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Jacob Desvarieux, Guitarist Who Forged Zouk Style, Dies at 65

Jacob Desvarieux, Guitarist Who Forged Zouk Style, Dies at 65
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Jacob Desvarieux, Guitarist Who Forged Zouk Style, Dies at 65

Jacob Desvarieux, Guitarist Who Forged Zouk Style, Dies at 65

This obituary is part of a series on people who died during the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Jacob Desvarieux, the guitarist and singer who led Kassav ‘, an internationally renowned group from the French West Indies, died on July 30 in a hospital in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, the island where he resided. He was 65 years old.

The cause was Covid 19, Agence France-Presse reported.

Mr. Desvarieux and Kassav ‘founder, bassist Pierre-Edouard Décimus, created a style called zouk by merging Afro-Caribbean traditions from the French West Indies with clean electronic dance music.

Kassav ‘has made nearly two dozen official studio albums, and the group has recorded two dozen additional studio albums credited to individual members, as well as numerous live recordings.

Kassav ‘tours around the world and sells by millions, especially in France and in French-speaking countries of the Caribbean and Africa. Mr. Desvarieux shaped the vast majority of the band’s songs as a guitarist, songwriter, arranger or producer, and his amiably gruff voice often shared the band’s lead vocals, with lyrics in French West Indian Creole.

Emmanuel Macron, the President of the Republic, paid tribute on Twitter: “Sacred monster of zouk. Outstanding guitarist. Emblematic voice of the Antilles. Jacob Desvarieux was all of these at the same time.

Kassav ‘made suave, irresistibly upbeat music with a carnival spirit, and stayed willingly connected to his Afro-Caribbean roots. His albums mixed love songs and festive songs with socio-political commentaries, sometimes formulated in two senses. The heart of the zouk rhythm was drawn from the gwo ka, from Guadeloupe, and the chouval bwa, from Martinique: two traditions rooted in the drumming of African slaves.

“Through our music, we question our origins,” said Desvarieux in a 2016 interview with the French newspaper Liberation. “What were we doing there, we who were black and spoke French? Like African Americans in the United States, we were looking for answers to pick up the thread of a story that had been confiscated from us. “

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He added: “Without being politicians or activists, Kassav ‘carried it all. From our faces to the themes of our songs, everything was very clear: we were West Indian, we must not be mistaken, we wanted to mark our difference.

Jacob F. Desvarieux was born in Paris on November 21, 1955, but he quickly settled in Guadeloupe, where his mother, Cécile Desvarieux was born; she raised him as a single parent and did domestic work. They lived in Guadeloupe and Martinique, in Paris and, for two years, in Senegal.

When Jacob was 10, he asked his mother for a bicycle; instead, she gave him a guitar, considering it less dangerous.

Back in France, he joined rock bands in the 1970s, playing songs by Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix, and working as a studio guitarist. His own music increasingly turned to Caribbean and African styles, including compasses from Haiti, Congolese soukous from what was then Zaire, rumba from Cuba, highlife from Ghana and makossa from Cameroon. .

One of his groups in the 1970s, Zulu Gang, included musicians from Cameroon; Mr. Desvarieux has also worked with Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango, author of the international hit “Soul Makossa”.

In 1979 in Paris, Mr. Desvarieux met Pierre-Édouard Décimus, a Guadeloupe musician with an ambitious concept of a new group: strongly anchored in the Antilles but turned towards the outside. “We were looking for a soundtrack which synthesizes all the traditions and previous sounds, but which can be exported everywhere”, explained Mr. Desvarieux to Liberation.

Kassav ‘was named after a Gaudi dish, a pancake made from cassava flour, and also after ka, a drum. A zouk was a dance party, and a 1984 hit by M. Desvarieux, “Zouk-La-Se Sel Medikaman Nou Ni” (“Zouk is the only medicine we have”), made the word zouk synonymous with style. of the group.

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Kassav ‘released his first album, “Love and Ka Dance”, in 1979. “It was a hit because it was Caribbean music – it was local,” Desvarieux told Reggae & African magazine Beat in 1986. “But it was also better made than other West Indian records. The instruments and vocals were tuned, and there was more sounds, like synths and things like that – all the things that weren’t. not heard in West Indian records.

As the band produced new music, their early influences from disco and rock faded; Kassav ‘simultaneously brings out its Caribbean essence and masters electronic programming and sounds.

He had a commercial breakthrough in 1983, with “Banzawa”, a single from what was nominally a M. Desvarieux solo album and was later repackaged as a Kassav album. The 1984 album “Yélélé”, presented as a project by M. Desvarieux and Georges Décimus (Pierre-Edouard’s brother) and later credited to Kassav ‘, included the single “Zouk-La-Se Sel Medikaman Nou Ni” . With 100,000 copies sold, it was the first gold record for a West Indian group, and this led to Kassav ‘signing to Sony Music and its international distribution. In the late 1980s, the sound of zouk influenced dance music around the world.

In 1988, Kassav ‘was named Group of the Year by the Victoires de la Musique, a prize awarded by the Ministry of Culture.

Zouk’s popularity peaked in the late 1980s, but Kassav ‘continued to attract huge audiences. From the 1980s, Kassav ‘regularly played long residences in the 8,000-seat Le Zénith arena, where he recorded live albums in 1986, 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2016; Mr. Desvarieux estimated that the group has performed there 60 times.

For the group’s 30th anniversary, in 2009, Kassav ‘performed at the Stade national de France, the Stade de France, and in 2019, he sold his 40th anniversary concert at the 40,000-seat Paris La Défense Arena.

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Kassav ‘has also toured across continents and has built up a huge and loyal following, especially in Africa, where he has drawn stadium-sized crowds since the 1980s. Senegalese songwriter Youssou N’Dour wrote on Twitter: “The West Indies, Africa and music just lost one of their greatest ambassadors.”

In Luanda, the capital of Angola, there is a zouk museum, La Maison du Zouk, which has a collection of 10,000 albums. Mr. Desvarieux and Pierre-Édouard Décimus attended its opening in 2012.

Mr. Desvarieux has also been occasionally chosen for cinema and television. In 2016, he appeared as an African cardinal in the HBO series “The Young Pope”.

Mr. Desvarieux welcomed the collaborations with musicians from Africa and the Caribbean. He appeared on Wyclef Jean’s album “The Carnival” in 1997 and has recorded songs with Ivorian reggae singer Alpha Blondy and with Toofan, a group from Togo.

“Laisse Parler les Gens”, a single released in 2003 with Guadeloupe singer Jocelyne Labylle, Congolese singer Cheela and Congolese rapper Passi, has sold over a million copies.

Mr. Desvarieux, whose immunity was weakened because he had undergone a kidney transplant, was hospitalized with Covid-19 on July 12 and placed in an artificial coma before his death.

Information on the survivors was not immediately available.

Throughout the band’s career, even after Kassav ‘was signed to multinational labels and encouraged to sing in English, the band’s lyrics were always in French West Indian Creole, emphasizing their island heritage. “Music is a stronger language than the language itself,” said Desvarieux in 1986. If music pleases, language does not matter.


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