September 06, 2017

Alfredo Merat: Spicing Up Brel

(click for larger version)
Picture a French singer circa 1950 – cigarette in hand, emoting into the microphone, eliciting tears of joy and standing ovations from the smoky nightclub throng.

If you're thinking of a female, it's Edith Piaf. And if you're thinking of a guy, it's Jacques Brel.

Of course, Brel is actually Belgian, but he was embraced by Europe, and eventually the world, as the quintessential Gallic singer-songwriter, his music covered by everyone from Ray Charles to Celine Dion. He is even the subject of a cult off-Broadway hit, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which was made into an even greater cult film in 1975.

It would seem that every interpretation of Brel and his music has been done to death.

Not so fast, says Alfredo Merat.

Merat, who was born in Spain and raised in Bordeaux, has called the East End home for the past 30-plus years. His songs and voice are well-known in all the best Hamptons night spots. Merat recalled being deeply touched by Brel when he was a teenager growing up in France.

"Songs like 'Amsterdam' and 'Ne me quitte pas' -- his lyrics and the way he composed, the architecture of his songs, and his delivery as a performer -- just got to me," Merat said. "I was mesmerized. I picked up the guitar because of him when he had just died, in 1978. I was 17," he remembered. Brel was only 49 when he was taken by lung cancer.

But Merat has added a Latin feel to songs which are typically thought of as, well, morose.

"Due to the nature of his well-known and heavier body of work, I feel he has been forgotten," Merat said. "I wanted to bring forward the lesser-known Brel -- the happy Brel; fun and exciting," he continued.

In that vein, last year Merat offered a show at Bay Street, Brel by Alfredo, and now has dropped a CD, recorded in Havana, Cuba, that offers rearranged versions of Brel's most famous and not-so-well-known numbers.

"To the end of his life he wrote sad songs," Merat said, "but he also wrote other tunes that are so much fun – 'La Chanson de Jacky,' 'Le Moribond,' and 'Bruxelles,' just to name a few. I've added a different Latin sound -- bolero, bachata, and even salsa. I hope he would be proud to be presented in this new and vibrant way," Merat said.

As far as his own history, Merat laughed. "It has gone fast. It began in 1997 at the Wild Rose Café in Bridgehampton. It was a good time for my band Europa," he said. Since 2014, Merat has kept busy with alfredomusika and the Brel project.

"It has its own set of challenges, but I love what I do," said Merat, whose "day job" is being the founder and proprietor of Villas of the World in Sag Harbor and on the web. As far as his music career, "so many local people, restaurants, and hotels have been supportive, and continue to support me and my musical adventures by coming to the shows or booking me," he said. "I am grateful and forever indebted to this wonderful place we call home."

Speaking of bookings, Merat can be heard this Saturday at the East Hampton Airport party from 12 to 3, and plays every Sunday at Baron's Cove in Sag Harbor through October 8. "Stay tuned for a new Brel show in the works for 2018 at Bay Street," he promised. "It will be a story-telling musical theater piece to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Brel's death."

Brel would be so proud.

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