Thursday, July 12, 2018

Excerpts About Kassav Band And Excerpts About Zouk In Africa From The 1990 book "African Rock: The Pop Music Of A Continent

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part II of a pancocojams series that provides excerpts about Afro-Zouk music from the 1990 book African Rock: The Pop Music Of A Continent by Chris Stapleton and Chris May (Dutton, New York).

Part II provides excerpts from Africa Rock which provides additional information about Kassav (band) as well as information about Zouk in Africa (up to 1987).

Click for Part I of this series. Part I provides excerpts from Africa Rock which provide information about the roots of Zouk music.

Note that these excerpts are given without the accent marks in the spelling of certain words.

The content of this post is presented for historical, cultural, and educational purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to Chris Stapleton and Chris May and all those who are quoted in this post. Thanks also to the early developers of Zouk and Afro-Zouk music.

[page 246]



The term zouk is a Creole word, initially a slang term for an action-packed party. The word came into common use when the 'grand balls', live music concerts, died out and were replaced by dance parties, zouks, featuring a sound system, rather like Trinidad fetes. We learn from this to be wary lest we try to pin down zouk too precisely. It is more a mood, an ambience: its magic is ultimately indescribable but can be witnessed on the Parisian or Fort-de-France dancefloors. The term first came to refer to a specific non-cadence style when the Kassav mission was well under way. Zouks became events where the people danced to Kassav; thus Kassav's music came to be known as zouk. The Kassav machine was born when ex Vikings arranger Pierre Eduard Decimus met Jacob Desvarieux in Paris around 1977 and Decimus asked Desvarieux if he'd like to help him with a project to make Antillean music which, for the first time, would have the technical standards of American disco. The aim was to make Antillean dance music which could be dance to in Paris discos as well as Antillean zouks. Once the zoukball got rooling in Paris, the busy studios of Henri Debsso in Guadeloupe followed suit and seitched from cadence, biguine and mazurka record production to souk.

Desvarieux was Guadeloupian by girth and had spent many years in Senegal. But he was a rock guitarist and heavy-metal producer by trade. This, however, didn't prove disadvantageous. P. E. Decimus's brief- to make a new, mature discuo music out of Antillean and African elements-needed an outside perspective. Desvarieux provided that.


[page 247]

Kassav's massiv hit worlwide came in 1983. "Zouk la Se Sel Medikamen Nou Ni' was the first Antillean record to sell in excess if 100,000 copies. It was a massive hit all over Africa as well as Latin America and the Caribbean. (Recent reports from Senegal indicate that Kassav are the most listened-to non-Senegalese band there.) Also the record raised their profile in France enormously, where t hey are now on a par with Toure Kunda. In late 1986 they sold out five successive nights at Paris' Zenith.

The song's title translates as 'Zouk is the only medicine we have'. The record has stimulated immense political debate across the islands, for it has gone some ways towards reconciling the historic antipathy between them, an antipathy caused by French favouritism for Martinique and the development on Martinique of a neo-Franco anti-Afrian Creole bourgeoisie.

The Kassav song, like the use of ka drums, was a symbol of an Antillean identity separate from the French, a unity across the islands and the building of a national consciousness....

[page 248]


The song,which appeared on the first Decimus/Desvarieux LP Yelele, is one of the most dramatically excellent they have ever written and arranged. A fast acoustic-guitar intro leads into a racy vocal from Patrick Saint Eloi echoed at the close of each line by a languorous refrain. Jean-Claude Naimro's hunting synthesizer chords flesh out the vista, relatively empty by Kassav standards, and the biguine-style bass of George Decimus jumps wildly. The song rises to a climactic finish with swooping, repeated strings melody which owes much to the seminal 'chamber' casence of Lamavoi.

From 1983 Kassav built on their success. Each new LP is a fresh configuration which includes at least one song which further expands zouk's ambience as well as spotlighting traditional as well as avant-garde instruments. Over the last few years, however, they have shifted the emphasis of their sound. Ka drums have all gone-drum-and bass-machine arrangements increasingly do the business.


Arguably, Kassav have attained the most develped pastiche in the world of displaced music retentions. And in t he same way that

[page 249]

makossa and soukous are watching and absorbing zouk methods, Kassav too are scrutinizing recent African developments. The African-music swap show has never been healthier, busier or more imaginative, a bitter irony for the half of the continent which is on the verge of starvation.

In an interview with the magazine African and Reggae Beats in summer 1986, Jacob Desvarieux expands on this swap-shop idea

When you listen to our music it is a mixture of African and European musics. There was Spanish here [on Guadeloupe], then English, then French... it's a mixture of all that. In the music of Kassav sometimes the piano player playes in a Cuban style, the bass plays funk and the guitar highlife. So you see you have a llot of things. It's like when you see people on the street to say exactly where they are from...


[page 250]

...Zouk's mission, to build a radical new music out of Antillean, Caribbean and European elements has come round full circle here. The mission certainly has only just begun".

[page 251]

..."By 1987, the marriage of African and Antillean music has reached unforeseen levels of fruitfulness as musicians from Francophone west and central Africa, most notable Zaire and Cameroon, embraced the new zouk sound, and Antillean artist looked to Africa fir further inspiration.
The new sound. as notable as much for its high technology, bristling percussion and foot-time 'tropical' feel, through the spotlight on a number of musicians who has adapted, with more or less ease, to the new imperatives....But the music made its biggest impact on artists from the Cameroon: people like Sm Fan Thomas, Moni Bile, Alexandre Douala, Georges Dickson, Toto Guillaume and Akadji Toure. For them souk offered more than rich percussion and new technology: the fusions went beyond outside trappings to create a sound that drew equaly on the African and the Antillean heritage.

One of the key figures in the great coming together of African and Antillean artists is Jean-Claude Naimro, a member of Kassav, who has played keyboards and produced arrangements from many of the African artists based in Paris. One of his early influences was a Zairean band, Rico

[page 252]

Jazz, who settled in Martinique in 1967. 'It was the first time I had heard African music,', he said early in 1987. 'Yet it seemed familiar to me. It wasn't so different to our own music; and this made it easier, later on, to play keyboards with African musicians....Naimro first worked with African artist in 1980, spending two years with Nanu Dibango's back-up band and joining Miriam Makeba on tour before becoming massively in demand as a sessions player.

Kassav's founder, Jacob Desvarieux, shared Naimro's early expeience of Africa, living in Senegal as a child. These influencess, augmented by frequent and esctatically received tours of west and central Africa, have had a shaping effect on the Kassav sound. 'At the start', says Naimro, 'we'd just put in african rhythms to break the zouk a bit. We did it later on the Goree album. But they weren't particular rhythms. We didn't say, 'Let's take something from Zaire or Cameroon." We just composed a song and said, "Let's put it in an African Way.' It wasn't something that was prepared in advance.

A 1981 album, To Guy, with Cameroonian guitarist and singer Toto Guillaume, and a range of albums, including the 1980 Roots Relations, in which Naimro joined together with Cameroonians Jules Kamga, Vicky Edimo and Claude Vamur from Gabon, signalled the starte of Naimro's sessions adventures with top African artists. The most notable, for him, have been Guillaume, and Aladji Toure, a fellow-Cameroonian bass player and producer. Out of these collusions have developed a strong new sound in which Cameroon bass and vocal styles are as prominent as the Antillean rhythm flavours and hi-tech zouk arrangements. 'For us, the bass is the motor of the song,' says Naimro. 'When you have a bass line is typically African- when we use such patterns, they come from Cameroon. It's easy to pick up ideas from there. The music is commercial, and you have many many Cameroonians working in Paris.

A strong percussion sound provides a further link between the Kassav sound and Cameroonian makossa. As Naimro explains, the heart of zouk is the ti-bois, a bamboo slit-drum, which is laid sideways and beaten with sticks. Live, Kassav still play the drum. In the studio, the ti-bois sound is re-created on a drum machine. Similar log drums are played in many parts of Africa, traditionally to tap out short messages and warnings. In

[page 253]

Cameroon, the log drum features prominently in the work of Sam Fan Thomas and other new-look makossa artists."...

This concludes Part II of this pancocojams series.

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