Rita Mitsouko was a pop-rock band, created by Catherine Ringer and late Fred Chichin. Their influence in French music has been incredible: They were the first band to bring electronic sounds in French music with the song “Marcia Baila”, what started a revolution in the history of French music. This song, Marcia Baila, still is the best representation of their style: they make you dance on cynism. Indeed, the song is about Marcia, the former dance teacher of Catherine, who didn’t survive cancer. Over the years, Les Rita Mitsouko never stopped singing about the worst, denouncing the worst our society can create, and always with the same colorful and playful music.
Consequently, it was no surprises to see them release a song about Auschwitz-Birkenau, Le Petit Train (The Little Train), that made dance all French during a whole summer. Their typical cynism is at its best in this song. Les Rita Mitsouko took the music of a children’s song, called Le Petit Train as well, by André Claveaux, telling the story of a little train making its way through the countryside. Les Rita Mitsouko adapted the lyrics, and turned them into a bloody story. (Translation under the cut)
Le petit train s’en va dans la campagne Va et vient, poursuit son chemin Serpentin, de bois et de ferraille Rouille et vert de gris sous la pluie. Qu’il est beau quand le soleil l’enflamme Au couchant, à travers champs.
Les chapeaux des paysannes ondulent sous le vent Elles rient parfois jusqu’aux larmes en rêvant à leurs amants.
L’avoine est déjà germée As-tu rentré le blé, Cette année les vaches ont fait des hectolitres de lait.
Petit train, où t’en vas-tu ? Train de la mort, mais que fais-tu ? Le referas-tu encore ? Personne ne sait ce qui s’y fait, personne ne croit Il faut qu’ils voient, mais moi je suis quand même là.
Le petit train dans la campagne Et les enfants ? Les petits trains dans la montagne Les grands parents Petit train, conduis-les aux flammes, à travers champs.
Le petit train s’en va dans la campagne Va et vient, poursuit son chemin Serpentin de bois, de ferraille Marron et gris sous la pluie.
Reverra-t-on une autre fois passer les trains comme autrefois ? C’est pas moi qui répondra. Personne ne sait ce qui s’y fait Personne ne croit, il faut qu’ils voient Mais moi je suis quand même là.
Petit train, ou t’en vas-tu. Train de la mort, mais que fais-tu ? Le referas-tu encore ? Reverra-t-on une autre fois passer des trains comme celui-là ? C’est pas moi qui répondra ».
The story behind the song is about her father, who gladly returned from this train. We can “hear” him, saying “Mais moi je suis quand même là”, meaning he saw everything and now tells the words with his old childish words. The innocence is pretty obvious, regarding how the lyrics keep switching from the worst (“Conduis-les aux flammes”) to light moments (The farmers talking about their lovers, random things from the happy life in the countryside). It probably refers to the farmers he could see from the train, who were used to see this train goes by every week and kept acting as if nothing was happening (“Personne ne sait ce qu’il s’y fait”).
The innocence of a child describing what he saw is also corroborated by the light and happy music. This melody was typically the type of songs children from the period used to sing together. Les Rita Mitsouko emphasized this fake innocence by adding some Indian influences, more particularly the jerky rhythm, very repetitive. Indeed, Indians traditionally consider their music as a prayer, and the melody should be loud and drumming to be heard from the skies. Catherine Ringer pushed it by using the same voice tricks - very high notes for example - which, to our French ears, sound like cries. This is why all the dancers in the video are Indians, and following their inner culture, they sing and dance to celebrate life, even the darkest shades of humanity. The only traces of Auschwith-Birkenau are the ghost faces Catherine and Fred mimicked, barbed wire, and Catherine crying and mournin by wearing black. However, this cynical melody isn’t completely irrelevant either. Despite the historical background, there’s still a hint of happiness living through it: her father came back unlike the others.
The irony is that the music is so light and drumming that it remained one of the most successful summer songs France had ever known. People just hardly realized what it was about. Another proof that Les Rita Mitsouko are just genius. Les Rita Mitsouko still remain the parents of Pop-rock in France. Catherine Ringer and her husband, late Fred Chichin, supported the young generation of rock/indie singers like no one else. When Fred Chichin died a couple of years ago, a tribute had been done at the French Grammys, Les Victoires de la Musique. All the best French guitars players came on stage and played Fred’s most famous melodies. I can tell you that when I watched that, I cried all the tears I had because it was just so intimate and much more powerful than a tweet expressing the great loss. (Video of the tribute under the cut.
The little train goes through the countryside
Goes up-and-down, makes its winding way
All made of wood and cheap iron
Rust and verdigris under the rain.
How pretty it is when the sun set it on fire
At sundown, through the fields.
The farmers hats undulates in the wind
Sometimes they burst into laughters almost crying dreaming about their lovers.
Oat is already germinated
Did you bring the corn in?
This year, the cows made hectolitres of milk.
Little train, where are you going?
Death train, but what are you doing?
Will you do it again?
Nobody knows what happens there, nobody believes
They must see, but yet I am here.
The little train in the countryside
What about the children?
The little trains in the moutains
Little train, leads them to the pyre, through the fields.