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Graeme Allwright - chanteur néo-zélandais

NZ singer Graeme Allwright


Graeme Allwright, né le 7 novembre 1926 à Wellington, est un chanteur, adaptateur de chansons, et auteur-compositeur néo-zélandais. Graeme Allwright s'est éteint, à 93 ans, le 16 février 2020.

 Ayant obtenu une bourse pour intégrer une compagnie de théâtre (Old Vic theater), il vient à Londres en s’engageant comme mousse sur un bateau, puis s'installe en 1948 en France. Bien que s'y révélant excellent comédien, Graeme exerce de nombreux métiers, de la scène à la régie, il devient apiculteur, animateur pour enfants à l’hôpital, professeur d'anglais et de théâtre dans un internat. Encouragé par ses amis amateurs de blues et qu'il charme depuis des années par ses ballades anglaises, il monte à Paris au début des années soixante et chante dans des cabarets.

Graeme Allwright est un des premiers introducteurs en France du folk américain, dans sa veine protest-song. Il contribue également largement, par ses adaptations très fidèles de Leonard Cohen, à faire découvrir ce dernier au public français. Dans le sens inverse, il interprète en 1985 des adaptations en anglais de chansons de Georges Brassens.

Ses textes où l'émotion, la dénonciation moqueuse du conformisme ou des injustices et les appels à la liberté se conjuguent à des mélodies «country » ou «blues», remportent l’adhésion d'un public de tout âge, par-delà les modes.

Refusant la relation artiste/fan classique malgré son succès, il mène une carrière en marge des médias dont les directions le censurent depuis le soutien qu'il a apporté aux agriculteurs contre l'extension d’un camp militaire, et l'adresse directe dans sa chanson Pacific blues en particulier, contre les essais nucléaires français. Au début du 21e siècle, il milite pour le changement des paroles belliqueuses de La Marseillaise.

En1980, Graeme chante avec Maxime le Forestier. Le bénéfice des concerts et du double album est entièrement reversé à l'association Partage pour les enfants du Tiers monde que Graeme Allwright a longtemps soutenue.

En 2005, il replonge à sa source en effectuant une tournée en Nouvelle-Zélande, son pays d'origine où il était totalement inconnu.

Il offre toujours régulièrement « dans les p’tits patelins » de chaleureux concerts, au cours desquels, en toute simplicité et dans une intense empathie, il communique sa quête « d'une étoile qu'il n'a jamais vraiment nommée ».

For his new version of La Marseillaise et the reaction of a certain Mayor, click here.

Graeme Allwright: The Kiwi who became a French folk legend

Graeme Allwright in concert in Cornouaille, Brittany, in 2012.
Graeme Allwright in concert in Cornouaille, Brittany, in 2012.

Sydney Graeme Allwright: musician; b November 7, 1926; d February 16, 2020

Graeme Allwright, who has died aged 93, was an aspiring New Zealand actor who migrated to France in 1951 and rose to fame there as a singer and songwriter of folk ballads in the mid-1960s.

Born in Wellington, he spent his early childhood in Hawera and Whanganui before returning to Wellington, where his father Syd became stationmaster of Wellington Railway Station. Both Syd and wife Doris were accomplished singers and were well-known in musical and repertory circles in the late 1930s, in which they involved Graeme and his elder brother Peter from an early age. The family formed a singing group, the Melody Four, which performed in hospitals and for private events, and once a week on Radio 2YA.

Graeme attended Wellington College, where his final year, 1944, was saddened by Peter's death on active service with Bomber Command in Italy. By then he had become an aspiring actor, and from 1945 to 1948 took part in numerous productions for the Wellington Repertory Theatre Company, the Religious Drama Society and the Light Opera Company alongside Peter Harcourt, Selwyn Toogood and Dick Campion, among other early Wellington theatre personalities.

He gradually progressed to major roles, leading to hopes for a professional acting career abroad, and in 1948 he obtained entry to the Old Vic Theatre School in London, assisted by a small government grant obtained in part through the auspices of Prime Minister Peter Fraser, to whom Allwright's emerging talent had come to the attention. He covered the cost of his passage to Britain working as a general hand on a cargo ship. 

Graeme Allwright in 2005.
Graeme Allwright in 2005.

At the Old Vic school he acted in several student productions with sufficient merit to impress both Dame Edith Evans and Anthony Quayle, who in 1951 invited Allwright to join the company of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, of which he was then director. But Graeme had met and fallen in love with a young French student at the school, Catherine Dasté, and instead followed her to France, where they married in December 1951.

Catherine was the grand-daughter of Jean Copeau, the great renewer of French acting methods and set design in the early 20th century, and the daughter of Jean Dasté, a theatre director whose company the young couple then joined. But Allwright's lack of French limited him to back-stage work until 1956, when he was sufficiently fluent to take on acting roles. In the meantime, and subsequently in between these, he took on a variety of jobs in country areas including beekeeping, bricklaying, plastering, then as an orderly in a psychiatric hospital. 

While in France, he taught himself to play the guitar, and in the 1960s began adapting into French some of the newly emerging folk anthems of the American civil rights and war protest movements. Encouraged by friends, he obtained gigs at Parisian Left-Bank cabarets, and then in 1965 as a supporting act for a concert of the French pop singer Barbara. There his talent was spotted by a Phillips executive who commissioned a first album, which appeared in 1966 under the title Le Trimardeur? (The Tramp). 

Two other albums followed quickly after, in which Allwright combined transpositions into French of songs by Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton and Peter, Paul and Mary among others, together with his own compositions and original French lyrics. His songs of social and political protest, their unique Americano-French rhythms and the slightly melancholic air infusing many of them struck a responsive chord with a French youth audience.

His repertoire became the sound of the 1968 student protest movement in Paris and elsewhere, and Allwright was amazed to find the audience singing along to his lyrics on concert tours throughout France. 

Graeme Allwright performing in New Zealand in 2005.
Graeme Allwright performing in New Zealand in 2005.

In the 1970s he began to tour internationally, both through Europe and North America, and to French-speaking countries in Africa as well as to India and South-East Asia. At the same time he was translating songs of leading French poet-singers such as Georges Brassens for English-speaking audiences. In 1976 he met and became friends with Leonard Cohen, who invited him to transpose some of his songs to French, which Allwright did with notable success with numbers such as The Stranger Song and Sisters of Mercy

In the 1980s, in between singing tours, Allwright returned to the French stage, taking the principal role in a classic play by Molière that also toured to Africa. From then until his last public concert in 2017, he continued both singing and theatre tours, as well as recording more than 20 albums. 

Inspired in part by frequent stays in an ashram in Pondicherry, India, Allwright became committed to the search for peace and justice throughout the world. To this end he rewrote, together with collaborator Sylvie Dion, more pacific words for the French national anthem, la Marseillaise, which they recommended to French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The new anthem was sung by Allwright in Wellington in front of Gandhi's statue on October 2, 2009, for the World March for Peace and Non-Violence. 

Aside from this visit, Allwright returned privately to New Zealand twice before undertaking a concert tour in 2005-06. This tour was filmed by a French film crew and subsequently broadcast in France under the title Pacific Blues. Graeme's commitment New Zealand-France relations is also recognised by having a street named after him in Le Quesnoy, the French village liberated by New Zealand troops in November 1918. 

Although having become a French citizen, Allwright remained a passionate Kiwi. He supported the anti-apartheid and anti-nuclear movements here, being especially appalled about the Rainbow Warrior affair. When asked in 2004 about his dual identity, he replied: "It's true that I love France. Nevertheless, my roots are in New Zealand. There is no doubt about it."

Graeme Allwright is survived by first wife Catherine Dasté, their children Nicolas, Christophe and Jacques, and by second wife Claire Bataille, and their daughter Jeanne.

Sources: Nicolas Allwright, Maurice Clarke