Zouk Is Good For You
Picking up the Zouk thread
While on my quest for the Zouk Grail, Gene Scaramuzzo was the most knowledgeable person that I knew. His expertise extended beyond Zouk to other styles of music from Guadeloupe and Martinique. He and CC Smith were in Guadeloupe in the mid 1980’s when Kassav’ was just starting to make their international impact. He patiently answered my phone calls about all things zouk while making dinner for his two children. Through his guidance and suggestions, I soon was buying everything that I could lay my hands on. Original Music founded by the late John Storm Roberts was another source of recordings from these islands. He and his staff provided recommendations not only for Zouk albums but African music as well. By the time I even knew of Kassav’ they had recorded 11 albums beginning in 1979. Zouk never took off in the USA partly because of the language barrier and lackluster marketing by Columbia Records. Maybe the USA has too much Victorian hangover. Meanwhile Zouk was fueling the dance floor clubs in Europe, Brasil, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Language was no barrier in these places. It was all about the swing. The formation of Kassav’ and their unique sound is an interesting story in and of itself. It was born not only from cadence but also included elements of funk and R&B from the USA, Haitian compa, West African guitar stylings and indigenous rhythms from both islands including gwo ka, bélé, chouval bwa, biguine, mazurka, quadrille. In a show of unity Kassav’ is comprised of members from both islands. Pierre-Edouard Decimus, a bassist from the legendary Vikings de Guadeloupe, George Decimus, Jacob Desvarieux (b1955-d2021) and Freddy Marshall combined their musical skills and melded it with electronic studio wizardry to produce a unique mix. The group’s name comes from a dish made from cassava root which if not made with the exact measurements can be toxic. Thus the mix was tweaked in an precise way and gave birth to music that was the perfect medicine for what people needed to dance.
Individual members of Kassav’ like Patrick St. Eloi (b1958-d2010), Jean-Philippe Martheléy, Jocelyne Béroard, Claude Vamur and Jean Claude Naimro recorded albums in their own names but the backing and anchoring was mainly the rest of Kassav’ at the time.
I was Zouk-ified and my quest for new artists continued. Through compilations, recommendations from people in the know I started to amass a fairly extensive collection of mainly cd’s and some vinyl. Prior to 9/11, Stern’s Music had an office on Warren St in NYC and in London too. They carried a good selection of Zouk, African and Brasilian music. I can say that I rarely bought or heard an album that I did not like. There were a few but not that many. For those interested he is a partial list of Zouk artists. It is by no means exhaustive but it provides a staring point to explore beyond Kassav’s work.
As for live events, I was fortunate to DJ an after party at the Martinique Promotion Bureau’s Dede St. Prix concert. I can not remember how I got that great opportunity. I saw Patrick Parole at a fashion show in Guadeloupe around 1993. At SOB’s in NYC during Martinique Days I was lucky enough to see Patrick St. Eloi, Ralph Thamar, Eric Virgal, Jocelyne Béroard and other members of Kassav’. That night a gentleman (her manager?) with the musicians told me that he had found Jocelyne Béroard singing with a jazz group in Paris some years ago.
When I first became a Zouk lover, I was taken with the pyrotechnics of Zouk chiré or béton, the hard driving zouk as opposed to Zouk love which is more laid back. Again Gene Scaramuzzo turned me on to artists like the clarinetist Michel Godzom and Guy Vadeleux who played creolized waltzes, biguine, mazurka, quadrille and other styles of music other than Zouk. I slowly began to realize that there was much more music from these two islands than just Zouk.
Malavoi is an outstanding orchestra of another dimension. These musicians took old West Indian dance songs and infused them with Brasilian, Jazz, Caribbean and African ingredients. Here is my favorite track from their album “Matebis” Me Ki Sa Ou Le. They have appeared at the International Festival of Louisiana and on the west coast. They are a truly unique orchestra that can take you from a languid rhythmic Cuban inflected groove to a high octane Brazilian samba. On one of our last trips to Guadeloupe we just missed seeing them by a week.
Very nice Marco - a lot of your memories of early zouk music reverberates with me also. Those of us who appreciated the music were lucky to be able to share the love.