks to emulate, interpet and mould to their own experience. It is not always comfortable listening. Artists such as Jungr, Robb Johnson, Caroline Nin and the superlative Tiger Lillies are not just giving to their audience, they want something in return.

For example, Brel's Ne me Quitte Pas -- a song which most British people know as a sweet love song -- when translated back to reveal its true meaning becomes a nightmare of relinquishing one's last shred of self-respect.

"It's about being so naked with someone you can't be hurt," explains Jungr, who had the song retranslated for her album. "I find it fascinating -- the things that people wouldn't admit even to their friends."

And that is what European cabaret is about -- laying yourself emotionally naked before an audience and forcing them to confront similar emotions within themselves.

"Both Barb and I have experience hostility though," admits Des de Moor, another leading member of the British cabaret scene. "Even some critics find it embarrassing to sit in the audience with a performer being so honest onstage."

Maybe this is why some tend to shy away from the really hard, emotional material which is taken for granted on the continent. Ask any French person about Brel, Nougaro or Brassens and not only will they have heard of them, they will be able tosing along with much of their material.

"Over here we seem to delight in anti-intellectualism," says de Moor. "Anyone who tries to work with words and emotions gets labelled pretentious."

Although former stars from other areas of the music business -- Marc Almond and Marianne Faithfull, for example -- have had successful cabaret shows recently, many feel that they have had to camp it up a bit to become more accessible to a wider audience. This is not always necessary. Take the Tiger Lillies -- the enormously popular alternative act which shot to popular fame through the surreal musical Shockheaded Peter. No one could ever accuse Martyn Jacques, who rose through the ranks of Berlin cabaret and named the group after a prostitute he knew, of compromise.

"Prostitutes are my heroes," he says. "They are the opposite of bourgeois -- an animal, gutter life." The group's robust style developed from the raucous Berlin scene and has broken through to the mainstream despite the subject matter -- bestiality, amputees, deranged pensioners and, er, Slough.

Maybe it is a translation problem. Certainly British people are notorious for not wanting to listen to songs in another language. That is why most European cabaret artists sing in English. And with an ever-growing army of new songwriters writing in a cabaret style but using British language and themes, the genre is gradually opening out.

Both Jungr and de Moor have looked to English language subjects for their latest projects, proving that they are not merely slaves to the European tradition.

Jungr's new album, Every Grain of Sand, is a collection of Bob Dylan songs interpreted in her own style and de Moor has stayed even closer to home with a show based on David Bowie's more obscure material, Darkness and Disgrace.

"You need to know your own tradition," says Jungr. "Cabaret is about creating something relevant to you -- not just copying someone else."

I would seem that however uncompromising the new breed of cabaret is, it is increasingly popular with a new audience. The Komedia in Brighton, home of Jungr's Cafe Prague club, is regularly host to huge audiences of regulars who happily sit through two hours of "bizarre activity" and Pirate Jenny's is the Vortex's busiest Monday night.

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