To say that Québécois singer Philémon Bergeron-Langlois comes across as vulnerable on Les Sessions Cubaines would be an incredible understatement. A good deal of the time he sounds utterly broken – heartsick, and in the throes of romantic despair. He refers to the 15 tracks on the album as chansons, a word that literally translates to “songs,” but which I suspect in French more effectively conveys the sense that the singer is holding both of your hands and staring into your eyes, begging you not to leave.
Because that’s exactly what this sounds like – only imagine the same scene on a hot, quiet evening in Havana. Les Sessions Cubaines is, as the title would suggest, a collection of recordings made in Cuba. Philémon’s account of how he came to be there is deliberately vague, but pregnant with poetic, romantic longing:
“…for various reasons, I was not in great shape. A friend told me to go away for a month. I thought about Cuba. I had long wanted to go, before it explodes – and it’s said there are excellent musicians, and of course – the sun…”
And with that, and perhaps a few belongings tied in a handkerchief on the end of a long stick, Philémon made his way to the island nation in the Caribbean.
There he assembled a group of musicians at the famous Egrem studio, where the Buena Vista Social Club recorded their now classic album, and began to arrange his songs for violin, double bass, Cuban tres guitar, piano, percussion, muted trumpet and, on backing vocals, a woman who had to learn the French lyrics phonetically, as she only spoke Spanish. A 15-minute making-of video on Philémon’s site gives you insight into the process and the characters that gave life to this rich mix of sounds and feelings. It’s a fascinating story and an inspiring adventure, but the music is what counts, and this is an astonishing collection of songs.
There’s a timeless approach to melodic form here, delivered with a sad sense of resignation and unrequited love. But there’s also a self-deprecating humor, a childlike naïveté, and a sophistication to the songs of Philémon, and the Cuban setting offers the perfect space for these elements to develop into something magic.
Whether you understand French is irrelevant, as the emotional heft of this album transcends barriers of language. Yet this is not at all a sentimental record. This is simply emotion, raw and unrefined. Experiencing it may make you yearn to be as heartbroken as Philémon, if only you too could express yourself so beautifully.
Listen to the full album and explore more from Philémon.