Cargo Cult and French Culture? How About Serge Gainsbourg?

13_theme_cargocultThe Cargo Cult is a Melanesian millenarian movement that started with the first contacts of locals with the commercial networks of colonizing societies. According to the Melanesian cult’s beliefs, rituals can lead to material wealth, the “cargo”.

During World War II, when the US Navy stormed the islands of the South Sea, brought in thousand of “things” that the locals never saw before, like canned food, mechanical stuff and plenty of power sources. Then the troops left, leaving behind only broken vehicles and tools, crashed planes, empty beer and food cans, and the memory of abundance.

To the natives, this was a miraculous occurrence, so they started praying for the return of abundance, building junk totems to bring back these Visitor from Elsewhere and their legendary leader, the man the Melanesians called John Frum, the dispenser of endless abundance and wielder of mysterious technologies. A Man from Elsewhere that always existed: John Frum, Quetzalcoatl, Osiris, you name it. Across the ages and around the world, the stories all agree: one day he will return, bearing great gifts.

To learn more about the cargo cult, its causes, beliefs and practices, as well as its theoretical explanations, we invite you to explore the Wikipedia. And if you want to know more, and most of all why Burning man adopted the cargo cult as a theme for this year’s festival, please have a look at the 2013 Art Theme page of the Burning Man website.

But why are we publishing this blog post today? Because Cargo Cult is also something strongly connected with the French culture. One name: Serge Gainsbourg. What’s more French culture that him?

In 1971 Serge Gainsbourg produced a classic record, a true masterpiece, “Histoire de Melody Nelson“. In this “concept album” Gainsbourg sings the story of a sexual affair with an underaged lolita who Gainsbourg’s character meets when he almost kills her while driving his Rolls Royce. Melody Nelson is played by Gainsbourg’s wife and partner in crime, Jane Birkin, whose erotic voice balances Gainsbourg’s deep tones, all wrapped up in dirty basslines, luscious psychedelic music and epic orchestral arrangements. In the closing track of the album, “Cargo Culte”, Serge Gainsbourg sings about Melody’s tragic death in a plane crash in the Pacific, comparing himself to a New Guinean shaman who tries to put her body together through the wrecks of the crashed plane. A pure cargo cult – or “Cargo Culte”, en francais. Here is the original video of the song, a pretty psychedelic video, well ahead the video production of that time. Enjoy it!

Do you want to sing along, or even just try to understand what the song is about? Here are the lyrics of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Cargo Culte”, also translated in English (credits for lyrics translations goes to the Song About Radios blog).

Serge Gainsbourg, “Cargo Culte”
From the album “Histoire de Melody Nelson, 1971”
Music: Serge Gainsbourg, Jean-Claude Vannier and Jane Birkin
Video from the TV film “Melody” by Jean-Christophe Averty

Je sais moi des sorciers qui invoquent les jets
Dans la jungle de Nouvelle-Guinée
Ils scrutent le zénith convoitant les guinées
Que leur rapporterait le pillage du fret

I know of sorcerers who summon jets
In the jungle of New Guinea
They scan the heights, coveting the wealth
That pillaging the freight will bring them

Sur la mer de corail au passage de cet
Appareil ces créatures non dénuées
De raison ces papous attendent des nuées
L’avarie du Viscount et celle du Comet

On the sea of coral, upon the passage of that
Aircraft, these creatures, not bereft of
Reason, these citizens of Papua await in swarms
The breakdown of a Viscount and of a Comet

Et comme leur totem n’a jamais pu abattre
A leurs pieds ni Bœing ni même D.C. quatre
Ils rêvent de hijacks et d’accidents d’oiseaux

And since their totem has never been able to pull down
To their feet a Boeing or even a D.C. 4
They dream of hijax and crashes with birds

Ces naufrageurs naïfs armés de sarbacanes
Qui sacrifient ainsi au culte du cargo
En soufflant vers l’azur et les aéroplanes.

These naive shipwreckers armed with blowguns
Who sacrifice thus to the cult of cargo
Blowing their weapons towards the blue and the airplanes

Où es-tu Melody et ton corps disloqué
Hante-t-il l’archipel que peuplent les sirènes
Ou bien accrochés au cargo dont la sirène
D’alarme s’est tue, es-tu restée

Where are you, Melody, and your broken body?
Does it haunt the archipelago peopled by sirens?
Or do you remain hanging from that cargo
About which the alarm siren is silent?

Au hasard des courants as-tu déjà touché
Ces lumineux coraux des côtes guinéennes
Où s’agitent en vain ces sorciers indigènes
Qui espèrent encore des avions brisés

Adrift in the currents, have you already touched
Those luminous corals of the Guinean coast
Where the indigenous sorcerer, still awaiting
Shattered airplanes, fidget in vain?

N’ayant plus rien à perdre ni Dieu en qui croire
Afin qu’ils me rendent mes amours dérisoires
Moi, comme eux, j’ai prié les cargos de la nuit

No longer having anything more to lose, nor God in whom to believe
So that they’ll give me back my pathetic passions
I, like them, have prayed for the cargos of the night

Et je garde cette espérance d’un désastre
Aérien qui me ramènerait Melody
Mineure détournée de l’attraction des astres.

And I keep that hope for a aerial
Disaster that will return to me Melody
Minor diverted from the pull of the stars

“Tu t’appelles comment ?
– Melody
– Melody comment ?
– Melody Nelson.”

“What’s your name?
– Melody
– Melody what?
– Melody Nelson.”

The Burning Man 2013 Art Theme carries a question. Who is John Trum? Here at the French CORE Crew we might have the answer. It’s Serge Gainsbourg. Definitely.