Legendary ambassador of the French language Charles Aznavour continues to promote ties between French-speaking countries
Interview by Achren Verdian
At 94 years of age, the iconic Charles Aznavour remains ever young at heart. One of the world’s most celebrated entertainers, the popular and enduring French-Armenian singer, lyricist, actor, public activist, and diplomat continues to delight audiences around the world with his unique clear tenor voice. He has recorded more than 1200 songs in eight different languages during a career that has spanned eight decades, selling more than 180 million records worldwide. France’s favorite son and the most famous Armenian of his time, he has been named entertainer of the century by CNN and in 2017 was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He has sung for royalty, popes and presidents, as well as for several humanitarian and charitable causes, notably founding the Aznavour for Armenia organization in response to the 1988 Armenian earthquake. In 2009, he was appointed ambassador of Armenia to Switzerland, as well as Armenia’s permanent delegate to the United Nations at Geneva. We spoke to Charles Aznavour from his home in the South of France.
Q. Over a truly remarkable and eclectic career that spans more than 70 years and has brought you international fame, you have recorded more than 1200 songs in 8 different languages. And yet the French language, so beautifully crafted in your hands, is closest to your heart. How did your love of the French language come about?
A. No I have been performing on stage for 85 years (laughing)! My own voice is that of the cobblestones of Paris. I am the product of my childhood readings from Jean de la Fontaine to Victor Hugo, and all the writers I have since had the pleasure of reading and who helped elevate my vocabulary. As a songwriter I was inspired by common French phrases and expressions such as ‘Tu t’laisses aller’ (You’ve let yourself go), ‘Il faut savoir’ (You’ve got to learn), ‘Hier encore’ (Yesterday when I was young), ‘Pourtant’, (Yet I know), ‘Desormais’ (From now on), etc.
This is what distinguishes my work. I am not an intellectual but a wordsmith. And I’m proud of that. I can spend days searching for just the right word or phrase, writing it down, crossing it out, tearing it up and starting all over again until I’m satisfied.
Q. Some of your songs, starting with the classic “La Boheme”, have been translated into other languages. Do you think the subtlety and depth of the French language suffered in translation?
A. I have collaborated with very talented translators such as Herbert Kretzmer, Dee Shipman, Marcel Stellman, Rafael De Leon, and Giorgio Calabrese, who all understood the meaning of my lyrics. As a result of having worked closely with them I succeeded in making my songs appeal to foreign ears.
Q. You are often referred to as the ambassador of French song throughout the world. What is it about the lyrics and the themes of your music that connects to global audiences in a universal way?
A. I write my songs as they would be written in the street and have never been afraid of words, challenging my audience and tackling subjects that have not been addressed. I am inspired by all the life around me and all aspects of society.
Q. Internationally, the ‘chanson française’ has become synonymous with romanticism and seduction, to what extent has that stereotype limited other forms of French music?
A. Indeed the works other artists have often gone unrecognized.
Q. Among all your songs, which do you enjoy most performing?
A. My songs are like my children, I love them all and I do not have any favorites.
Q. In your opinion, what other Francophone songs or artists will have a lasting legacy and why?
A. In the world or in France? As for today’s artists, I do not know, history will determine that. In France the repertoire of some of our artists has unfortunately disappeared but I think that [Edith] Piaf and [Charles] Trenet will always be part of the French heritage in the world.
Q. You are without a doubt the most famous and popular French-speaking (and Armenian) artist internationally. Blessed with this dual nationality, you were the ideal choice to perform in Yerevan on October 11th on the occasion of the Francophonie Summit. To what extent is that a source of pride for you?
A. I often say that I am like coffee with milk, once mixed you cannot separate the two again. I am proud of my two identities and proud to be able to participate in this event which aims to bring them closer together.
Q. Can you reveal some of the songs you are planning to perform during the October 11 gala concert?
A. Oh no! I always choose my titles at the last minute, sometimes I even change one just before going on stage.
Q. Which songs in your repertoire would you say, through their lyrics and melodies, most embody the soul and richness of Francophone music?
A. None and all at once. It is the entirety of my work that is important.
Q. Being selected to host for the first time the Francophonie Summit—the largest international event to be held on Armenian soil—sends a beautiful message to the Armenian people, does it not?
A. Yes. Armenia deserves it and in many respects. The historical and emotional ties are very strong between France and Armenia. We must ensure that they live on and expand.
Q. Relations between France and Armenia date back to medieval times and have since become stronger throughout their shared history, especially during the Armenian genocide when France welcomed many survivors. France was also not afraid to jeopardize relations with Turkey by officially recognizing the Genocide. How would you characterize the relationship between the countries today?
A. I have always invested and committed myself to support relations between France and Armenia and I will continue to do so at the next summit of the Francophonie in Yerevan. The French language must become the third language of Armenia to preserve these ties. It will be an extraordinary contribution to the artistic development of youth. On a related note, we must not forget this extraordinary coincidence that we once had kings in Armenia of French origin by the name of Lusignan.
Q. Over the course of your career, what impact did your identity and Armenian heritage have on your work, your perspective and the choices you made in life? Would you say that they provided an additional source of spirit and emotion to the lyrics of your songs?
A. My parents, both of whom were artists, taught us from a very early age a love for the arts. Music, theater, dance and singing. My sister and I awoke to the sound of Armenian songs, and that was soon followed by all Armenian poetry and music.
Q. You are considered a national hero in Armenia, and serve as the country’s ambassador to Switzerland and the United Nations in Geneva, an acknowledgment of your unwavering commitment to the Armenian people during one of their darkest chapters during the 1988 earthquake. Why was it so important to bring your talents and fame to the service of Armenia and its Armenian people?
A. Yes it was very clear to me, there was never a question in mind. When I saw the terrible earthquake in 1988, it was in that moment when I felt the most Armenian. It is true before that I was a small town Parisian.
Q. More recently, you took a public stand during April’s ‘Velvet Revolution’ to welcome the arrival in power of a new team in Armenia, whose stated aim is to turn the page on years of corruption and undemocratic exercise of power. Is this a historic moment for Armenia?
A. It is a historic moment, a turning point and maybe even a model for its neighbors. I look forward to soon be able to visit and see firsthand what changes the new government wants to implement to improve the lives of Armenians and the future of the country.
Q. You recently launched the Aznavour Foundation. What are its objectives and scope, and your hopes for it in the future?
A. I created the Aznavour Foundation in Armenia with my son Nicolas to pursue our social and cultural projects in Armenia. My ambition is to open a cultural center by expanding the “Charles Aznavour Home” which sits at the top of the waterfalls in Yerevan. The Aznavour Center will be a place of Franco-Armenian culture and friendship for young people. There will be a museum section, a recording studio, classrooms and a concert hall. It will be a very lively place of cultural exchange that will inspire youth and give them the means to realize their dreams. I think that all Armenians understand the interest of this project and I invite them to join me but I also count on the support of the French government!
Q. You have just celebrated your 94th birthday! Yet we know you refuse to contemplate retirement. What projects are you working on at the moment and what can we wish for you now?
A. I will continue to perform on stage as I once wrote, ‘as long as my heart beats’! (Laughs).
Translated from French by Dan Halton