From A to Zazou

One of the most interesting aspects of record collecting was finding yourself suddenly "in" the lives of dramatic individuals who you would not, in the normal course of affairs, encounter. It's a little like one of those moments when you are travelling in the third world and you're thrust into radically different people's orbits. I remember a man called Ali Nawpora who I lived with for a week in Kashmir in 1990. Ali taught me how, once you've badly banged a finger, thumb or toe, if you clench the offending digit incredibly tight as soon as you've hit it (it is very painful to do so), it stops the blood rushing to that spot and you get almost no bruising. It's a trick that has helped enormously bringing up children I can assure you.

There's not a huge amount of information about Zazou online. This obituary almost reads like a discography - the best thing out there is this nice article by Oliver Lamm in the Red Bull archives which also points out: "There’s scarcely anything about him online from a biographical perspective, apart from a rather thin Wikipedia page entry and some dazed obituaries."

This ZNR's, "Barricade 3", was put out on Recommended Records in 1976. I suppose at the very tail-end of Progressive Rock there was an increasing porosity, or open-ness, to European rock. That long, almost conceptually static stretch of time between 1967 and 1976 allowed the continent to catch up with the currents in Anglo-American Rock. You could read Punk as, to some extent, a whiplash of insularity, something akin to Brexit with the bachelor throwing his bride from the marital suite.

"Barricade 3" a nice, small record of chamber rock music inspired by Erik Satie.

Simultaneously to the break-up of ZNR, Racaille and Zazou increasingly at loggerheads, Zazou drifted into writing for Libération magazine and tooled his mischievous Marxism into a concept album about perverse sex. I've loved this record for years, but never knew its background in a visit Zazou took to New York where he met Arto Lindsay and Suicide. Reading between the lines perhaps this connection was arranged through the auspices of Jean Georgakarakos? Lamm mentions that "he had met the people involved in the legendary magazine Actuel" which I'm sure was connected to the BYG/Actuel label. Sheer conjecture!

The band's instrumental sound here is extremely seductive, like an anemic, bare-bones, funk version of the Gang of Four. It almost reminds me of the backing tracks for Afrika Bambaata's "Zulu Nation Throwdown" - though less muscular. Atop these locked grooves with their Residents-like meandering, de-tuned rhythm guitars Jeanne Folly, and possibly J.L Hennig proclaim their Zoophiliac and Necrophiliac urges. I don't think Zazou can be singing on this because that doesn't seem to be his trip. My fave track has to be "I love you S..." an exquisite minimal rock mantra up there with Neu!'s finest tracks but the No Wave Melody Nelson revision of "On Dine" comes a close second.

Thanks to Oliver Lamm's piece I discovered that there was a Perversita spin-off, Valerie Gee's Car Band's "Un President Pour La France" a satirical attack on President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing which used one of the album's discarded rhythm tracks and which was apparently a big hit at the time.

I picked up "Noir et Blanc" many, many years ago having, after all, a fascination with concepts of digital and electric Africa. In fact for the longest time I was partially dismissive of it. I always preferred the idea of African musicians making these interventions under their own auspices, so for instance records like Ray Lema's "Medicine" or Wally Badarou's "Echoes", Thomas Frempong's "Anansi Shuttle" or George Darko's "Hi-Life-Time", even if they were sometimes musically cheesier, always seemed cooler, more authentic. This is why the recent Francis Bebey "Psychedelic Sanza" reissue, albeit not overly electronic, was so fascinating too. There's no question of anyone but the legendary Bebey himself being in the driving seat.

There was a whole raft of French/African Electronic interventions in this era which were contemporaneous, or pre-date "My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts". Most famously there's Martin Meissonnier's production of King Sunny Ade's majestic "Juju Music" as well as Manu Dibango's monstrous and fantastic "Abele Dance". In the UK there was the epochal Earthworks Addis-Ababa studios Dub mixes of Tony Allen's "NEPA" and Dele Abiodun's "Confrontation" - the Nigerian artists turning to London rather than Paris. I still feel with these that these aforementioned artists there's less intervention - a natural, sympathetic affinity between artist and production.

With "Noir et Blanc" you're very much dealing with a Congolese singer over an electronic backing by Guillaume Loizillon and Claude Micheli (known as CY1). However, in fairness, as is pointed out in Phillip Sherburne's Pitchfork review of the recent reissue, Bony Biyake told Zazou "of his interest in krautrock and Stockhausen". Also, as I've got older I've come to care less and less about what's "authentic" anyway. Furthermore, and most saliently, CY1's riddims are entirely in keeping with the Congolese aesthetic.

Tastefulness is largely a disparaged quality in music, victim of an intellectual reverse snobbery, but actually what "taste" translates to in the real world is "empathy" - and there should be no price placed too high on that. Given how readily Loizillon is glad to pass over Zazou's top billing to him; Zazou must take credit for that: “Sure, he was not the one playing synths, sure, it’s not him singing, but he was the one who saw that uniting the two was going to create something special. Without him the project would simply never have come into being.”

In many ways a low-key LP, which it seems somewhat out of place to "glow" about with too much efflorescence - it's still at the same time startling and gently revealing of its charms. My highlight has to be the lovely "Mama Lenvo" with its bubbling Korg pattern in the background like a mirage on the horizon.

Less well-known is Zazou's subsequent "Reivax Au Bongo" which again features Bony Biyake and Kanda Bongo Man. Not electronic it's still very nice in its cheerfully atmospheric way. Billed as the soundtrack for a photo novel directed by the photographer Xavier Lambours. It's the second in the, once discarded, now very hip Crammed Discs "Made To Measure" series which was often comprised of soundtrack music - or in that Barry Adamson vein, soundtracks for films which were never made.

Subsequently Zazou became best-known for this style recording with "projects" like "Sahara Blue" and "Chansons des mers froides" which according to Lamm often afforded themselves greater production values out of sheer scurrilousness. I've not heard any of these works and so next week I plan to dig into YouTube and remedy that. Hector Zazou, I salute you.