Little man with a big life: France bids farewell to singer Charles Aznavour

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Little man with a big life: France bids farewell to singer Charles Aznavour
Photo: AFP

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" which was why "for millions his songs were a balm, a comfort and a cure."

He praised the singer's "loyalty to his roots" by throwing himself into helping Armenia recover from a devastating earthquake in 1988 and becoming an ambassador for the country 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, Macron 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, which was attended by France's last two leaders, Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy.

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.

(Charles Aznavour. AFP)

Crowds clap his coffin

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

Aznavour's legions of fans have been left heartbroken by his death, while fellow entertainers line up to pay tribute to his influence as a taboo-breaking singer and highly original songwriter.

His songs have regularly been covered or sampled by everyone from Elvis Costello to the rappers Dr Dre and Sean Paul.

Rock stars Sting and Lenny Kravitz lauded the "eternal" legacy of the "gentleman" of traditional French song, while Elton John wrote on Twitter that 
he was "honoured" at having sung with the man known as the "French Sinatra".

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

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

He enjoyed huge commercial success in America, with Bob Dylan saying his Carnegie Hall show in New York in 1963 was the best concert he had ever seen.

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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