“Petit pays” (Small Country) is an emblematic song from Gaël Faye from his album Pili Pili sur un croissant au beurre, released in 2013. The album mixes rap, slam, jazz, soul, samba, congolese rumba, sebene music among other styles, in the image of the author-composer, himself being mixed-race artist. “Petit pays” is also the name he gave to his first novel, which was adapted for theater in 2020 to unanimous critical and popular acclaim.
“Une vie déracinée” (“An Uprooted Life”)
Author-composer-interpreter, Gaël Faye was born in 1982 in Burundi, from a Rwandan mother and a French father. He grew up in a comfortable neighborhood of Kinanira in Burundi, and led a joyful childhood in a wealthy family. However, his happiness will be significantly compromised by the geopolitical developments of the country. After his family’s dissolution, he observed how instability set in the region: the eruption of the internal conflicts in Burundi and the triggering of the Tutsi’s genocide in Rwanda.
The Rwandan Genocide took place in 1994. At that time, there were mainly two ethnic groups in the country: Hutus and Tutsis. These are two closely related groups in Rwanda, sharing the same language, as well as common cultural and religious traditions. Nevertheless, tensions between the two groups have long existed due to historical and political problems. In April 1994, a plane carrying the President of Rwanda, Juvénal Habyarimana, Hutu, was shot down, triggering large-scale violence. Hutu extremists began a systematic massacre of Tutsis and moderate Hutus who opposed them. In around 100 days, almost 800,000 people, mainly Tutsis, were killed in horrific manners: the massacres were brutal and involved the use of machetes, guns, and other weapons. The United Nations and the international community failed to intervene effectively to stop the genocide. The genocide had devastating consequences for Rwanda and its surrounding region. Thousands of people were traumatized, and the country was deeply scarred. While the events in Rwanda did not have any direct impacts on Burundi, both countries share similarities in terms of ethnic background and tensions. Although Burundi did not experience a genocide on the same scale as Rwanda did in 1994, the country experienced a civil war, mainly linked to political and ethnic rivalries.
In 1995, Gaël Faye was forced to flee his native country for France. This stage of his life marked a need that would never leave him: to express in words all the feelings of a life uprooted from its roots.
“Petit Pays”, glint of a life
During his teenage years in France, Gaël Faye discovered rap and hip-hop. Through music he managed to express the pain of exile and to rebuild himself after losing his marks. His debut album contains fifteen tracks that explore social and personal themes, creating a deep emotional atmosphere. Produced by composer Guillaume Poncelet, the album won the Prix Charles-Cros des lycéens (2012-2014) de la nouvelle chanson francophone.
Three years later, in 2016, Gaël Faye published his first novel under the same name. Partly autobiographical, Gaël Faye plays with words to tell stories and share reflections on his journey as a Franco-Rwandan, “I wrote this novel to bring to light a forgotten world, to tell of our joyous moments, discreet as the daughters of good families: the scent of lemongrass in the streets, evening walks along bougainvillea, afternoon naps behind mosquito nets with holes in them, idle conversations while sitting on a beer rack, termites on stormy days… I wrote this novel to shout out to the world that we did exist, with our simple lives, our humdrum routines, our boredom, that we had our pleasures that only sought to remain that way before being shipped off to the four corners of the world and becoming a bunch of exiles, refugees, immigrants, migrants”. (Gaël Faye, “Petit pays”, 2016).
The nostalgic, melancholic song “Petit pays” reflects Gaël Faye’s personal history, as well as the political and social upheavals that marked his childhood. He likens his song to a “postcard” he is sending to his native Burundi. Gaël Faye uses many images to evoke his childhood memories, the enchanting landscapes, laughter and games that filled his life in this small corner of the world. But behind this bittersweet atmosphere, lie darker themes, such as exile, war and the loss of cultural marks. Describing himself in his song as “the seed of exile from the residue of a shooting star”, he tells us the story of an Africa shattered by the genocide in Rwanda, which led to his exile in France. Torn between two cultures, France and Burundi, he evokes the difficulty of feeling at home in a new environment. The song “Petit pays” illustrates the artist’s attachment to his origins, while at the same time expressing the unease of a child who has become an adult before his time and has to now face the complexity of his identity.
Through soft tones and acoustic arrangements that reinforce the lyrics’ emotion, the music of “Petit pays” is subtle and moving, imbued with sincerity and authenticity. With his sensitive pen and bewitching voice, Gaël Faye manages to touch the hearts of those who listen to hum through lyrics that carry within them the echoes of a life marked by the contrasts and the torments of existence.
In his song “Petit pays”, Gaël Faye addresses Burundi, expressing both his love for his homeland and his sorrow at the political anguish suffered in the 1990s by this territory, and this the whole region, deeply bloodied by the Rwandan Genocide.
The song is much more than just a simple musical composition. It is a truly emotional tale that transcends geographical and cultural boundaries to touch the soul of every individual. Through his evocative lyrics and haunting music, Gaël Faye transports us into his personal, intimate world, offering a strong glimpse into his past, his roots, and his experiences. “Petit pays” embodies the complex duality of an individual caught between two worlds, struggling to find his place in a society marked by instability. It aptly evokes the universal themes of exile and nostalgia for a lost country, but also shows resilience and a search for identity.
“Petit pays” is a story sung in memory of the land that shaped Gaël Faye, with its joys and its wounds. By telling us his story, the artist invites us to question our own origins and the importance they can have in shaping us as individuals. Beyond its musical characteristics, this song is a call for empathy and mutual understanding, reminding us that behind each person lies a unique and singular story. Gaël Faye offers us a timeless work, an invitation to open our hearts and embrace the diversity of our world. “Petit pays” will forever remain a poetic and moving work that continues to resonate with emotion in the minds of those who listen to it.
Gaël Faye & Francis Muhire, « Petit pays », Pili pili sur un croissant au beurre, 2013.
Translation Gabriel Capitolo & Léa Grandemange