Delgres Offers Up Blues As World Music on 'Mo Jodi'
The Paris-based trio Delgres connects the Mississippi Delta, the Caribbean, and New Orleans on their debut album, Mo Jodi.
31 August 2018
Blues is a genre with many stylistic offshoots – Mississippi Delta, Chicago, Texas, Memphis, Hill Country, Kansas City, and New Orleans, to name a few. And although the blues was born in the American South, it has traveled to Britain, Europe, and to West Africa, in the "desert blues" of Malian and Tuareg musicians like guitarist Ali Farka Touré and the acclaimed band Tinariwen.
The latest example of the blues as world music comes from Delgres, a Paris-based trio led by guitarist and vocalist Pascal Danaë, the son of immigrants from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. Mo Jodi (I'll Die Today), the band's first, full-length album (following a 2016 three-track EP), signals the arrival of a fresh and exciting ensemble, one whose sound, like all the best blues, infuses the familiar generic elements with a unique, personal sensibility.
But although the blues is the heart of the Delgres sound, there are other influences at work that reflect Danaë's eclectic tastes — jazz, Afro-Caribbean, R&B, and British rock. Recalling his early musical education, Danaë says, "We were listening to a lot of Cuban music, salsa, beguine, Haitian konpa and African music. My bigger sisters listened to James Brown and old-time R&B. And my godfather was crazy about English rock! I can still picture the compilation he brought home with the Kinks, Rolling Stones and Beatles. That British sound is part of who I am." He also was drawn to Herbie Hancock's jazz-rock fusion, Charlie Parker, and the jazz guitarists Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, and George Benson.
As those varied influences suggest, Delgres isn't strictly a blues band; but blues feeling colors everything, even the songs that depart from genre conventions. Delgres' other members are drummer Baptiste Brondy and Rafgee, who, rather than the bass, plays the sousaphone, a nod to New Orleans brass bands. Rafgee plays melodic bass lines on it, but he also makes the big horn growl and rumble. It's Danaë's guitar, though, that dominates, and that most strongly establishes the trio's connection to the blues. Besides electric guitars, on several tracks, he plays a resonator dobro, an instrument that produces a big, powerful sound by conducting the vibrations of the strings through metal cones, or resonators. Early blues players like Bukka White and Son House played acoustic Dobros; Danaë would seem to be using either an acoustic modified with a pickup or a solid body, electric dobro. Whatever the instrument, his playing always commands attention; he's fluent in the blues and '60s-'70s blues-rock, but unlike so many guitar heroes from that era, he never overplays.
The blues often is regarded – wrongly – as concerned solely with love and sexual relationships, to the exclusion of social commentary and political protest. But as Angela Davis observed in her essay, "I Used to be Your Sweet Mama: Ideology, Sexuality, and Domesticity", the "historical African-American vision of individual sexual love linked it inextricably with possibilities of social freedom in the economic and political realms".
Mo Jodi has love songs (the Gallic-sounding "Vivre sur La Route" being my favorite), but Danaë's more concerned with "the possibilities of social freedom," and with the political realm. He named his trio after Louis Delgrés, a Creole officer in the French army who died in Guadeloupe in 1802 in a battle against Napoleon's army, which had come to the island to reinstate slavery. The Paris-born Danaë experienced a profound emotional connection to this history when, during his first trip to his parents' homeland, he discovered the letter of manumission given to his great-great-grandmother in 1841. In his music, Danaë connects his Guadeloupean heritage (most of his lyrics are in the island's Creole language), the Mississippi Delta, and Louisiana, where Guadeloupeans sought refuge from slavery.
The title track honors Louis Delgrés and his martyrdom: in a battle in 1802, Delgrès and his followers ignited their stores of gunpowder, committing suicide but also killing French troops. In the persona of Delgres, Danaë sings, "Now you and your soldier friends try put a chain around my feet / You know I can't let you do that, right? /Yeah, I'd rather die today! /Right here right now!" On "Respecté Nou" (Respect Us), which opens the album with a bang, Danaë sings about his great-great-grandmother and her letter of freedom. "Anko" opens with the voices of young people chanting, "the people are rising". "The Promise", a snippet from a Lyndon Johnson speech in which LBJ declared he had no interest in devoting "an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes other than other than the awesome duties of this office" leads to "Mr. President". Singing in Guadeloupean Creole, Danaë challenges an aloof head of state: "Mr. President, you are so smart / Me, I don't know shit / I'm just a musician / All I can do is sing / But I did vote for you, put my trust in your hands / Now could you please explain what you're gonna do for me / Cause I'm still struggling, struggling, struggling."
Songs about slavery, a freedom fighter's martyrdom, and out-of-touch politicians might suggest that Mo Jodi offers mainly sober-sided polemic. But although protest songs abound, the album is far from downbeat. The interplay among the three players (with a few unobtrusive guests) always is a delight, and often downright thrilling. Then there's the pleasure of encountering a freshly-minted band, that whatever its influences, sounds like no other. Delgres currently is making its first North American tour. Their distinct sensibility, strong songwriting, and forceful, blues-based sound make the trio an act well worth checking out, on record and in concert.