Great interview with the American author of Awakening Spaces: French Caribbean Popular Songs, Music and Culture. Get the book on Amazon if you can.
Interviewer: Siddhartha Mitter
Professor Brenda Berrian of the University of Pittsburgh first grooved to French Caribbean music while a graduate student doing research in France in the early 1970s, and hasn’t shaken the addiction since. In fact, she has become a foremost scholar of the music of the French Antilles, exploring its roots, social context, and lyrical messages in numerous academic publications, including her book Awakening Spaces: French Caribbean Popular Songs, Music and Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2000). Over the years, she has had the benefit of long personal interviews with many of the French Antilles’ great musicians, often in their homes in Guadeloupe, Martinique or France. Afropop Worldwide’s Siddhartha Mitter interviewed Berrian in late March 2009. This is part two of that interview. The following transcript was edited for length and clarity.
S.M: Well let’s talk about Kassav’ then, and how they began.
B.B: Malavoi was strictly Martinican musicians. Whereas Kassav’ decided, ‘we are not going to be just a Guadeloupean group. We are part of the Caribbean, we are part of the metropole, we are part of the larger world. So we are going to deliberately pull together a band of fifteen members coming from Africa, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Corsica and mainland France.’ That was a very deliberate decision upon their part because they said we are a composite of all these parts. And that’s falling into the Edouard Glissant idea of Antillanité and being hybrids and that’s the position that Kassav’ took.
It started with the Decimus brothers, Jean Pierre Decimus who played the bass for Les Vikings de Guadeloupe, which was a very popular group in the 1960’s and early 70’s in Guadeloupe. Jean Pierre and his brother Georges, who’s the guitarist, decided in their little apartment in downtown Pointe-à-Pitre that they wanted to come up with a different kind of music. Because when you thought about Malavoi you thought about it being for the highly educated group – even though Malavoi is popular also among people who are not as educated – but they wanted to approach across the base. And so they consciously said the foundation of this music has to be the gwo ka, the drum, whereas in Malavoi it’s the violin. And remember you had to be well to do to be a violinist in the French Caribbean, it cost a lot of money and you had to take private lessons. So the average person could not send their children for violin lessons. Whereas with Kassav’ we’re talking about people coming from different classes.
So you went across the class structure, you went across the color, because color is always there in the Caribbean. And when you looked at the formation of the early Malavoi they were always light skinned mulatto looking people, whereas now you have more of a mixture in Malavoi, but not initially. Whereas with Kassav’ there were all colors. So that was a conscious decision too, to show that we are a mixture of people. They invited white French musicians as well, because they needed a horn section -- Kassav’ you’re talking about drum and percussions, you’re talking about horns and percussions and a hard rock guitar in Jacob Desvarrieux -- they chose Jacob Desvarrieux because he had grown up in Senegal, he was Guadeloupean, and he was a studio musician, a guitarist who played a range of music. He could go from Jimmy Hendrix, hard core rock, to funk, he could play Motown, biguine, a very gifted guitarist. So those were the three founders, with Freddy Marshall who I mentioned was a very influential producer.
S.M: But at the beginning we’re still in Guadeloupe, still in Pointe-à-Pitre...
B.B: We’re still in Pointe-à-Pitre. It originally started with four Guadeloupeans, and then a decision was made to expand the group, to go from just being a gwo ka based band where they’re promoting the drum. And the decision was made to say, ‘let’s expand this music, and to move from Guadeloupe to France. Because we do not want to be working full-time and then playing music part-time like Malavoi and other bands. We want to be a full-time professional band earning money strictly from our music and nothing else.’ And to do that they had to move to France.
The other decision was because they wanted to have the latest technical support; because mixing zouk is not easy, having sat in those studios I can tell you, it’s not easy trying to figure out how to fuse all those different musical genres into the sound called zouk. Because zouk is a mixture of African music, Caribbean music, American music, Jamaican music, Brazilian music, and they blend it all to make this sound called zouk, which is very pulsating music, very loud.
So they went to France and they said for the first time they were going to hire a woman full-time to be their singer: Jocelyne Béroard, from Martinique. She was not only going to sing with them, she was going to compose a lot of their songs, the first time ever in the history of French Caribbean music to do that with a woman.
Usually a woman just was invited to sing with a band. But she was to be a full-fledged member of the band and a very active member of the band. And that was not without some difficulties, because she had to quit and then fight them to come back on her own terms. But she’s a very strong-willed woman although in public she comes across as a very sweet person, but she has a will of iron, I can tell you. But that was just historic, to bring in a woman.
Then they said we need horns, and since they’re in a time period when not too many French Caribbean people knew how to pay trombones and saxophones they had to go to musicians from France and Corsica to be their horn players. And then they picked a Camerounian to be their percussionist. It was a nice mixture and they wanted to show that ‘we are a blend of people, we are hybrids and we are Creole as well: we’re only going to sing in Creole.’
The French recording studios wanted them to sing in French, and they said “absolutely no, we are going to sing in Creole,” and that lost them a lot of contracts initially. They started with Herni Debs but when they moved to France they signed with Sony. But they had a hard time getting that contract because a lot of the studios wanted them to sing in French. They wanted to know what they were singing. They said “that’s none of your business, you have to learn Creole! We had to learn French, you have to learn Creole.”
And this is the band that exploded, this is the band that won gold records – you can go and see 50,000 people or more sitting to hear them in cities all over the world – they just have never made it big in this country [the United States], unfortunately. But they are big in Africa, in Asia, in the Caribbean of course, France, I have been in many concerts where it is just packed with people. And their songs have become more and more political. Especially the new album that came out this past year, oh my goodness, they’re becoming more and more blatant talking about slavery.
Groundbreaking musical innovator Jocelyne B�roard
S.M: So can we say that Kassav’ invented zouk?
B.B: Yes they did. They invented the music zouk and they said they wanted to invent a music that would capture not just the Caribbean, but the entire world. They wanted to reach out to the entire world, that to them was very important. They said, we’re from little islands and we’re not going to be narrowed into saying it’s a Guadeloupean band or a Martinican band. We’re going to cover both the islands and Africa, as well as the mainland, because that’s our history.
S.M: But despite this global outlook they insisted on singing in Creole.
B.B: Right. Because they’re saying the foundation is an Antillean band. So when they sing in Creole, which is very interesting too, they sing in Guadeloupean and Martinican Creole, and sometimes they’ll mix the two Creoles in the same song. Now they’re putting a little English in their songs. And around 1999-2000 they did a salsa version of some of their songs. They went to Cuba and recorded some of their old favorites in Spanish. Then they did an English version in Trinidad, but it didn’t go over that well. People wanted to hear them sing in Creole rather than English or Spanish.
S.M: Now when a lot of people think of zouk they think of a very sleek, sexy music.
B.B: Thats called zouk love. You have the zouk beton, which is that fast, fast pulsating music that you hear. Then you have zouk love, so that when you hear Jocelyne Beroard for example singing “Pa bisouin pale,” “no need to speak,” it’s very slow, very romantic, or when you hear Jean Phillipe Marthely singing “Bel kréati,” “beautiful creature,” that’s very slow as well, or Patrick St-Eloi singing “Ki jan ka fé,” “what am I doing,” they’re very romantic songs.
So Kassav’ floats between writing the very romantic songs, which is the zouk love, which is more popular now -- people in the Caribbean seem to prefer the zouk love -- and the hard zouk that is really pulsating, with “Sye bwa” and their first hit, “Zouk la se sel medicaman nou ni,” “zouk is the only medicine we have.” That was their number one hit when they won their first gold record.
Something else that Kassav’ has done too: they perform as a group and then each member makes his or her own album, so you have the Kassav’ songs then the Jocelyne Béroard songs, the Jacob Desvarrieux songs, etc.