‘Club Chanson’ takes a musical look at French

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‘Club Chanson’ takes a musical look at French

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Living in Korea, surrounded by English language cram schools, it's easy to think of English as the only international language. But the original "language of diplomacy" wasn’t English: It was French. French is one of two official languages of the United Nations. Almost 200 million people speak French, making it the world's fifth-most spoken language. So it shouldn't be surprising that the French Cultural Center, on the 18th floor of the Uri Building near Seoul Station, hosts thriving communities of Francophones and Francophiles, including a reading club and a film club.
But perhaps the most interesting activity at the cultural center is its “Club Chanson,” a singing club run every Thursday at 5 p.m. by Shin Mi-young and Jang Sung-gen. The club has been meeting, and crooning, since 1983; Ms. Shin and Mr. Jang have been with the club since 1986.
Last Thursday the group tackled “Je me souviens,” by Lara Fabian, a singer whose history reflects French internationalism: Born in Belgium to Flemish and Sicilian parents, she's spent most of her career singing in Quebec. After listening to a recording, Ms. Shin leads the group in reciting the lyrics aloud, paying special attention to the added or skipped beats on phrases like “une lumiere” or “que l'on ne peut pas.”
With Mr. Jang accompanying on the guitar, Ms. Shin then begins to sing, preparing to lead the group in a test run. When she gives advice, the bright, ringing Korean that interrupts the dark, soaring tones of her French singing voice is a jarring contrast.
Ms. Shin helps with posture and vocal technique, but her class seems geared more toward imitation of the recording than to individual interpretation. Still, simply getting a room full of nervous non-native speakers to sing every week is enough of an accomplishment.
Though Ms. Shin tries to choose a variety of different artists, she favors ballads, which have the added bonus of a slow tempo suitable for uncertain singers. Every first and third Thursday, the club practices music from the last five years; every second Thursday, from the 1980s and 90s, and every fourth Thursday, from the 1970s.
Foreigners were clearly a minority, but there are a few. A Bangaladeshi man who learned French in his home country stood out among the six Korean participants on Thursday. Ages ranged from students to parents, and one participant's young children made sure the proceedings didn’t get too serious.
The focus of the group's efforts is the “Concours National de la Chanson Francophone,” a contest run by the French Embassy every November in which Koreans get a chance to show off their singing, en francais. Visitors to the club can take home a recording of the best of last year's contest, with selections by Celine Dion, Thierry Amiel and Isabelle Boulay, sung in near-perfect accents by performers named Kim, Lee and Yu.


by Ben Applegate
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