Growing up in St. Lucia, before I even really knew myself, I knew Zouk and Kassav. I sang the songs before really understanding them. As much as creole is part of my cultural heritage and identity, so is zouk and Kassav. And here I sit interviewing Madame Jocelyn Beroard of the iconic band Kassav. The sense of the surreal is almost tangible and I have pinched myself at least twice.
Kassav have without a shadow of a doubt brought zouk to life in and beyond the Caribbean to Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, world wide. I can sing ‘Zouk la’ in France, Martinique, Haiti, even Tanzania (can you believe that? I nearly jumped out of my skin when the guy next to me sang the next line) and I get the response ‘se la medikaman nou ni’. The deep gravelly tones of Jacob Desvarieux is distinguishable anywhere. I wish I could make you feel how I feel right now. But before I continue to wax lyrical, for my audience who have no idea about Kassav (gasp, the horror!), let me tell you a bit about the juggernauts of zouk.
Kassav were formed in 1979, a group of individuals from the French Caribbean islands Guadeloupe and Martinique. The band consists of Jocelyne Beroard, Jacob Desvarieux, Jean-Philippe Marthély, Patrick St. Eloi, Jean-Claude Naimro, Claude Vamur and Georges Décimus Over a few years they created the ‘zouk’ genre and have never really looked back. Kassav has 13 studio albums between 1979 and 1995, 6 live albums between 1987 and 2006, 11 compliation albums between 1987 and 2012 and 6 DVDs. They have sold over 5 million copies world wide and toured world wide.
Jocelyne in 1986 won a double disc of gold for her solo album Siwo and tune ‘Kole Sere’. She was the first Caribbean singer in history to get a gold record in France. She has worked with many others such as the band Tabou Combo from Haiti and has spent time in Jamaica. She is an actress and is an avid photograper. It was such an experience being able to interview her prior to their concert in London.
Thank you so much for agreeing to this. You’re in London. Welcome to London. But why now? Well the opportunity was offered you know to come to London. We haven’t been to London for like five years and so it was very interesting to have another production here. What was important to us when we created the zouk music was to have people all over the world know about the Caribbean.
Kassav has a very long career. What gives zouk, your music and the band that longevity? Well first it’s because Kassav created that style. When we decided to create it, we went back to our base musically talking. The three people who are at the beginning of Kassav; Pierre Decimus, George Decimus and Jacob Desvariuex are from Guadeloupe and began looking into the music of Guadeloupe. When they called for people in Martinique, like Jean-Phillipe, Jean-Claude and myself, they started with Gwo Ka music and that is ok for us because it was not too far from Bele which is music from Martinique which is drum rhythms. We had to go back to what we have and not try to be in a general world movement, trying to please someone. We wanted to have a music that would please us first, please our people. But we thought that this music should also go outside too. So it had to be modernised enough with technology to be heard by other people. Even if they don’t like it, they could listen to it because it was well done. Do something but do it clean. So that’s the first thing that was important. The people at home felt something was happening, something new. Little by little, the style was totally ok. And we could offer it as ‘zouk’ to the rest of the world.
And do you think the style has changed from the original format? I mean music always evolves.. Of course, if you listen to the very first album of Kassav, the zouk of today does not sound like the very first. But it is question of evolution, when you create something you have the basis of the thing. And little by little you get the right flavour to it. Also when we had the style and we could name it, we could invite other music into it. Because we are part of this group and we receive music from all over, we are not like horses going in one direction. So it would of course change the thing but we would always keep the zouk style in it.
What makes zouk, zouk? What makes Kassav zouk? I think it is the drum and the percussion. Which is pap pap… pap pap. Which looks like the Haitian but not played the same way. And you have the percussion ta ki ta, ti bois what we call the ‘ti bois’. So that’s the main things of zouk and they way of singing it is also is different.
I asked T-Vice this question and I am interested in your answer as well. What makes zouk different from Kompas? Oh oh oh, you should ask that to one of the musicians, maybe they can tell you better than me. But we do know, if you know the two, you know its different. I think it is the question of the drums. If you mind, let me ask? [Madame Jocelyne calls to George and Phillipe of the Kassav band and asks in French. There is a minute or so discussion and we are told and Madame Jocelyne repeats] So the difference is in the instruments that are used, the guitar is more up front in the Kompas, the guitar plays almost like a piano and the way of playing with the cymbals and drums is different.
Zouk, Kassav has been going for a long time. And the band has been such a solid team. Members have done solo albums but have remained in Kassav. What has kept you guys together? The thing is when you go back to your roots musically talking, you go back to your roots in general. Which means that you know where you are from, you know your history. When you are with a group like Kassav, everybody has something to teach everyone. It teaches you humility. We are doing something together and that something is more important than ego. You have to learn who you are working with because you enjoy working with them. You shouldn’t judge but help each other in music and in life. We are six in my family. Two brothers twins, they are different and three sisters, they are different. We are all different. So with the group, first there was respect, then love. We started to be a family because we are on the road all the time. There was a period when I was more with Kassav than with my own family. So they became my brothers. Sometimes I would call Jacob with the name of my brother, I don’t know why.. So sometimes they do things and it goes to my nerves. But I do too. I am sure it is the same thing with me. That they have to accept me the way I am and it might not be easy for them too. You learn that because you are not perfect, you can’t expect the person in front to of you to be perfect. We love doing the music that we do. You will see that on stage tonight.
What makes you keep performing for so long? It’s just magical, it’s just magical. Even if you are tired and everything, the music starts and you are just into it. And you are just having fun.
Is it getting harder and harder to be away from home? It is harder and harder because when you see all that you have been missing, mostly when you are a woman. Because when you are a man, you can have a lady waiting for you in the house, making the babies for you. When you are a woman, you have a man say ‘ok I will wait for you’ and one day you find the house empty. You can not be doing babies and being on the road. Some people do but you know with Kassav it was so hectic most of the time. We were going all over the world, so it is difficult.
Do you have any regrets about that? You, one woman in an all male band. There are obvious practicalities? Has it been difficult? Being in woman in Kassav? No, it hasn’t been that difficult. In the very beginning when I came into that group, they called me as a background singer and I didn’t ask for anything. Very quickly, they asked me to go up front, sing solo. And the thing is, when I decide to be part of something, I invest in myself. When means that I am not trying to please people, I am just trying to be part of it. So when I was listening to them, I knew they had a lot to teach me. I knew also what I brought to them. It was very easy. I started doing clothes for concerts. I started doing the list of songs that we would sing. Today every time they say ‘ok what are we going to sing?’ They say ‘ask Jocelyne’. So I have this part. I am doing the interviews, I speak different languages so I can easily have the interviews. I know the history of Kassav. I do all the social sites of Kassav. I have a good friend Dominic in Guadeloupe who helps a lot but we are only two. We really care about what is happening about Kassav on the net. I take pictures also. So I am really interested in the promotion.
I know that you are an avid photographer. Do you have a favourite subject? Well it is everything, it is the world. Beauty is in everything. It is in nature, it is in buildings, it is faces, in flowers, in a seed. But you have to look at it and put it in the right light. So that is what I am showing in my pictures. Sometimes I will use software and change the colour and light cause I like having fun with pictures. Sometimes I messed them up. Most of time I have good results and have fun doing it. I am not a professional. I have a lot of learning to do but I have life to do that. What is interesting in life is that every day you are learning.
I wanted to speak with you about the creole culture. I recently went to Haiti and it was such a joy to hear the creole language being spoken all the time. I was wondering, as you have travelled extensively throughout the various creole islands including Haiti, is it sometimes that the creole language and culture is looked down upon? Now a days the world is a village. We’ve got internet, you can play music with someone who is Japan. Right now, everyone is going to the net to get information. And in terms of music, if you don’t have videos, you don’t exist. Kids have Ipad, can listen to all the big international hits and learn to dance and sing like them. It’s very funny to watch them but it is dangerous too as it is formatting their minds. In countries where English is the official language like Dominica, St. Lucia, there are a lot of things coming from America. When you have someone like Rihanna selling millions of CDS, and for example, you coming from St.Lucia, you are selling first for your people then others. But the kids will not really consider you.
Also we must remember that we are part of a history that tells us what we have is not good. So we have to teach our children that our culture is as rich as other cultures. It’s us that have to work on the culture, to develop it. We have to learn to do what we have to do. And that is what the Americans to. The African American people, they knew that if they wanted to exist, they had to be strong enough. It’s not just being talented. You have to have the art. In the States today, when you are learning music, you have to learn how to act, how to dance. So you are a complete thing. Most of the young people coming from my country when they are on stage, they don’t know how to move. I have really thought about this. We are self made and do not go further in the knowledge of what we are doing. We are not surrounded also by people (I am talking about our islands) of people who are really thinking that you are carrying something that is important for your country. They are just thinking how much money they can make out of you. And if it does not work with you, well they will just take someone else. We’re not really trying to put something really solid into artistic expression. I think it is education. I think that we have to teach parents that when you know two languages, you can’t make mistakes. If one language is just taught outside the house, then you don’t know it properly enough. You make mistakes in the other language that is close to it. For example, in my family, they would say speaking creole would have you making mistakes in French. But if you learn French correctly and if you learn creole correctly, then you don’t mix them. Or if you mix them, it is because you want to which I do. Creole is also spoken in Trinidad. And there were people from Martinique after the eruption of Mount Pele who went to Trnidad to live. I met an older lady there and she speaks fluent creole. But the young people, because of the strength of the American culture, the products coming to us, they all dream of becoming the next Rihanna who came from Barbados. That’s where their dreams are. And we say ok because they represent success. But the best you have to give is what YOU have and that is YOU.
Is there anyplace in the world that you haven’t played yet but you would love to do a production? Well yes, we went to Japan but we haven’t been to India or China. It would be interesting. We have stopped by Australia. We have slept there but never performed there. There are many different countries.
And out of all the places you have played where is the place that has given you the most joy? Home [laughter]. Why because the people know every single note of every single song. And they sing it for you. Even the piano, the horn solo, they sing it for you. It happened to me that going up the stairs to sing on stage I started crying because the vibe of the crowd, it was just like too much. Home is strongest. Apart from home, I would say Paris, we get a good strong response from people at Zenith. In Africa also. We get a good good response. And even the Portuguese speaking countries like Cape Verde, Angola, Mozambique. Most the music of Cape Verde is not too far away from our music.
Thinking about you personally. What are you most proud of? What is your greatest achievement? My greatest achievement has been having part of Kassav and having the respect of all the men in Kassav and being an example for many girls. They come to me, you know I don’t like to say that but they come to me and say that so frequently. My head is not getting any bigger, I’m just happy. Because when you are born, you know that one day you will be gone. What you have to do between alpha and omega is just give, share as well as discover, receive. Just try to make this world a better world.
What album or song is most special for you? Well I like ‘Ke sa leve’. It was probably something I needed at the time. This helped a lot of people. You know people have to learn no one belongs to anyone. And if someone wants to go, tell him go to the door. But I love also ‘An Limie’ which is about hope. We are crossing the same river so let us help each other cross the same river. Cause that is the only way we can see the sparkle in another’s eyes which for me symbolises hope. There’s always a light in your eyes, in life. There’s a lot.. ‘Mi tche mwen’, ‘Siwo’ ‘Kaye Manman’. Generally when I sing a song it’s because I like it.
What does carnival mean to you? Oh carnival is a period of fun! I mean in Martinique it is very fun. I’ve seen reports about Guadloupe where you have people having being in disguise and in beautiful costumes. There are two parts; there is the fun parts with all the kids cute. The second part os the cultural part with groups we call them ‘Groupes a Peau’. They play with drums and you can hear the drums and it amazing to hear the drums and they usually go at night. Martinique is more exploding. You have to have fun. You have different groups with different outfits and everything. Unfortunately there is less and less songs unless it is song that is talking about an event that happened in the world. People from Martinique have fun. What they don’t do during the entire year, they do it during carnival.
The carnival of Martinique, everyday you have something special. It starts in January, after epiphany. Every weekend, there is something happening. But the carnival itself lasts for four days. Sunday all groups come in. Monday is wedding day. It’s fun. You’ve got big tall men being the woman and small men being the woman. Sometimes they have a goat with them. Tuesday is the devil day. It’s red. So everyone is dressed up in red and black. You have people with horns. It’s a tradition not like devil in religion. Wednesday we bury Vaval who is the king of carnival so he has to be burnt on the sea. Generally there is an effigy which is up to four meter tall. Everyone is black and white to mourn the death. No colour.
What’s next for you? Do you want to do more singing? More acting? Well now, I have one big thing that I have to finish to be able to feel free. I started a book two years ago. It’s almost finished I have to cut into it, I have to change things, I have to complete things. And I don’t really have time to do that as we are on the road all the time. So the editor is waiting and every six months he calls and says ‘So nowwwwww where are we?’ And I tell him ‘soon come, soon come’. Jamaican style. I have to finish it because there is a lot in there that will make people understand more what happened with Kassav, what Kassav brought to the people.
Madame Jocelyne Beroard is a rare gem in any musical genre and industry and speaking to her I can understand why the rest of Kassav chose her out of the many women to become lead vocal. It’s not just her voice. There is a deep sense of calm, compassion and spirituality beyond organised religion when speaking to her. There is also very much a sense of absolute rock solid internal will and strength. She cares deeply about her creole culture and is very much about giving back to the culture.
A Kassav concert is an experience unlike any other and you really just have to be there. Strong vocals, fantastic live music showcasing zouk and creole, musicians demonstrating talent and skill that has been honed to perfection over decades, a synergy of band members that sometimes does not require verbal communication but a look, a small gesture, body movement from one individual for the rest of the members to respond and join in to bring about a fluid and natural synchronized group action. The location you would think is in Paris or one of the creole speaking islands, not English speaking London. The crowd responded with so much energy and familarity. They sang, clapped, danced, jumped, followed instructions. Hands were placed on hearts, eyes were closed and they sang. And when the concert was done, I wanted more. This is Kassav, this is creole culture and art, this is music.
For more information on Kassav and Jocelyne Beroard, please visit www.kassav30ans.com, Kassav on Wikipedia, Kassav on Facebook, kassav_official on Instgram and Twitter, Kassav on You Tube. Many thanks to Larri Alleyne for the photography for this article and the Kassav concert. Many thanks to Francois Pinard, Daniely Francisque, Ketty Ivrisse, Sophie Acomat and Ziloka.