NYT Obituary: Jacob Desvarieux, Guitarist Who Forged Zouk Style, Dies at 65


His band, Kassav’, found millions of listeners as it held on to Caribbean roots while reaching out to the world. He died of Covid-19.

An obituary by Jon Pareles for The New York Times.

Jacob Desvarieux, the guitarist and singer who led Kassav’, an internationally popular band from the French Antilles, died on July 30 in a hospital in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, the island where he lived. He was 65.

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

Mr. Desvarieux and the founder of Kassav’, the bassist Pierre-Edouard Décimus, created a style called zouk by fusing Afro-Caribbean traditions of the French Antilles with sleek electronic dance music.

Kassav’ made nearly two dozen official studio albums, and the band recorded an additional two dozen studio albums credited to individual members, along with extensive live recordings.

Kassav’ toured worldwide and sold in the millions, particularly in France and in French-speaking Caribbean and African countries. Mr. Desvarieux shaped a vast majority of the band’s songs as guitarist, songwriter, arranger or producer, and his amiably gruff voice often shared the band’s lead vocals, with lyrics in French Antillean Creole. Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, paid tribute on Twitter: “Sacred zouk monster. 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 that purposefully stayed connected to its Afro-Caribbean roots. Its albums mingled love songs and party songs with sociopolitical commentary, sometimes couched in double entendres. The core of the zouk beat drew on gwo ka, from Guadeloupe, and chouval bwa, from Martinique — two traditions rooted in the drumming of enslaved Africans.

“Through our music, we question our origins,” Mr. Desvarieux said in a 2016 interview with the French newspaper Libération. “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.”

He added, “Without being politicians or activists, Kassav’ carried it all. From our faces to the themes in our songs, everything was very clear: We were West Indian, there should be no mistake, we wanted to mark our difference.”

Jacob F. Desvarieux was born in Paris on Nov. 21, 1955, but he soon moved to 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; she gave him a guitar instead, considering it less dangerous.

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

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

In 1979, in Paris, Mr. Desvarieux met Pierre-Édouard Décimus, a musician from Guadeloupe with an ambitious concept for a new band: strongly rooted in the West Indies but reaching outward. “We were looking to find a soundtrack that synthesized all the traditions and previous sounds, but that could be exported everywhere,” Mr. Desvarieux told Libération.

Kassav’ was named after a Gaudeloupean dish, a cassava-flour pancake, and also after ka, a drum. A zouk was a dance party, and a 1984 hit by Mr. Desvarieux, “Zouk-La-Se Sel Medikaman Nou Ni” (“Zouk Is the Only Medicine We Have”), made the word zouk synonymous with the band’s style.

Mr. Desvarieux, left, performing in Abidjan in the Ivory Coast in 2009. Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, said of him on Twitter: “Sacred zouk monster. Outstanding guitarist. Emblematic voice of the Antilles.”
Mr. Desvarieux, left, performing in Abidjan in the Ivory Coast in 2009. Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, said of him on Twitter: “Sacred zouk monster. Outstanding guitarist. Emblematic voice of the Antilles.”

Kassav’ released its debut album, “Love and Ka Dance,” in 1979. “It was successful because it was Antillean music — it was local,” Mr. Desvarieux told Reggae & African Beat magazine in 1986. “But it was also better made than other Antillean discs. The instruments and vocals were in tune, and there were more sounds, like synthesizers and things like that — all the things that were not heard in Antillean records.”

As the band pumped out new music, its early influences from disco and rock receded; Kassav’ simultaneously brought out its Caribbean essence and mastered programming and electronic sounds.

It had a commercial breakthrough in 1983, with “Banzawa,” a single from what was nominally a solo album by Mr. Desvarieux and was later repackaged as a Kassav’ album. The 1984 album “Yélélé,” which was billed as a project by Mr. 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 an Antillean band, and it led to the group’s signing with Sony Music, which distributed the record internationally. By the end of the 1980s, the sound of zouk was influencing dance music worldwide.

In 1988, Kassav’ was named Group of the Year by Victoires de la Musique, an award presented by the French Ministry of Culture.

Zouk’s popularity peaked as the 1980s ended, but Kassav’ continued to draw huge audiences. From the 1980s onward, the band played long residences at the 8,000-seat arena Le Zenith, where it recorded live albums in 1986, 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2016. Mr. Desvarieux estimated that the band performed there 60 times.

For its 30th anniversary, in 2009, Kassav’ played at France’s national stadium, Stade de France, and in 2019 it sold out its 40th anniversary concert at the 40,000-seat Paris La Défense Arena.

Kassav’ toured across continents and built a huge, loyal audience, particularly in Africa, where it has drawn stadium-size crowds since the 1980s. The Senegalese songwriter Youssou N’Dour wrote of Mr. Desvarieux on Twitter, “The West Indies, Africa and music have just lost one of their greatest Ambassadors.”

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

Mr. Desvarieux was also occasionally cast for film and television. In 2016 he appeared as an African cardinal in the HBO series “The Young Pope.”

He welcomed collaborations with musicians from Africa and the Caribbean, appearing on Wyclef Jean’s 1997 album “The Carnival” and recording songs with the Ivory Coast reggae singer Alpha Blondy and with Toofan, a group from Togo.

“Laisse Parler les Gens” (“Let the People Talk),” a 2003 single that Mr. Desvarieux made with the Guadeloupean singer Jocelyne Labylle, the Congolese singer Cheela and the Congolese rapper Passi, sold more than a million copies.

Mr. Desvarieux, whose immunity was weakened because he had had a kidney transplant, was hospitalized with Covid-19 on July 12 and placed in a medically induced coma before his death. (Information on his 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 Antilles Creole, insisting on its island heritage.

“The music is a stronger language than the language itself,” Mr. Desvarieux said in 1986. “If the music pleases, the language isn’t important.”

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