Chanie Jonker, Jannie du Toit and Susan Mouton in Bonjour Monsieur Brel, on at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square. Picture: Ivan Naude

After a successful run in 2017, Jannie du Toit returns to the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Bonjour Monsieur Brel, a musical production that has travelled the country and enjoyed a popular European tour.

In this special concert, Jacques Brel’s famously imaginative texts are sung in four languages ​​and accompanied by a musical ensemble. 

Du Toit has for decades been highly regarded as a Brel interpreter and for excellence in vocal art.

His first production was in 1988 in the production, Van Berlyn Tot Bapsfontein, at Club ’58 in Hillbrow, co-starring Laurika Rauch. Thereafter, Brel songs were part of his trademark. 

Many of his productions featured favourites and from the early 1990s, and he became known particularly for his rendition of the song, Madeleine.

Brel’s passionately haunting songs, which showcase his unique take on the human condition, are the focus of the programme. As in the works of classical composers, his visionary writings and music are timeless. 

Brel’s brilliance emerges equally in all four languages (French, Dutch, English and Afrikaans) ​​– a testament to his unrivalled gift of expression as one of the greatest chansonniers of the 20th century.

Speaking to IOL, Du Toit said his journey with Brel began in the 1980s, mainly owing to the fact that he had been doing Brel songs before developing a full-length show.

“I got to know his music better, to know what went through his mind when he produced the music, and how he framed these big ideas in music. Brel was also a bit of an actor, his presence on stage is also something that cannot be emulated. But having this message in your head pushes you to enact every thought, idea and emotion. That’s how I loved his music  and his commentary on love, on the human condition,” he said.

He said that he had the opportunity to witness his first Brel show, at the Chelsea Hotel in Hilbrow in the 1970. He’s seen many more since then, but he witnessed a gap in how the Brel story was being told.

“I found through the years that people would always talk about the man. His life, how he was middle class, how he went to Paris and got married there and how he protested against the social settings around him that he did not approve of through the music.

“People will almost always talk about the man, but my thought was that, that did not interest me so much. I wanted to know more what his philosophy was…  And so what I decided to do with this show is to focus on the music. Instead of telling a story about Brel, I would quote him,” he said.

With the assistance of Stellenbosch University drama lecturer Juanita Swanepoel, he selected texts, songs that they were not singing, translated it and paired it with a song. What helped in their process is that musicians such as Brel who practised their music in a certain way had congruency of thought, and that helped the show’s flow. They didn’t need to make any commentary about his life.

The show presents as a result a number of universal themes, in French, English, Afrikaans and Dutch. The songs are already in the four languages owing to earlier translations. 

But this multilingualism allows Du Toit to present the show in languages that resonate better with the specific audiences. The abiding text is in English.

On the almost two-year-old show, Du Toit works with Swanepoel as the composer and  compiler of text, Susan Mouton on cello and piano and Chanie Jonker on piano and accordion, with musical arrangements by Matthys Maree and Clinton Zeef. Du Toit is responsible for vocals and guitar, which was also Brel’s instrument of choice.

Du Toit said the show was a chance to hear Brel differently, and there was dimension added to his music by the cello.

“The fact that we bring the cello in makes it all so different. Brel used the guitar, and he had an orchestra that he played with.  While we don’t have that, the warmth and versatility of the cello brings in an element of bass instrument.

“It can also do melodies and harmonies as well as show off its percussive nature. But it’s also a very intimate show, and people always walk out surprised and with hearts warmed,” he said.

* Bonjour Monsieur Brel will run from Today until March 22.