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Delgrès: where Delta blues meets Caribbean lament

By Alison Hird

Our guest in this week's programme is deep roots trio Delgrès. Performing at this summer's Paris Jazz Festival, founder Pascal Danae talks to RFI about the slave rebellion hero that inspired the band and the importance of "sharing a good time, not a history book".

Guitarist Pascal Danae was born in Paris to Caribbean parents from Guadeloupe. He plays the Dobro, an acoustic guitar with a metal resonator built into its body.

And his music, well it resonates with the history of his fellow Guadeloupians.

The band is named after Louis Delgrès, an officer of African descent who died on the island of Guadeloupe fighting against Napoleon’s enforced reinstatement of slavery in 1802. They play tribute to this "forgotten hero" in the song Mo Jodi (dead today).

Danae also has very personal links to that period in history.

On his first visit back to Guadeloupe, he was handed the letter of freedom, dated 1841, belonging to his ancestor Louise Danae. She’d been a slave for 27 years and was freed along with her four children. "One of them was my great, great grandfather. He was only one-year-old," says Danae.

The knowledge of that ancestry drove the guitarist to form the band.

“All of a sudden it’s in your face because it’s written down and it’s not somebody else’s story, it’s your own story,” he says. "I needed to go deep into my soul, dig up all the emotion and the blues was, to me, the best way to portray that.”

All the more so because in 1802, when Louis Delgrès lost his battle, many Guadeloupians had to flee the island, and some went to Louisiana: birthplace of the blues.

Delgrès in concert at Festival Paris Jazz, July 2017 HIRD/RFI

Danae got funky drummer Baptiste Brondy to provide the necessary pulse. He's exciting to watch. And despite the fact he says he's never been to Guadeloupe and knew nothing about Delgrès the officer, there's clear complicity on stage.

“I found the Delgrès story moving,” he says. “I’m connecting with it more and more. After we’ve talked about it, something special happens between us when we go on stage.”

For the base-line, Danae was inspired by brass bands parading the streets of New Orleans and turned to Sousaphone player Rafgee.

“For bass I wanted something very basic, street-like, but with the ability to also be very emotional. With the tuba, you have all of that: it’s very noble and street like at the same time. You can play beautiful melodies, Mozart, and you can also growl.”

Fort Louis Delgrès in Basse Terre, Guadeloupe, pays tribute to the soldier's fight against the reintroduction of slavery under Napoleon RFI/Céline Develay-Mazurelle

Sharing a good time, not a history book

The band sings mainly in creole and while some songs evoke history and social justice, there are simple love songs too. Danae describes Lanme La (the sea) as “a simplistic blues song that says basically 'if you don’t love me you’ll find my heart at the bottom of the ocean'”.

There's no question of getting locked into the memorial music slot.

“To me Delgrès [the band] is not so much about fighting for the memory and all that, it’s like 'let’s just shed a light on someone that at one point was able to make a fantastic decision'. He was a hero and now from that place let’s move on, let’s turn that into positive things, dig into our feelings as human beings and get together.”

So there are songs that are designed to get you dancing, and they do. And songs asking you to reflect a bit, and they do.

“We travel between those very reflective songs and songs that are more like into the memorial quest but it’s important for us to keep it at a pretty light level. People come to the concert to have a good time. We share a good time, it’s not a history book.”

Delgrès have a debut album in the pipeline but in the meantime you can listen to several songs online. Even better, catch them in concert: 23 November, Africolor festival in St Denis, 29 January 2018 Alhambra, Paris.

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