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France bids farewell to singer Aznavour, its little 'giant'

Fiachra Gibbons

Agence France-Presse

Paris, France | Sat, October 6, 2018 | 03:05 am
France bids farewell to singer Aznavour, its little 'giant'

French Republican Guards carry the coffin of French-Armenian singer-songwriter Charles Aznavour during the national homage to at the Invalides in Paris on October 5 (AFP/Ludovic Marin)

France paid a moving national homage on Friday to the late singer Charles Aznavour, the little man with the very big life.

With honours that are usually reserved for national heroes, one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century was lauded as a cultural giant by the leaders of his two homelands -- France and Armenia -- at a ceremony in Paris.

Aznavour -- who was still touring at 94 -- died in his bath on Monday just days after he declared that he would like to breathe his last on stage.

He had concerts planned in both Brussels and his hometown of Paris over the next month.

The ceremony at the Invalides began with Aznavour's coffin, draped in the French tricolour flag, being carried into the cobbled courtyard to the haunting Armenian lament, "Dle Yaman", played on a traditional dudek flute.

French President Emmanuel Macron said Aznavour knew suffering and "carried the scar of the genocide of his people" in his heart. That was why "for millions his songs were a balm, a comfort and a cure," he said.

Macron praised the singer's "loyalty to his roots", throwing himself into helping Armenia recover from a devastating earthquake in 1988 and acting as its ambassador to the UN.

"Some heroes become French by spilling their blood. This son of Greek and Armenian immigrants, who never went to secondary school, knew instinctively that our most sacred sanctuary was the French language," and used it like the poet he was, the president added.

- Armenian hero -

Earlier both the Armenian and French national anthems had echoed around the 17th-century Invalides complex which houses Napoleon's tomb.

Fans lined the streets outside as his family, led by his widow Swedish-born Ulla Thorsel, took their places at the ceremony.

Born Shahnour Varinag Aznavourian in Paris in 1924 to parents who had fled the massacres of Armenians in what is now Turkey, Aznavour sold more than 180 million records in a career spanning eight decades and as many languages.  

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who had called the singer a "national hero", said "every Armenian thinks of him as a kind of parent who has carried our name to the world and given Armenians a new pride."

A day of national mourning had also been declared in Yerevan.

In France Aznavour's family are regarded as heroes of the Resistance for risking their lives to hide Jews and Communist partisans in their tiny Paris apartment during the Nazi occupation.

Read also: Legendary French singer Aznavour dies at 94

- Crowds applaud his coffin -

The star -- the author of such classic songs as "She" and "For Me Formidable" -- got his final standing ovation as his coffin was carried out of the Invalides to the strains of his "Take Me Along", with the crowd breaking into spontaneous applause.

Many, wiping away tears, later broke into a rendition of his favourite hit, "La Boheme", with Kelly, a fan in her 20s making the pilgrimage from western France for a last adieu.

"I could not miss this," she told AFP. "Even young people like me knew and adored Aznavour's songs. I saw him in concert in Nantes last January. He was in great form."

Aznavour's legion of fans across the world have been left heartbroken by his death, with fellow entertainers lining up to pay tribute to his influence as a taboo-breaking singer and highly original songwriter.

His songs -- which depicted everything from the inner pain of drag queens to depression and loveless marriages -- have regularly been covered or sampled by everyone from Bob Dylan to Elvis Costello to the rappers Dr Dre and Sean Paul.

Sting and Quincy Jones -- who had both recorded with him -- lauded the "eternal" legacy of the "gentleman" of traditional French "chanson", while Elton John wrote on Twitter that he was "honoured" to have sung with the "French Sinatra".

Multilingual, Aznavour sang in several languages, and his fanbase spanned the globe.

He began writing songs for the legendary Edith Piaf after World War II before being catapulted to fame by Francois Truffaut's film "Shoot the Piano Player" in 1960.

He enjoyed huge commercial success in America, with Dylan calling his 1963 Carnegie Hall show in New York one of best concerts he had ever seen. Indeed rock star Lenny Kravitz tweeted that Dylan the fan had introduced him to the veteran singer.

Aznavour brought a rare intensity to the stage, turning every song into "a one-act play". His dramatic style has since become commonplace.

On Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, well-wishers layed flowers on the pavement star bearing his name.

In Paris, the Eiffel tower was lit up in Armenian gold Monday night in his honour, while Mayor Anne Hidalgo called for the French capital to rename a street after him. 

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