Jacob Desvarieux: Zouk Pioneer And Diaspora Music Theorist

The death of the French Musician of Caribbean descent is a painful loss. Via an innovative approach to music, he united the Black Atlantic like few others, writes Giulio Pecci.

by GRIOT - Published on 04/08/2021
Jacob Désvarieux. Photo via facebook.com/kassavofficiel

Jacob Desvarieux, co-founder of the band Kassav’ and one of the most influential and recognisable musicians in Caribbean music, died in Guadeloupe at the age of 65 on Friday 30th July due to COVID complications.

Desvarieux was born in Paris and studied guitar as he was inspired by African American greats such as Jimi Hendrix and Chuck Berry. He spent his childhood and youth between the Caribbean and Dakar, Senegal, a place he will always be deeply attached to. In Paris, in 1979, the guitarist founded Kassav’ together with Pierre-Edouard Décimus, a band whose declared aim was to synthesise a modern Caribbean sound, drawing from the various islands’ traditional music. Mostly Guadeloupe and Martinique (the band also used their specific French Creole), but also Haiti, combining them with trends such as funk, disco and innovative instrumentation for the time: new synths and digital effects.

Pictured from left: Jocelyne Beroard (1954), Jean-Philippe Marthély (1958), Patrick Saint Eloi (1958-2010) Georges Decimus (1955), Jean Claude Naimraud (1951) and Jacob Desvarieux (21 November 1955-20 July 2021). Photo via Facebook/Kassavofficiel

That’s how zouk was born: “We wanted to find a soundtrack that combined all the previous (Caribbean) traditions and sounds, but that was exportable everywhere […] We questioned our origins through our music. What were we doing here, we were Black and we spoke French?” as he once said to the French newspaper Liberation. His musical and social research within the African diaspora has ended up being influential, loved and respected globally: from Africa to South America, passing through francophone Europe and beyond. But first and foremost, it was an almost unprecedented tool for pride and cultural belonging for the French Antilles, especially thanks to the use of Creole for the lyrics of the songs.

To delve into and understand the innovative genius of Desvarieux as a composer and guitarist, a good starting point is the homonymous opening track of Kassav’s first album. An unstoppable ride halfway between funk, rhythms and vibes taken directly from Caribbean carnival traditions. Throughout the song his guitar flawlessly accompanies the irresistible funk riffs. But halfway into the song, he launches into a solo of great taste, clearly inspired in terms of sound and phrasing by the bluesmen from overseas—B.B. King above all.

The relationship with blues was a constant in his career, and as a guitarist it could not be otherwise. In a nice interview for Pan African Music, he talked about how the genre “is a way to convey our emotions, to tell our experiences. When I listen to the music we make in the West Indies, especially with Kassav’, it’s blues for me. When we talk about blues, we are talking about the slaves in the cotton plantations. In the cotton plantations in America, as well as in the sugar cane plantations of the West Indies, slaves had to invent music to forget the pain. We have lived the same story, an unthinkable suffering.” A Creole blues that, like all his creative endeavours, had a precise intellectual aim at its center that was achieved in an impeccable way: the investigation of the African diasporic identity, the true leitmotif of his career.

The splendid live album Nanm Kann released in 2020, his last release, retraces this investigation. Each song on the album is a manifesto of this attitude. However, Karneval Blues is perhaps the epitome of everything, starting from the title which brings together Fort-de-France and Chicago, Guadalupe and Mississippi, the Dionysian spirit of the Caribbean carnival and the more melancholic side, equally imbued with the vitality of a blues guitar solo. The peculiar style on the instrument was then joined by a unique voice: unbalanced on the bass and on the midrange, with an irregular mesmerising cadence, halfway between the sung and the spoken word and enriched by a timbre that tasted like spiced honey.

In 2019 just before the beginning of the pandemic, Kassav’ had time to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of their self-titled debut album, after a career that produced a discography of fifty official albums. The full two-hour concert held on 11th May in a completely sold out Paris La Défense Arena and in a contagious party atmosphere is available on YouTube. Flags from all corners of the globe are repeatedly shown by the audience, perfect witnesses to the level of visceral popularity achieved by the band.

The sorrow for Desvarieux’s death was transversal. Words of condolence came from the French president Macron and from musicians from all over the world, such as Angélique Kidjo who tweeted: “RIP #JacobDesvarieux your musical genius has influenced me so much and very few people know that you played amazing guitars on many of my songs like Fifa, Akwaba. You brought Africa and the West Indies closer together in a human and musical way. That is a big accomplishment”; from Gaël Faye, who wrote: “We owe so much to Kassav’, the biggest French music group. We owe so much to Jacob Desvarieux. Great sadness to learn of his death. Endless gratitude”; and from the legend of Senegalese music Youssou N’Dour, who underlined in a tweet the precious role played in bringing together the Antilles’ experience and the African one: “The West Indies, Africa and music have just lost one of its greatest Ambassadors. Jacob, thanks to your art, you brought the Antilles closer to Africa. Dakar, where you lived, is crying to you. Goodbye my friend.”

The importance of Desvarieux, the Kassav’ and the zouk is all here, in this capacity for hybridisation that becomes a Creole musical language. Undeniably Caribbean, but with arms wide open to the whole African diaspora, and beyond.

Giulio Pecci

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