Some bands become pillars of a genre, some redefine it, and others rise to the level of exemplar in their chosen style.
And then there are bands that outright create an entirely new genre.
Such is the case with Kassav', the first zouk band the world ever knew. Formed in 1979 by Pierre-Edouard Décimus and Jacob Desvarieux, Kassav' combined the sounds of compas, a Haitian style of merengue, cadence-lypso from Trinidad and Tobago, further traditional Afro-Caribbean sounds, and the '80s love of drum machines and synthesizers to produce a unique type of dance music.
With its high energy and superupbeat rhythms, zouk is often dubbed "carnival music" and was popularized by Kassav' in the French Antilles, namely the group's home islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. The band found international success with its hit single, "Zouk La Se Sel Medikaman Nou Ni," which translates roughly to "Zouk Is the Only Medicine We Need."
New Times spoke with Desvarieux, who cut his teeth as a well-known Paris-born studio musician before the creation of Kassav', from his hotel room in Curaçao as the band makes its way from Europe to South America and, in a few days, Miami.
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We begin our conversation by considering Miami's status as a portal to Latin America. Because of the large population of people from the Caribbean, Kassav' must surely receive a welcome here as warm as it would at home. In a heavy French accent, Desvarieux struggles with his English and says "sorry" several times for it, but his apologies are unnecessary; the message of his words throughout our conversation is as clear as the percussion section of the group's songs.
"Oh, yes," he says brightly at the memory of the fun the bandmates have here. "We have a lot of our people — from Haiti, from Guadeloupe, from Martinique, the islands — who live in Miami. When we play, every time we have some success. The people are very happy to see us."
The joy of Kassav' fans is twofold: Not only is zouk music utterly danceable — hypnotizing in its ability to spark a primal urge to move — but also the lyrics, sung completely in Kreyol, often deal with serious topics that are of great importance to both the band and its audience.
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"We talk a lot about the problems of Haiti, of our history... But the music is always positive."
Kassav' is fast approaching its 40th anniversary, and Desvarieux has no shortage of accomplishments to feel proud of. First, he's thrilled to announce that all the members of the band still, all of these decades later, get along and accept one another as people, something that many groups struggle with four weeks into a career. But, more than that, Desvarieux is proud of his band's mission statement, the principle on which the band was conceived and to which it has remained true: Let's not be like anyone else.
"We started this band to play the music from our country. We take some influence from all the music around us and make it the same level as from around the world — not to do the same music, but to have the same level [of quality]. If we have to play before or after an American band or a Japanese band or anyone... we are sure the people will hear our music and find our music original."