Photo: Pierre Danae / Courtesy of the artist

Delgres Forges Political Music From the Personal

Paris-based trio Delgres' debut album melds rock, blues with elements of music from New Orleans and the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and they tell us about it in this new interview.

Mo Jodi
31 August 2018

For Pascal Danae, the longest journey has been the one back to himself. It’s been 53 years since he was born outside Paris to immigrants from Guadeloupe, and in that time he has played guitar with jazz bands as well as top musicians from around the world such as Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour, Brazil’s Gilberto Gil and Algeria’s Souad Mossi. However, on the debut album Mo Jodi with his new trio, Delgres, he has, as he said in a recent interview: “put the puzzle pieces together” that express his singularly amalgamated self – a Frenchman of West Indian origins whose musical references span the world.

The band’s sound seems immediately familiar – it’s a gritty, blues-based rock even if most of the lyrics are sung in Creole. With a sousaphone instead of an electric bass, the group also can bring to mind the brass music of New Orleans. With Danae’s plaintive vocals and fuzz-toned guitar, the band can bring to mind the roots-rocker-with-a-twist sound of Los Lobos.

The origin of the band and its sound go back to 2015 when Danae moved to Amsterdam after a Brazilian project he had organized fell apart. “I was asking myself: ‘What am I going to do?’ It was a tough time. I was looking for a way to walk again.”

One breakthrough moment happened when he stopped in a guitar shop in Amsterdam. It was filled with shiny new guitars, but Danae picked up a dobro guitar – an acoustic guitar with a metal resonator built into the body. He strummed it and was struck by the sound, but put it down. His wife, who was with him, later bought it for him as a birthday present and he began to sense something distinctive in its sound, which he explored with an open tuning and a slide. He felt he “needed to go deep”, and unexpectedly began singing in Creole, the Guadalupe language his parents used when he was growing up.

Danae eventually moved back to Paris with a few new songs in his back pocket. “It was something precious, and I wanted to keep it intimate.” He eventually tapped drummer Baptiste Brondy, with whom he had worked before. “He had the same body clock as mine – we were in synch so much.” As Danae continued to build the sound, he felt an electric bass wouldn’t work. He said he wanted “something really earthy, from the street, from carnival… I thought of the sousaphone”, and they found the brass player who goes by the name of Rafgee.

“We decided from day one to take our time and have the experience of sharing it with people onstage before doing any recording,” he said. “Now it’s all ready, and I’m excited and frightened.”

In his younger days as a jazz and fusion guitarist, Danae said, he would play “a million notes” and chase the excitement in exploring what he could do within a tune’s scale, but he realized that for Delgres, he had to play with a different sensibility. “I really don’t feel like I am restraining myself to get somewhere. I’m just playing the one note and letting it ring…. see how we can arrive at this point in the emotion…. The idea now is to go beyond the excitement and just say something.” Looking back at the creation of the band, he said, “At one point I just needed silence and meaning and resonance. That’s when I went deep – and this is it.”

While the acoustic dobro was inspirational, it was a challenge for playing electric in live shows, but serendipitously he came across an unusual choice: an old Harmony Stratotone guitar, which has an unusual place in the classic guitar pantheon – a cheaply made guitar that became sought after. Carl Perkins started his career with one and put tape over its name in the hope that people would think he had a much more expensive Gibson Les Paul. Danae said a musician friend handed him one, and while it was nothing special in standard tuning, it had a full, satisfying sound when he played it in an open tuning like a dobro. “I bought two,” he said with a smile.

In the months that the trio has been playing live without a published album, they have generated some buzz in the U.S. and Europe. “I feel like we have created something that did not exist before, that kind of blend. I think the reason why people welcome it in such a way,” he said, “is because they understand it is something new.”

The album’s title cut, “Mo Jodi (I’ll Die Today)” is based on the story of a Guadaloupean freedom fighter, Louis Delgres, who sacrificed his life in 1802 to resist Napoleonic forces trying to reinstate slavery on the Caribbean island. Danae said he only learned of Delgres late in his life and decided to name the band for him to help shine a spotlight on the little-known historical figure. That Guadeloupe historical connection is not the only influence from his ancestral home. Danae said that much of his singing echoes the folk style called gwoka, a drum and vocal genre that comes from sugar-cane workers. He compared the earthy style to southern American blues.

“Every time I listen to those guys to me this is our blues,” Danae said. “Most of the guys singing gwoka they are working in the fields with the cane. They are not professional… they sing with their heart and their pain.”

The album has a vein of politics running through it. On “Mon President”, the track begins with an audio clip of the late President Lyndon Johnson and the lyrics ask political leaders to do the right thing for their people.

Danae’s politics, though, come from a personal place. Speaking about himself, he said “technically you are French, but you know from the color of your skin [you are] not the average French guy, but still you are. You try to put the pieces together and make your own identity, and that’s what I try to do. You are this West Indian guy in this French world and ask ‘Who are you?’ What you get – sometimes it’s fire, and sometimes it’s ice.”

The album also reflects Danae’s personal life: The song “Pardone Mwen” is an apology to his sister, who he said took up many of the family responsibilities as he led the itinerant life of a professional musician. And on “Can’t Let You Go,” he sings an emotional electric blues in English: “I don’t know if I can let you go / I know I say yes, but my heart won’t let go.”

“Along the way you live your life as a man, as a human being,” he observed. “You love, you have parents, you have family, and you have feelings. I really feel like I have to talk about that because this [music] is about expressing your humanity. This is about the freedom of being who you are completely.”

“What I’d like people to take away is their own freedom to create, to mix things in a very personal way and take it out there and don’t be afraid of that,” he continued. “Delgres is my version of the key to understanding where I come from and stand proud of it. I guess everyone has their own version of Delgres.”