Thursday, July 30, 2009

Si J'Etais Blanche!

I just got a new Josephine Baker CD, and I've become obsessed in particular with a song called "Si J'Etais Blanche!" (If I Were White!) that I've transcribed with what I believe are the CORRECT lyrics, or "paroles" (other versions online are a little off), and translated below. It's a fabulous song, and one that I'd be interested in performing in the right setting.

I've always loved Josephine Baker, and French music hall and early jazz shows in general, but listening to her again is revelatory. I hear in her voice, in the orchestrations and playing, and in the general ambiance, the feeling of Paris in the '20s and '30s, of the excitement of the transition between vaudeville and jazz styles, and the playfulness of the entertainment. It's all so sexy, so coded, so full of joie de vivre, and represents all types of new cultural transgressions.

Josephine Baker in particular is able to represent these transgressions, being a black performer who was at once feverishly admired and thought of as singularly "other." She both embraced and rejected stereotypes of herself as a fabulous exotic in the "tumulte noir" which gripped Paris in the '20s, in which Parisians became entranced by all things African and African American. Picasso and Matisse were doing artwork inspired by African sculpture, blacks and whites alike performed in blackface in revues to appreciative audiences, and the bored and decadent white world became suddenly alive to a new frontier of expression, casting off traditional European forms in the pursuit of something more natural and spontaneous.

Josephine Baker represented the sexualized and totally charming female who could bridge black and white cultures, with her ability to both sing like a bird in a quintessentially French style, and to dance with extraordinary expression and agility, in a mix of jazz baby and "native" styles. She was a completely invented creature, with her dark skin and shimmering satin gowns, native Haitian costumes, or black tie and tails, representing nature and culture, American and European, male and female, and even human and animal, with her performing as a bird in a cage, or being constantly compared to a beautiful panther.

The music hall and cabaret were places where transgressive ideas about gender could be expressed - there were many female and male cross-dressers who sang witty and bawdy songs - and also for race-bending. Even the most racist whites in America and Europe could not deny the force of jazz, and of the black performers who burst onto the entertainment scene with so much force and talent that they could not be ignored. But whereas in America the shows were segregated and being black was thought of as a misfortune, in Paris Josephine Baker became a woman to be frankly admired. Her image was everywhere, even promoted through products such as skin-darkening lotion and hair pomade with her picture on them, so that the women of Paris could emulate her.

While Josephine Baker performed in blackface like other black and white performers, she embraced the African stereotype with her own brand of irony, reclaiming it for herself, and also one-upped everyone when she performed "Si J'Etais Blanche!" in white-face and a blonde wig. This song was a challenge to her projected image as an "exotic," and showed that she could create her image as she pleased, like any great white performer.

Although the lyrics speak about a wistful desire to be white, they also proclaim the superiority of having dark skin, and of not having to go out in the sun like Europeans in order to attain a beautiful color. The reason in the end for wanting to be white is so "that I will please you more," and not from any inner sense of inferiority. So it is really a protest against racism, and a plea to have herself be considered on the same level a a white woman.

The lyrics, song, and translation follow:


(Bobby Falk / Leo Lelièvre / Henri Varna)

Je voudrais être blanche
Pour moi quel bonheur
Si mes seins et mes hanches
Changent de couleur

Les Parisiens à Juan-les-Pins
Se faisaient droit
Au soleil d’exposer
Leur amour un peu noir

Moi pour être blanche
J’allais me roulant
Parmi les avalanches
En haut du Mont Blanc

Ce stratagème
Donne un petit rigole
J’avais l’air dans la crème
D’un petit pruneau

Étant petite avec chagrin
J’admirais dans les magasins
La teinte pâle de poupées blanches

J’aurais voulu leur ressembler
Et je disais à l’air accablé
Me croyant toute seule brune au monde

Au soleil c’est par l’extérieur
Que l’on se dore
Moi c’est la flamme de mon cœur
Qui me colore

Faut-il que je sois blanche
Pour vous plaire mieux

Listen to song:


I’d love to be white
What a joy for me
If my breasts and my thighs
Changed color suddenly

The Parisians at Juan-Les Pins
Can have their fun
Exposing loves already blackened
To the sun

To make myself white
I went to the Alps
And rolled in the snow there
But it didn’t help

I was no closer
To my little dream
I merely looked like a prune
In a dish of cream

When I was a girl I sadly admired
All the dolls I saw in stores
With skin so pale and white, unlike my own

I would have liked to look like them
And I said with a defeated air
I felt like the only brown girl in the world

It’s in the sun that others
Get a healthy glow
But for me, it’s the flame of my heart
That colors me so

I must be white so I will please you more!

I've always been fascinated with early jazz examples where race is highlighted, because the worst thing about being on an "other" race is your invisibility culturally. And since the '30s is my favorite cultural and aesthetic era, I'm always excited by images, for instance, of sexy non-white females such as Lena Horne in Cabin in the Sky, or Anna Mae Wong in Shanghai Express. Strangely enough, I even like it when white women play sexualized "orientals," such as Ruby Keeler playing the Chinese courtesan Shanghai Lil in Footlight Parade, because the depiction represents a white fantasy or longing to be like the other.

I suppose the interest in performers such as Josephine Baker came directly from the interest in American jazz culture, and by the same token the interest in Anna Mae Wong and other Chinese things in the '30s came from art-deco, which has may Chinese motifs. There is a Noel Coward song that interests me called "Half-Caste Woman," all about a half-Asian woman in a "shimmering gown." One of the lines is "Half-caste woman, what are your slanting eyes waiting and hoping to see?"

I remember watching Vaginal Davis perform with the Velvet Hammer a few years ago in blackface doing a vaudeville number, and I will never forget the power of that performance. There was such a sense of reclaiming the minstrel show for himself as a vehicle for expression, and there was so much anger, humor, and energy in the show that very powerful feelings were stirred up. I imagine some of the early blackface jazz shows to have been like this, with both blacks and whites trying to sort out stereotypes and differences through entertainment, love, hate, and discomfort. They are too often seen much too simply as direct attempts at defining the other in a racist way, but it's much more complicated than that.

I've included here a link to a number Josephine Baker did in Princesse Tam-Tam, that shows the Parisians' simultaneous fascination, envy, and revulsion for a totally "natural" and spontaneous creature, that offends their sense of propriety, but that they can't peel their eyes away from. Far from being a race-related transgression, Baker's transgression in this scene is totally sex-related: she is simply too frankly sexual for high-society Paris to deal with. And of course, as everyone knows, in the movies anyway, sex appeal is a very GOOD thing! Of course her spontaneity does come partly form being "natural," but this was after all the first sexual revolution in America and Europe, the sexual revolution of the roaring '20s.

I'm shocked to realize that I haven't write a blog in long, but in the meantime I've finished my feature script for THE LOVE WITCH, and I'm designing the production now through sketches. I'm also planning on shooting a short film or two on Super 8mm or 16mm, just to get myself back into production in a gentle way. I'll write more about all of this soon!



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