A few years ago I was at a large, rambling party on a hot summer’s night in Cape Town. It was not unusual in being populated by unconnected global drifters at varying stages in their lives and futures. Cape Town is a city that has always been at ease with people just passing through. What was unusual was that there was a small brass band in the garden playing old-fashioned dance tunes. As the night wore on I got chatting to some of the members of the band. It turned out that they were all French-speaking and, stretching my French to its very limits, I discovered they were helicopter pilots from the DRC who had come to South Africa for training and been left stranded when Mobutu’s rule came to its sudden end in 1997. While they waited to discover if they would have a place in the new dispensation, they made some extra cash by performing music.
The party ebbed and flowed and was still limping on at about 6 am the next morning when the band struck up a final set. By now they’d been joined by a couple of tired and emotional Mauritians who embraced them like long-lost brothers while they sang tearfully together in French. Their homesickness was palpable and it struck me that this suburban garden at the tip of Africa seemed like the loneliest place on earth to those guys. The flip-side of Cape Town’s easy cosmopolitanism is that it’s full of people who are missing home.
A particular song from that morning has always stuck in my mind because it seemed both so beautiful and incongruous as it spoke longingly of the Champs- Elysées. Over the years I’ve often thought about that morning and I’ve wondered how I might track the song down. A little while ago I was in a supermarket queue in Brussels – a long way from Cape Town – and the elderly guy ahead of me was humming the tune. I asked him what it was and it turns out it’s ‘Les Champs-Elysées’ by Joe Dassin. So here it is – a song about Paris, that I first heard in Cape Town being sung by homesick Congolese and Mauritians, and which I lost, and found again in Brussels.