Kassav: Doctor Zouk

The music of the French Caribbean has been sweeping the world, with the band Kassav in the forefront. Lorraine O'Connor traces their progress

Dispensing the medicine: Kassav in action Guadeloupe. Photograph by Phillipe GiraudIn action in Trinidad. Photograph by Abigail HadeedJean Claude Naimro. Photograph by Abigail HadeedKassav enjoying a photo shootKassav off duty in Dominica. Photograph by Phillipe GiraudPatrick Saint-Eloi. Photograph by Phillipe GiraudUnder the red light: Kassav co-founder Jacob Desvarieux. Photograph by Phillipe GiraudWorking on a new album in Montserrat. Photograph by Phillipe GiraudZouk fever in Dominica. Photograph by Phillipe GiraudZouk fever in Guadeloupe. Photograph by Phillipe Giraud

Drums roll. A powerful voice shouts through the microphone: “Zzet veni pou” What did you come for? And the whole place seems to shout in reply: “Zouker! ” The horns take over, full lights on the stage; it’s time to party, to dance.

The energy released by the band’s 20 musicians and dancers excites the whole audience; after the first few bars, the temperature is at boiling point. Bodies sway, jump, shake, as they move to the music. Thousands of people are dancing now, rubbing together, faces bright with sweat and excitement. Thousands of voices are singing together in creole: “Zouk la sé sel medikamen nou ni — so kon sa. Si sé sa mem’an nou zouké.” Zouk is the only medicine we have — that’s how it is. So let’s go and zouk.

Kassav, the most famous French Caribbean zouk band, is performing at the most prestigious and difficult concert hall in Paris, the Zenith. It’s the last night of a series of eight sold-out concerts, an immense Caribbean party. And tonight, as at every Kassav performance, the spirits of music and dance have taken over the thousands of Caribbean and African people who have made Paris their home.

Caribbean music, be it reggae, cadence, compas, beguine, calypso, soca or zouk, has a hypnotic rhythm; your feet can’t keep still, your body has to sway, and the spirit of music takes hold of you, conjuring up that electric atmosphere of the fete that you find in all the Caribbean islands. Reggae and its offspring — dub, rap — is perhaps the most popular music in the wider world, but zouk, the music of the French Caribbean, is not far behind. And Kassav, one of the most successful of all Caribbean bands, 16 strong, has sold over a million records worldwide, carrying zouk from the French Caribbean to all corners of the globe and turning it into a culture of its own.

What brought Pierre Edouard Décimus, George Décimus and Jacob Desvarieux together in 1978 was a shared view of the Caribbean music market and what it lacked. Pierre, the founding father and manager of Kassav until he left the band in 1988 (he now leads another band, K.W.I.), already had a premonition of the zouk mixture. A well-known Guadeloupean musician, he was frustrated at going around in circles, his music stuck in the French Caribbean. He wanted a more professional music, a fresh sound, without technical constraints. George Décimus, his younger brother, worked on the first album as a bass player and later as a composer and songwriter (he now leads another group called VolteFace). Jacob Desvarieux, Guadeloupean by origin and a well-established studio rock musician in Paris, jumped at the opportunity to participate in this new departure.

These three Guadeloupean musicians decided to create a Caribbean music anchored in tradition but open to the world. They wanted to sing in Creole, a wholly Caribbean mixture of French, English and Spanish, the languages of colonisation. The zouk concept existed already: it was a fete, a dance, the music of the people of Guadeloupe and Martinique. The idea was to take this music, this rhythm, and to give it a high-quality, modern feel.

According to Patrick Chamoiseau, the Martiniquan author who won the French Prix Goncourt with his novel Texaco, “Zouk didn’t have aesthetic preoccupations. Its only worry was to make people dance, to make them shake, make them jump. The big zouk period was at Carnival time. Zouk only had one obligation: to give the rhythm essential for dancing.”

Kassav mixed a spicy cocktail of calypso, reggae, beguine, gwo’ka, Haitian cadence, bolero and rock, the result ele tronically stylised through funk. As the name Kassav (crushed cassava mixed with coconut and sugar to make a biscuit) suggests, the mixture has to; otherwise it becomes poisonous.

The traditional side of Kassav’s zouk music is found in the rhythm of the Guadeloupean Gwo’ka (long forbidden by the authorities because only the slaves could understand it), the Martiniquan Bel-Air Drum and the Ti-Bois, two sticks played on a piece of bamboo. The Gwo’ka is played on drums, but now symbolises for the young the refusal of assimilation and a return to their origins. At the celebrations where the drums were played, there were contests between the drummer and the dancer; the dancer would try to confuse the drummer with complicated steps; the drum had to follow, but the dancer mustn’t lose his timing. Zouk combines the seven distinct rhythms of the Gwo’ka so smoothly that it is impossible not to enter their embrace.

Kassav’s first album was put together by the original trio; it was recorded in Paris and entitled Love and Ka Dance. It was not meant to be a commercial success but to launch the message. Kassav didn’t want to be simply the defender of French Caribbean traditions. They were interested in the Caribbean in a much larger context.

On their fourth album, next to each title, you can read the word cadence, in brackets. Cadence comes from Haiti and played a crucial role in Kassav’s birth. In the sixties, Guadeloupe and Martinique were invaded by Haitian bands. As Jacob Desvarieux says: “When we started Kassav, it was to stand up against this Haitian imperialism. We wanted to prove to our people that it was possible to do our own music and be successful.”

He describes zouk as the rock of the tropics. “Everything that makes people like rock in Europe — the social questioning, the high spirits — all the social aspects of rock can be found in zouk. But rock doesn’t make you dance till you fall to the ground; zouk, yes. You have to move with the rhythm, and when you reach physical harmony with this rhythm, when you really feel the music, then you can dance until you drop. Our rhythm really lends itself to the game between the music and the dancer.” But he continues: “Our revolt is cooler than the rock revolt. Our tactic is: ‘Pa ni problem’.” No problem

Jacob Desvarieux — a guitarist, composer, singer and arranger — is often seen as the group’s leader. But he insists: “Everybody helps out. No stories about who is the leader, we are all big people. At the beginning, we were three, and we made records. So, we used to take the musicians who were available, and who seemed the best in the Parisian circles. We built the group little by little. Today, it’s still together because we all want the same thing. We all have the same goal. We are essentially Caribbean, and we want to represent the Caribbean with pride, to be the best Caribbean band in the world.

That quest has carried Kassav to great heights. The great Miles Davis once said that Kassav would add something to the music of tomorrow.

The group’s philosophy and structure highlights individual talents and allows total self-expression. Between the first album in 1979 and the end of 1986, 21 records carried Kassav’s label. The group put out an average of one album per year, while individual members were encouraged to compose their own music and bring out solo records. This allowed each strong personality in the group to go forward; it was also a response to the economic reality of the French Caribbean — in a small market, a hit tune tires easily. But Zouk la sé sel medikamen nou ni (Zouk is only medicine we have) was number one on the local hit chart for six months in 1985; the album sold over 200,000 copies and was awarded a Gold Record, the first for a French Caribbean group.

By this time, the full Kassav enterprise was ready to be launched; the group had grown, for new musicians joined up for each new album. Among them were Jean Philippe Marthély (Martiniquan, vocals), Patrick Saint-Eloi (Guadeloupe, vocals), Jocelyne Béroard (Martinique, vocals), Douglas M’Biba (Cameroon, pianist), Claude Vamur (Guadeloupe, drums), Jean Claude Naimro (Martinique, keyboard), César Durcin (Guadeloupe, percussions), Freddy Houssepian (French, trumpet), Hamid Bellocine (French, trombone), Jean Pierre Ramirez (French, trumpet), Claude Thirifays (French, saxophone), Frederic Caracas (Guadeloupe, bass), Marie Josée Gibon (French, dancer), Catherine Laupa (Martinique, dancer). Kassav, now a real multi-racial group with a strong community spirit and no leader, linked up with the producer Georges Debs; he invested in the group, though at first they were very suspicious of this sweet-talking Guadeloupean “Syrian” who promised them the moon. They went for two solo albums that did extremely well. They started working with a sound engineer, Didier Lozahic, who didn’t hesitate to let the bass stand out in front.

Jacob explains: “For black people, all that is bass is out front. This is what makes you move your waist. But as all the other instruments are rhythmic, you have to master the balance. Lozahic understood this. Now everybody wants to have the same sound as Kassav. We are the target for imitations.”

George Debs made the deal ofhis life. He produced 12 albums in three years, all with the members of the same group and with no contract. Madness? “Not at all,” Jacob insists. “In the Caribbean, as in all black civilisations, spoken words are more important than what is written.” Zouk-la in 1985 dramatised the group’s explosion; they were now top of the charts in Africa, without even knowing it. They began to tour. After performing in front of 10,000 people in the Caribbean, they found them- selves in Africa before 50,000 delirious fans.

All Kassav’s members say that their best experiences on stage (some of their worst too) were in Africa. Why this great success in Africa, singing in a language no-one could understand?

Kassav’s music reached Africa by two channels. One was the underground passage: Africans dancing to the music in the Parisian nightclubs would copy tapes and carry them back home. The other, more official, was through Gilles O’Bringer, the radio announcer of Canal Tropical on Radio France International. Africa has countless languages and dialects of its own, so Kassav’s language was no barrier; and its rhythms were very similar to the Zaire-Congolese rumba rhythm. So Kassav spoke very directly to Africa, and its first big tours were made there: Cameroun, Ivory Coast, Angola, Gabon, Burkina Faso. Kassav performed for thousands of fans amid many technical problems; but this was their big breakthrough.

After this, the French media were ready for Kassav. Their first performance in France was a sold-out concert at the Zénith in Paris in June 1985, the first concert there by any Caribbean band. Then things moved fast: a free concert in Guadeloupe, to celebrate their Gold Record of 1986, pulled together 50,000 people (more than a seventh of Guadeloupe’s population). Kassav came back to Paris and filled the Zénith for four days, 40,000 people taking zouk to boiling point. On 21 June, 1986, 300,000 people gathered for an open-air Féte de la Musique concert on the outskirts of Paris. The band was now touring all over the globe: Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, New York, Brazil. Kassav’s zouk was carrying the music of the Caribbean people to every corner of the earth.

By now the big record companies were pursuing the group, and Kassav finally signed in 1987 with CBS Records, France, a company since bought by Sony. This was the only company which would allow them to continue singing all their songs in creole.

Since then, Kassav has produced an album a year, and Jocelyne Béroard and Patrick Saint-Eloi have both produced solo albums. Jocelyne has become a big sister for French Caribbean women, and with her big hit Pa bisouin palé and her first solo album Siwo in 1986, she became the idol of French Caribbean children too. In 1990, Kassav was named the best French group and the band with the best international record sales.

Kassav maintains strong links with other Caribbean artistes, like David Rudder (with whom they performed for the first time in Trinidad in 1988) and Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, who worked with them on a record of pan and zouk in Trinidad, at Caribbean Sound Basin, Lamar Studios, last year. They re- corded Tekit Izi, their latest album, in Trinidad at the same time: it has already sold over 200,000 copies. On this album are some of the tracks from the movie Siméon, by the acclaimed Martiniquan director Euzhan Palcy; some of the group members act in the film, which is the story of a young musician’s struggle in the French Caribbean. Another new album is Shades of Black, with three Trinidadian vocalists singing some of Kassav’s hits in English.

Kassav insists on being as professional as possible, using the best equipment and recording in the best studios (they prefer to record in the Caribbean rather than in Paris: they get more vibes in the tropical climate). Their stage performances are fully choreographed (complete with several costume changes for the dancers), and the energy level of the musicians is as vibrant as the light shows. The music may be hi-tech but it is full of life and fun; the songs range from love ballads to comments on the condition of the people of the French Caribbean.

Professionalism these days means a serious marketing back-up, and the group has launched a line of cosmetics, specially designed for the Caribbean woman, and a line of ready-to-wear garments, T-shirts, hats, pins and accessories all carrying their name.

Kassav is one of those rare things, a band wholly rooted in the Caribbean, worshipped by Caribbean and then by African fans, which has achieved international star recognition. Apart from the late Bob Marley and the Wailers, no other Caribbean band has been listened to as much as Kassav.