The passing of a great

Jacob Desvarieux recorded more than 50 albums and helped invent zouk

Jacob Desvarieux, left, and Kassav perform in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in 2009. (Photo: AFP)

Guitarist, singer and Kassav founding member Jacob Desvarieux died last month in Guadeloupe at the age of 65. Kassav, which was founded after he met with brothers George and Pierre Eduard Decimus in 1978, went on to record more than 50 albums, released by the band or by individual members and the band remains hugely popular in the Caribbean.

Kassav put French Antillean music (that is to say, music from Martinque and Guadeloupe) on the map. Recent columns on the Disques Debs label showed how Antilleans created popular music from local styles, including gwo-ka percussion, during the 60s and 70s. Kassav built on that and incorporated other Caribbean genres, such as Dominican merengue and Haitian compas, calypso and cadence-lypso.

Desvarieux was born in Paris and was a successful rock guitarist when he met the Decimus brothers, who had already begun to create the forerunner of Kassav's music with their Vikings of Guadeloupe band. He told me in an interview that the name Kassav was chosen because it is a well-known sweet cake made from manioc, coconuts and jam; people could easily identify with the name. He added that they also decided to sing in Antillean creole.

He said: "We always try to do something more by trying to find new ideas to progress." In this way, the band created a new dance style, zouk, the French Antillean creole word for an action-packed all-night party.

Kassav released its first album in 1980, Love And Ka Dance, but it was their 1983 album Yelele, which featured the hit single Zouk La Se Sel Medikamen (Zouk Is The Only Medicine We Have), that cemented their local and international reputation. The song went on to become the first Antillean record to sell 100,000 copies. I sometimes spin this song when I DJ and it never fails to get people dancing.

At the height of their fame in the 80s, Kassav was the best-selling French band in France, easily able to outsell big acts like Prince. They embarked on several world tours, taking their music around the world (I saw them perform in Tokyo).

At the height of their fame, Kassav featured an awesome line-up of vocalists Desvarieux (also on guitar), Beroard, the late Patrick Saint Eloi and J.P. Mathely, Georges Decimus on bass, Jean-Claude Naimaro on keyboards and a hot five-member brass section. All this was augmented by the distinctive sound of a bamboo slit drum. Zouk is no longer the world sound it was in the 80s but it remains amazingly popular in the Caribbean. The sound found its way to the Congo (Congolese musicians were playing in the Antilles in the 1970s) and was picked up by Cameroonian musicians like Sam Fan Thomas in the 1980s. The band has hybridised further and there are several sub-genres like zouk-love, an update on Antillean compas and the fast carnival zouk beton (sometimes called zouk hard). Try sitting still when you listen to this music -- it's impossible.

Interested readers should try to get hold of the original hit Zouk La Se Sel Medikamen, which you can find on French compilations like Saga (a three-CD set released in 2009). Also highly recommended are two albums from their peak years: Vini Pou (1987, which includes the international hit Soleil) and Majestik Zouk (a double album released in 1989).

Finally, funkmaster George Clinton signed off on a stellar and unique career as a barber, doo wop group leader (The Parliaments), grand schemer of the P-Funk bands (Parliament and Funkadelic) and one of the most sampled musicians on the planet, with a farewell tour of his Parliament-Funkadelic collective in 2019.

Clinton celebrated his 80th birthday on July 22 and Rolling Stone magazine interviewed him. He revealed that he was having second thoughts on his retirement; he said that his was "med free and healthy and he had decided to un-retire". The thought that P-Funk could be back on the road is an exciting one for those of us who have never seen a Clinton live performance. He also added that he had two P-Funk albums in the can: a new studio-recorded album, named Reaching For Litness, and a live album. More information from georgeclinton.com.


John Clewley can be contacted at clewley.john@gmail.com.