A journey through music genres of the world
One of the writers of the best party song I ever danced to died of COVID last month.
Jacob Desvarieux blew open my sense of music. His legacy for me over the decades led to my iTunes library of 15,692 songs in genres from Arabic to Zydeco.
When I lived in Washington, D.C., in the early 1980s I frequented an African disco named Kilimanjaro, in the then-bohemian Adams Moran neighborhood, which my daughter refers to as AdMo (sheesh, kids these days.)
A regular track that reliably brought everyone onto the floor of the big, open room was Banzawa, 6+ minutes of lively carnival with a catchy, driving guitar and exclamations of horn choruses. I had no idea at the time that song was the ringleader of a new genre called zouk, a blend of Caribbean and African styles.
I did know enough to check with the club’s DJ and then head to the nearby west African record shop to buy the Jacob F. Desvarieux album, a prized piece of vinyl I’ve digitized, preserving even the scratches from the worn grooves.
Music from Monserrat
After more sleuthing back in the 1980s I learned Desvarieux was the guitarist for a band named Kassav, which as the years went on got the credit for Banzawa. I added Kassav LPs to my vinyl collection.
I got dragged to Kilimanjaro by Bob Gibson, who would later be best man at my wedding. While serving in the Peace Corps on the island of Montserrat he became an acolyte of the ska and calypso styles of music there. Among tiny Montserrat’s claims to fame is a recording studio that has hosted folks like Sting, The Stones, Dire Straits, Eric Clapton, and Elton John.
Bob’s Montserrat stories including getting to know The Mighty Arrow, who ran the clothing store Arrow’s Manshop where Bob would buy his polyester clubbing clothes from the man himself. Arrow also wrote the all-time best-selling soca song—Hot, Hot, Hot. Bob’s passions infected me with a lifelong case of fandom for The English Beat, a ska-influenced band whose Rotating Heads you can hear near the end of the soundtrack of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as he’s racing home through suburban backyards.
The drift toward my Banzawa moment wasn’t completely out of character. I grew up in Minnesota on mainstream Top 40 until discovering FM album rock in high school. I’d stay up until midnight when I could tune in the underground radio show of Tony “Little Sun” Glover, a local blues harmonica player. He’d play me to sleep with the rolling, hypnotic cuts from Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks album. As a newspaper reporter in North Dakota I got charmed by this thing called reggae when a Jimmy Cliff album made its way into my Fargo apartment.
While Banzawa most powerfully kept me coming back to Kilimanjaro, zouk wasn’t the mainstay of the club. That honor would go to a close cousin, soukous, which today is my favorite music. It’s out of Africa with similar zouk sounds and typically features a happy, high, twittering guitar line.
Without even thinking hard about it my music listening (I can neither sing nor play an instrument) kept expanding. I started spending Sunday afternoons with public radio jazz, adding another genre to my mostly classic rock collection (it was just called rock back then.) From that widening variety it was not a far leap to styles like, oh, say rockabilly.
Music genres and stigma
My attention to music expanded and deepened again when I became a Dad. To raise my daughter right, I needed her to be fluent in punk rock as well as Bob Dylan. I’m sure all those theme CDs I burned for her are still around here somewhere.
When iTunes appeared I studied its digital cataloging secrets, teaching myself to combine tracks, and even change the listed genre of a song. For example, I might want to spend an evening listening to just classical music, but I would never choose to listen to a “singer-songwriter” genre. So I change it to pop or folk or something that makes more sense to me.
Digging into iTunes to change the genres of the songs in my library raised my consciousness in another way as well. It offered a lesson in how stigma seeps into so many parts of our lives, limiting our cultural experiences and even opportunity for others by labeling them “country” or “rap.”
The first app on my iPhone was Soundhound, which identifies whatever song you hear playing, wherever you are. If you hang out with me very long you’ll see me holding my phone up to a speaker in a restaurant, movie theater, even a department store. Collecting and cataloging those scattered sounds has grown my library and my tastes. So has a book I’m slowly working through, 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die by Tom Moon. I’m halfway through researching and sampling each album in the book. I hope I do finish it before I die.
The master playlist I listen to on the daily dog walk and from my car speakers is not for the faint of heart. A typical session will start with Billie Holiday then go to Lorde, then Loretta Lynn, then Kanye West, then Theloneus Monk, then Nirvana, then Aaron Copeland, then Howlin’ Wolf, then Britney Spears. Many have called that whiplash. I call it fun.
The latest leg of this journey has revealed to me another genre, bachata, out of the Dominican Republic. It combines Spanish guitar with African elements to make a dance hall music that was both banned for being low-class and vulgar, as well as celebrated as a part of a cultural heritage. I don’t even know where I first heard of it, probably at some Latin eatery a couple years ago.
So thank you Jacob Desvarieux, for starting me on this trip. The Creole French he sings in is not intelligible to me, but with the announcement of his death I decided to apply a translator app to Banzawa to finally get an idea of what the song is about. As near as I can tell, it’s about partying. I sense the translation isn’t perfect, but I’ll accept its version of one verse in particular:
You are always on the verge of having fun Because you are the source of joy I love when you're there Because you are happy
Jacob Desvarieux, RIP—Rest in Party.