No one sings Jacques Brel in the streets of Cuba—except for Alfredo Merat.
The East Hampton-based musician visited the island nation six times last year, absorbing what he calls “beauty in misery” while, in his mind, playing favorite songs by his lifelong muse, quietly rearranging them as bachata, salsa, boléro and cha-cha.
And then he found himself a recording studio.
“The Cubans discovered Jacques Brel with me, which was great because they have completely virgin ears, which is really what I love,” said Mr. Merat, whose newest album, “Alfredo Sings Brel,” dropped this past summer after he finished recording it in Cuba.
“That also translates in the record. It’s very simply rearranged. There’s four of us. It’s percussions, a piano, vocals, and a trumpet here or a clarinet there, and a bass. That’s it. And I like that because I didn’t want to overproduce it, or do over-the-top arrangements. It’s almost live.”
Mr. Merat begins with the last song Brel ever wrote—“Les Marquises”—paying tribute to the Belgium-born singer who moved to Paris at age 24 and, not long after, toured France and began gaining international traction.
Brel’s music was the reason Mr. Merat first picked up a guitar at age 15, coincidentally the same age that Brel learned how to play the instrument. It was a coping mechanism for Mr. Merat, who felt out of place as a stranger living in a foreign country—a Spaniard in France, just as Brel was a Belgian in France.
“I think that’s the connection. I totally get it—what he was expressing and saying, like no other songwriter was at the time for me,” Mr. Merat said. “I identify with him in so many ways.”
Brel’s words touched and soothed him, as they did the world. He would die from cancer at age 49 in 1978, when Mr. Merat was 17 years old, leaving behind an impossibly large repertoire.
With more than 400 songs to choose from for his new album, Mr. Merat selected 11, including a few he did not know: “Bruxelles,” “La Chanson de Jacky” and “Madeleine.” He would listen to them during his flights to and from Cuba, reimagining the old beats as “danceable and fun,” he said.
“I think I’m pushing the envelope a little bit because nobody really remembers this music that way,” he said. “Everybody remembers him as a giant of songwriting, but the work that is most remembered or covered is very dark and sad.
“But if you go on YouTube and look up ‘Jacky’ or ‘Madeleine,’ you’ll see he’s hopping, he’s jumping, he’s dancing on stage while he’s performing those songs. He’s doing all kinds of crazy moves. So I said, ‘Yes, this is fine, I think he would be all right with this.’ I’m always concerned what he would think. I think I’ve chosen the songs that would work. I believe I’m hitting it on the nail.”
In a way, Mr. Merat said he feels indebted to Brel, and that the once-unstoppable musician has been forgotten—not only in the United States, where he was never extremely popular—but in Europe, too.
“Because of the fact that I’m a gypsy myself and transposed myself into a foreign country, I’ve always said that, one day, I’m going to revisit and reconnect with him—make him relevant again,” Mr. Merat said. “And that is exactly what I’m doing now.”
For more information about “Alfredo Sings Brel,” visit store.cdbaby.com/cd/alfredomerat.