Radio host talks about show, “Bonjour Chanson”

“Welcome to Bonjour Chanson,” said radio show host Charles Spira in one of his most recent episodes of “Bonjour Chanson.” “In this episode, we will focus on Francophone songs from today. The commentary is in English. No knowledge of French is required. My name is Charles Spira, and I will be your host.”

Spira has run “Bonjour Chanson” for Public Radio Exchange since 2008. The show highlights contemporary Francophone singers. Spira shared his passion and admiration for French music on Thursday, March 29, at Guilford in Duke 303 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Spira began his presentation by emphasizing the role of French music and its development over the years.

“French chanson was born in the cabarets of the middle of the 19th century,” said Spira. “Patrons enjoyed drinks, small plates and desserts while listening to romantic ballads, opera and ditties. From there, chanson evolved through influences from Italy, North Africa, jazz and blues, and since the late 1950s, Anglo-Saxon music like rock and roll, country and rap.

“All these influences have endowed French chanson with an extraordinary diversity, vitality and riches.”

Spira, whose native language was Flemish, grew up learning French.

“There’s a bit of background,” said Spira in a phone interview with the Guilfordian. “When I was a little boy, about 10 years old, I used to go every Saturday with my mother and my sister, to a music hall in Belgium. And it was like a variety program, with acrobats and dancers and magicians, and there was an orchestra. But after the intermission, there was a very talented and famous French singer.

“I did this for years, and I saw all the great French singers on the stage.”

Spira gained inspiration for “Bonjour Chanson” during a car ride in 2007.

“I forgot about it for many years, but in 2007, I bought a new car, which had a satellite radio. And one of the channels on the satellite radio was called ‘Sur La Route,’ which means ‘On the Road’ in French and they had 24-hour French music, but the quality was very poor. So I decided that I could do better, because I remembered all my knowledge about French chansons.”

After retiring from his job as a nuclear physicist, Spira created the radio show, with the hope of making French music more accessible to and more appreciated by English-speakers. He hopes to use music to break cultural barriers.

“And that’s relevant especially in Canada,” said Spira. “My hope would be that it would also help the two communities in Canada, one is French speaking, the other English speaking, to bring them together.”

The presentation by Spira featured music by Francophone artists Glen Campbell, Jacques Brel, Olivia Ruiz, Matthieu Aschehoug, Clio Tourneux, Florent Nesles, Eskelina, Malo’, Léopoldine HH, Guilam, Mélinée and Gilles Roucaute. Each piece of music came with a unique story.

Spira played the song, “The Pink Suitcase,” by Annie Svanstein, which tells the story of Svanstein’s decision to move to France after growing up in Sweden.

“After graduating from high school, she felt very restricted in that town, and on a whim bought a one-way ticket to France, lived in awful digs without creature comforts, played music on the streets, learned more French and was discovered in less than three years,” said Spira.

By listening to the Francophone music, community members gained a better understanding of the harmony found through exploring a diverse range of music genres in a foreign language.

“I think it helps show the different perspectives on everything and how varied those are in the world,” said Early College student Barrie Wiener. “And then it also, it has people see, how the world is from someone else’s point of view and maybe experience a part of life for someone else.”

The event emphasized the importance of appreciating and embracing diversity.

“I know there’s a lot of international students at Guilford, and since there is a lot of diversity here, I think it’s important to learn how to accept the differences between the cultures,” said Early College student Jennifer Hwang. “And not just accept them, but to try to get to know more about them and be interested in them. And I think these cultural events also help raise awareness of the cultural diversities around this.”

With hopes of using music as a means of communication to bring unity and community, Spira spoke about the power of music.

“Music speaks directly to the heart,” said Spira. “And that’s why it can bring people together. So it’s easier to bring people together when they are enjoying a common entertainment, than rather preaching that they should be more tolerant of other people.”

Spira’s released series of “Bonjour Chanson” is available on the PRX website.