• For forty years, Jean-Claude Naimro has been one of the faces of the mythical Caribbean group Kassav'.
  • The 71-year-old pianist, composer, author and performer performs for the first time solo in Paris, in the Salle du Trianon on March 18, as part of his "Digital Tour".
  • After more than fifty years of career and collaborations around the world, he reveals on stage all his experiences, accompanied by five guests. He will then hit the road with Kassav' for a tribute tour to Jacob Desvarieux, who died on July 30, 2021.

You don't necessarily know all their repertoire, but you've already heard of the band Kassav'. But yes, the interpreters of Zouk la sé mel médikaman nou ni, on which you have necessarily danced one day in your life. There was Patrick Saint-Eloi, Jacob Desvarieux, Jean-Philippe Mathély, Jocelyne Béroard, Georges Décimus and the discreet Jean-Claude Naimro.

Arrived at keyboards as a replacement in the mythical West Indian group in 1981 during the recording of their third album, Kassav' n°3, he became one of its emblematic members. "I often compare bands to a football team. When you are a coach and you have a star, you have to find the right elements to play with him, both "footballistically" and humanly speaking. In a group, it's exactly the same. ", philosophizes the artist from Martinique.

With fifty years of career, the pianist, author, composer and performer has also written melodies for many artists and accompanied musical greats in the studio or on stage such as Gene Page, arranger of Barry White, Celine Dion, Miriam Makeba or Michel Fugain. He even toured the world with British artist Peter Gabriel between 1993 and 1994.

At the age of 71, he embarked on a new musical experience: to make his first solo tour, despite eight solo albums to his credit. An adventure that is not easy for this fan of Caribbean music, jazz, classical and South American. Two days before his big Parisian stage at the Trianon, he received us in his Parisian apartment to retrace his career, the preparation of his tour, and talk about Kassav''s future tribute tour to his co-founder who died during the Covid-19 pandemic, Jacob Desvarieux, which begins next May.

After half a century of career, you embarked on your first solo scenes, while your first album dates back to 1985. What was your trigger?

I never intended to do a solo scene. I had my little warm place in Kassav' and I didn't like it more than that to put myself forward. But my relatives convinced me to go for it, telling me "you have enough songs to do a concert on your own". I knew it wouldn't have been fun and I had proof of that after the two dates in Martinique, but it allows me to have one more experience in my career. I try to take it philosophically, and then I'll see if I have the desire and strength to do more than that.

As I said to my entourage, you see me like that, but I am still a certain age. And there aren't many who go on stage for two hours at my age. Not to mention that it's not just about singing: I also have to remember my lyrics. We no longer have the same memory at that age. I also have to take care of my look, take care of the rehearsals, my musicians and their look. Since I don't have a special assistant, I do everything myself so it's complicated. But hey, I take things with hindsight keeping in mind: "Do your experiment, see in the future if you continue or not."

How does it feel to be part of the same group for forty years?

Kassav' became my family, my second family. I think I spent more time with them than with my own family. We really spent forty years traveling the world, without really stopping. The few times we stopped, it was to prepare an album. And preparing an album means that you're in the studio every day until 4 a.m., fine-tuning the titles. It's a real family, it's not just a word like that.

In 1996, you released the album Digital Dread, today you are on tour as part of the "Digital Tour". Is there a link between the two?

Yes. There is more than a connection. Digital Dread was an album in which I wanted to mix two things. On the one hand, the generations: there were artists aged 20 to 50-60. On the other hand, I also wanted to mix styles of music. In addition, I had mixed the interpreters. Each song was performed by a singer, which may explain why the album did not work, because at the time, radio stations were seizing a title to promote it. When a dozen radio stations play ten songs with different singers, listeners do not necessarily know that they are from the same album. It was an experiment I wanted to do. I don't like to do too much like the others. But I'm still satisfied with it because there are titles like Bèl pawòl pou an fanm which was a hit.

Almost thirty years later, I return to this idea to conceive the concert in this way, mixing generations and performers. I have five guests who are not of the same generation. There is the daughter of Jean-Philippe Marthély [also a member of Kassav'], Cindy, Gregz [ex-singer of the group Trade Union] who is a little older, Tony Chasseur, Ralph Thamar, Jocelyne Béroard and me. I also wanted to mix styles, because I haven't just done zouk in my life and I wanted to show everything I've had the chance to do in fifty years.

Precisely, you have accompanied artists like Manu Dibango, Eddy Mitchell or Peter Gabriel... So what can we expect on stage this Saturday?

I learned a lot from these personalities. Some, like Henri Guédon [who did salsa] or Manu Dibango, brought me swing, experience in my musical and rhythmic baggage. Others, like Peter Gabriel, have given me more than music. At his side, I also saw how the world tour of a big star goes, given the star-system side. When you've worked with all these people, you're better able to put on your own show. It is the experiences of a lifetime that allow me today to make as few mistakes as possible.

You are very demanding in your compositions, Jocelyne Béroard says it in her book, Far from bitter. Is it difficult for you to write for others and see them perform a piece you've designed?

Very good question. When we compose, very often, we can start with an idea and then over time, the piece can take another turn. Well, it depends. Either the person at the beginning has an idea that he wants to go towards. I take the case of Ralph Thamar, I composed a mazurka for him. I am inspired more by the voice and the way he interprets his titles to project me on the title I will compose. Either I compose a title that is initially for no one and then I think about who to attribute it to.

That's how it was when I composed the title S.O.S Mémé. Once it was done, I asked who could interpret it and I proposed it to Edith Lefel who wrote the text. Even in Kassav', when we decided to make an album, I start by composing what comes to mind, without knowing who will sing what. I compose and if it's a ballad, I know it will go to Patrick [Saint-Eloi, who died in 2010] who will interpret more a zouk love. If it's a title with a higher tempo, I know it will be Jacob or me. The title must also go to the person.

Sometimes we make a title that does not correspond to the interpreter you had thought of, either because the singer does not feel it or because he does not interpret the melody as we think, so you propose it to someone else. It happened to me once to make a title - I had completely forgotten this anecdote - for an album of Kassav'. And when I played it to the others, they told me it doesn't sound like the band. At first, it's quite vexing because you are convinced that you have made the hit of the century and you are told that bof, it's not terrible. Well, that title, he landed at La Compagnie Créole. These are the hazards of life. Would we have thought, for example, that Kolé Séré, when I composed it, was going to be sung by Philippe Lavil? A track lives from the beginning to the final mix. And there is no sign of how it will be in the end.

A documentary is being made about your career, how is it progressing?

At the moment, we are looking for funds, aid and sponsors. It's hard to find the budget. Everything is already written largely with director Miguel Octave. We would like to address four aspects: first my birth in Saint-Pierre, and my youth and adolescence in Martinique. It will highlight my island. Then Paris where my career as a professional musician began. Then we want to shoot in London, because that's where Peter Gabriel lives.

As I am also passionate about Formula 1, we would like to have Lewis Hamilton. We have contacts with his manager, but there is a one in 1,000 chance that the opportunity will arise. Finally, the last part would be on Cameroon. I was considered a Cameroonian a lot since I worked with almost all Cameroonian artists before Kassav'. I hope that in 2023-2024, it will see the light of day. Pierre-Edouard [Decimus] has just made his. It is very beautiful. I admit that it made me want even more.

You announced the first dates of the "Kassav' tribute to Jacob Desvarieux tour". How do you apprehend it?

For the moment, I haven't had too much time to ask myself the question, because I'm in the middle of my concerts. Now, as soon as the 18th [Saturday night] is over, I'm going to focus on the first date we're going to give in Saint Lucia, on the repertoire, the way we're going to pay tribute to Jacob. I can't fight two battles at the same time. Especially since things are complicated, because we have to find a guitarist, we have to know how Pipo [Jean-Philippe Marthély's] health is going to know if he will be part of the concert or not. These are a lot of questions that we will have to resolve between now and May.

The stage, the tours, the tributes... Can you see yourself doing this for a long time?

Life has shown us that anyway, no matter what you decide, things never go the way you want. Did we know two years ago that Jacob was leaving? That Pipo was going to be sick? I think we shouldn't project ourselves too much on the future at our ages. You have to take things one after the other and tell yourself that it's only happiness when you add a little icing on the cake.

You have no other desires? Motorsports, for example...

Yes, I am practically retired. I was at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix a few years ago. It did me the greatest good. I admit it's more than a hobby, I'm really an F1 fan. I never saw myself as a musician 24 hours a day. The older I get, the less I want to make music and the more I want to have fun elsewhere. Well, it's a bit late for motorsports. (Laughter)

I am also passionate about cooking. I had the chance for forty years of Kassav' to visit so many countries. Every time I went to a country, I always wanted to take recipes, write them down and try to remake them in Paris. I have a whole book in which I noted about fifty recipes such as the ndolé of Cameroon, the rougail of Reunion. Cooking allows me to escape from music, it soothes me a lot.

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