Forty years ago, in October 1978, Jacques Brel passed away. A great name in French music, a film actor and director, he had chosen to retire to the Marquesas, where he spent the last three years of his life, where he also composed his final album, named after the archipelago, helping to make it known across the globe.
Today, you can get from Paris to the Marquesas in less than 30 hours, passing through Tahiti on the way. Jacques Brel, for his part, did not arrive via the classic air route, like most people do. He arrived on his yacht, on a round the world journey that he had chosen to undertake, having left his career as an international entertainer behind him, laying it down at the feet of the « Land of Men ». It was November 1975. He arrived first in Nuku Hiva, the archipelago’s administrative center, where he found the welcome too « pompous », the local authorities being keen to welcome the famous personality in style. He therefore decided to settle on the neighboring island of Hiva Oa, in the archipelago’s Southern group, and so his world tour came to an end. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Brel, having sold over 25 million albums across the world, was a big star. Most especially in Europe, where he had become an icon of French music, of which he was a prominent figure, much like Brassens, Barbara, Ferré, Piaf… a whole generation of popular singers and songwriters coming out of the cabaret. Titles like Quand on n’a que l’amour, Ne me quitte pas, Le Plat Pays, Amsterdam haven’t been forgotten (« When all you have is love » « Don’t leave me » « The Flat lands », « Amsterdam » )… Though his songs were in French, it is notable that he was also a source of inspiration for many famous English-speaking singer-songwriters. Among them David Bowie, Mort Shuman, Léonard Cohen… Many of his songs were translated into English and reinterpreted by famous performers, like Ray Charles, Nina Simone or Frank Sinatra… to name just a few. Jacques even had a number one hit in the USA, Great Britain and Canada in 1974 with Seasons in the Sun, a version of his song Le moribond, performed by the Canadian singer Terry Jacks. In 1966, Brel abandoned his brilliant career as a touring singer, after a good ten years. But he didn’t leave show business. He no longer went on the lengthy tours with their punishing schedules, but the singer-songwriter continued to churn out albums. He also devoted himself to cinema, acting in a number of films, two of which he wrote and directed himself. In 1968, he mounted a stage production of L’Homme de la Mancha, a musical in which he starred as Don Quichotte, performing beside Dario Moreno as Sancho Pança, during long and tiring performances.
At the service of the Marquesan population
In 1973, however, he discovered a new passion, sailing, it put an end to his career on the silver screen, he bought a yacht, the Askoy, a 19-meter, 40-ton ketch, and got his “Home Trade” coastal captain’s license. It was the start of a new life for him, heading out to sail around the world on a journey that was planned to take three years … When he stopped in the Canary Islands, however, he was diagnosed with cancer and had to return to Brussels, in Belgium (where he was born), to have part of his left lung removed. Weakened, but no less determined, he continued his cruise around the world, only deciding to give it all up when he found his home from home, in the Marquesas, the most isolated archipelago from any continent. In Hiva Oa, far from his stressful life as a stage performer and his horror of the paparazzi, Jacques Brel did not actually live like a hermit. He brought his library, his organ, a tape recorder, he sang and continued to write music. He was not just a talented musician, but also an excellent cook. He hosted dinners for the odd famous friends that came to visit him, such as Henri Salvador, as well as new friends he encountered on the island. From the moment he arrived, he said with a touch of his ironic humor, that he wanted nothing to do with the clergy, a point he had in common with his future cemetery neighbor: Gauguin. An attitude that didn’t necessarily go down well on a small island where the population was made up 90% of fervent Catholics.
But in the end, he did make friends with the Catholic sisters and congregation of Saint-Joseph de Cluny, established in Hiva Oa since 1885, and which ran a girl’s boarding school. It allowed Brel to get involved with the local community. He also actively helped Hiva Oa’s inhabitants discover the wonders of cinema, organizing screenings in Atuona’s village square, for a price four times cheaper than in Tahiti. To do this he worked with a cinema operator in Papeete, importing two 35 mm projectors as well as popular films on reels. The population also appreciated his skills as a pilot. Brel had yet another passion, other than music and sailing. In 1965, he got his pilot’s license and was trained to use flight instruments and pilot multi-engine planes in 1970. In November 1976, he bought a twin-engine, a Beechcraft Twin Bonanza that he christened Jojo, in memory of an old friend Georges Pasquier, who had died in 1974. To combat the seclusion of the local populations, particularly those living on islands with only a sea-link, he started delivering post, medicines and shuttled between the islands in the archipelago, delivering goods and the odd passenger. « He’d fly whatever the weather », Serge Lecordier reminisces, former head of Atuona’s Tourism Committee, « in the best traditions of Airmail, unconcerned by unpredictable Pacific storms ; one of the things he loved best was going to Ua Pou, where the landing was particularly hair-raising », the airstrip being narrow and built on a slope, the planes landing and taking off over the ocean, regardless of the wind’s direction. Now and then he would also go to Tahiti (1,500 km away), more than five hours of flight in his small aircraft, taking patients to the hospital in Tahiti.
A last memorable success before his final journey
An ailing Jacques Brel found Hiva Oa to be a place where he could find space to « breathe », far from the frenzied lifestyle that had totally absorbed him for years, performing on stage as if his life depended on it. Alongside his final companion, Maddly Bamy, an actress he met in 1971 while filming Claude Lelouch’s L’Aventure c’est l’aventure (The Adventure is the Adventure), he settled in a house situated near Atuona’s cemetery, and the grave of the famous painter Paul Gauguin. In 1977, much to everyone’s surprise, he released a new album, to help his producer who was in difficulty, and as a tribute to the place that had become his new home. Jacques Brel returned to Paris, long enough to record his last LP Les Marquises. It was a success, with a record one million pre-release purchases and 300,000 copies sold during the first hour of sales. Returning to Hiva Oa as quickly as possible, he returned to the life he loved. He even rented a land on a 30-year lease, so that he could build a house to his taste. However, six months later, in July 1978, during a medical check-up in Tahiti, the oncologist diagnosed the return of his lung cancer. He was forced to return to mainland France for treatment. His health improved, but he died two months later, on October 9th 1978. Not from cancer, « but a pulmonary embolism, linked to thrombosis and… the hounding he was subjected to by the paparazzi… », Fred Hidalgo notes in the biography Jacques Brel, le voyage au bout de la vie (Jacques Brel, the final journey). He was 49. Buried in the same cemetery as Gauguin, one to the right the other to the left of a statue of Christ’s crucifixion, like the two thieves in the gospel of Luke. « … Les pirogues s’en vont / les pirogues s’en viennent / et mes souvenirs deviennent / ce que les vieux en font / veux-tu que je dise : gémir n’est pas de mise / aux Marquises ! » « Outriggers come, and outriggers go. Memories become, what old people know. What would you like me to say as: moaning does not please us, in the Marquesas… ».
The Jacques Brel space and Jojo
In Hiva Oa, where the singer lived between 1975 and 1978, there is a small museum in his memory. The Jacques Brel space, located in Atuona, is now Jojo’s home, the twin-engine plane that the artist used to get around, but also used to assist the island’s population. You can take a close look at the aircraft and find a collection of objects that belonged to Brel. It was a group of volunteers who saved the Beechcraft Twin Bonanza sitting deserted on the tarmac at Tahiti-Faa’a’s airport, before it became target practice for firefighters’ training sessions. Built in Texas in 1956, it arrived in Tahiti in 1975 for use by Tahiti Air Tour Services (TATS), this rather small plane had place for just eight passengers. Maddly Balmy bought it for Jacques Brel in November 1976. After his death it was sold to Robert Wan’s company, Tahiti Pearls in 1978, he then sold it on to Tuamotu Pearls, on Hikueru, in 1982. After that it was put into service by Air Océania, making its last charter flight in 1988 before ending its career in a hangar, then abandoned outside at Tahiti-Faa’a’s airport. The fuselage has since been restored and repainted, the motors and hydraulics repaired, the windows replaced, and today it is proudly exhibited at the Jacques Brel Space, keeping the artist’s memory alive.
The Askoy’s renovation
In 1976, Jacques Brel sold the yacht that had brought him to the Marquesas to a young American couple for a token sum. It then changed hands several times, before ending up stranded on the rocks of a North Auckland beach in New Zealand. The proud 19-meter long, 5-meter wide steel ketch, that Brel had lovingly fitted out, was a wreck. It could easily have been destroyed, were it not for the determination of two Flemish brothers, Staf and Pitt Wittenvrongel, whose father owned the sailmakers in Blankenberg, where Brel had commissioned the Askoy’s sails. In 2004, they created a non-profit organization Save Askoy II (the original name of Brel’s boat, that he renamed Askoy) with the aim of taking up a crazy challenge: first of all saving the rusting carcass of the yacht from the sand and neglect, then renovating it, restoring it to the state that it had been in when the singer left on his round the world journey, from Anvers in 1974. The deadline for getting the boat back in the water: the 8th of April 2019, the great Jacques’ birthday.