Affected by Covid-19 and hospitalized for several days, Jacob Desvarieux died. Guitarist, singer, composer and co-founder of Kassav ‘, Jacob Desvarieux is also at the origin of the flagship title of Zouk: Zouk la sé sèl médikaman nou ni who gave birth to this musical style.
Aged 65, Jacob Desvarieux died at the CHU de Guadeloupe. In mid-July, he was plunged into an artificial coma after contracting Covid-19.
65 years old
A communicative smile, a natural kindness, an exceptional modesty, Jacob Desvarieux was a unique artist with an atypical career. It was at the age of ten that he began to learn the guitar. His mother Cécile Desvarieux – very important in his career – had given him this instrument. He would have preferred a bicycle.
Born on November 21, 1955 in Paris, Jacob Desvarieux left a few months after his birth for Guadeloupe, his mother’s island of origin. Then direction Martinique where with his mother, they were chased by Cyclone Dorothy. Their house had been completely destroyed. Cécile Desvarieux was then placed by Bumidom with a bourgeois family in France in Le Vésinet to perform all the household chores. Little Jacob was then put in boarding school. At that time, he and his mother often watched a magazine called Bingo, “the monthly news to the rhythm of the black world”. Cécile Desvarieux wanted to discover Africa. So she decided to fly with her son to Senegal and live there for two years.
It was in Senegal that Jacob Desvarieux learned to play the guitar with his neighbors. One of them will later be Youssou N’Dour’s bassist. This first stay in Africa has forever marked the musician who will later have great pleasure in coming to perform there with Kassav ‘. After Senegal, Jacob and his mother returned to France, to Marseille. It was there that as a teenager, he joined a rock band, the Bad Grass. Gradually, he dropped out of high school to become an arranger. The passion for music was too strong. Jacob Desvarieux made the choice to “go up” to Paris where the opportunities were more numerous at the time. It was not yet success, but the musician had really found his way.
The creation of Kassav ‘
In 1979 in Paris, Jacob Desvarieux had a decisive encounter. A Guadeloupe musician wanted to meet him to tell him about a crazy project. Pierre-Edouard Décimus wanted to create a group that goes back to the sources of West Indian music and that is known worldwide. He even had the name in mind: Kassav ‘in reference to the cassava pancake in Creole.
Pierre-Edouard Décimus had already set up Les Vikings, a group which had earned him mockery from tourists. He told himself that the name of his band was “terrible” and didn’t want to make the same mistake again. Pierre-Edouard Décimus took Jacob Desvarieux on board the adventure. They recorded together a first album Love and Ka dance then went in search of other musicians on the same wavelength.
Kassav ‘was formed little by little and from the start Jacob Desvarieux was one of its pillars with the Décimus brothers, Pierre-Edouard and Georges. Then the Martiniquais Jean-Philippe Marthély, Jocelyne Béroard, and Jean-Claude Naimro joined the group as well as the Guadeloupeans Patrick Saint-Eloi and Claude Vamur. In 1984, Jacob Desvarieux composed a legendary hit in Haiti: Zouk la sé sèl médikaman nou ni. It is this song which gave its name to the music of Kassav ‘: the zouk. Georges Décimus had written the lyrics. Aimé Césaire even used this phrase Zouk la sé sèl médikaman nou ni in one of his speeches.
In 1985, Kassav ‘made his first Zenith in Paris. The room was full: 80,000 people jubilant. Jacob Desvarieux was proud to recall that this success had occurred without any promotion. The group then embarked on a tour in Africa with its share of galleys, “no more than elsewhere” insisted Jacob Desvarieux. A producer had “forgotten” to pay for hotel nights. In Luanda in Angola, in the midst of civil war, Kassav ‘sang in front of 90,000 people.
During the first tropical carnival in Paris in 1986, 250,000 people came to applaud Kassav ‘in Vincennes. A triumph. And then the band started doing concerts all over the world. Notably in 1989, Kassav ‘was the first black group to perform in the USSR in Leningrad, the former St. Petersburg. The same year in 1989, the group performed in front of 500 inmates at Fleury-Merogis prison. Nothing could stop the zouk. Jacob Desvarieux appreciated this nomadic life. He has made it round the world! The guitarist has never tired of his communions with audiences across the planet.
Kassav ‘followed the hits including the famous Syé Bwa. The clip was shot in Kinshasa in a totally improvised way. As the albums progressed, the very particular voice of Jacob Desvarieux imposed itself. He hadn’t really imagined becoming a singer one day, but his serious and singular tone appealed to him. The Kassav ‘group had some hard blows like the departure of Patrick Saint-Eloi in 2002 or the divorce with Sony, but at no time according to Jacob Desvarieux the group pitched. So much so that he never dreamed of casting off and pursuing a solo career.
Over the course of his career, Jacob Desvarieux had more and more proposals in the cinema. He never ran after, but he could not see himself refusing everything. He who has always denounced the lack of black actors in French cinema. As early as 1992, he had played the musician Isidore in Siméon, the film by Euzhan Palcy. Years later, thanks to an agent he met in Dakar during a fashion show, he found himself embarked on the filming of the first two episodes of the American series The young pope with Jude Law. He thus played the role of an African cardinal and did not miss a single episode of this series which captivated him.
In 2009, Jacob Desvarieux had serious health problems. Dialysis for a year, he had suffered martyrdom, but had chosen to continue playing on stage. He especially did not want to give up making music and had celebrated in style the 30 years of Kassav ‘on May 16, 2009 at the Stade de France. It was then the first French group to have filled the sports arena. Jacob Desvarieux was finally able to have a kidney transplant in 2010 and said in April 2021 “ten years younger”.
Generous and hard-working, Jacob Desvarieux liked to share his experience. He had no trouble giving interviews in which he loved to tell about his fabulous career. This was the case in 2019 on the eve of the Kassav ’40th anniversary concert.
This 40-year-old concert brought together 40,000 Kassav ‘fanatics at the Paris La Défense Arena. The group had lost none of its vigor and had communed for three hours with its audience. Jacob Desvarieux also liked to play with younger artists such as Admiral T or Passi. In 2019, he participated in the clip Chat Ka Tété Rat in which Admiral T brilliantly revisited the song of Guadeloupe Robert Loyson, a great figure of the gwoka.
The musician always had lots of plans. He had taken advantage of the confinements to breathe a little and compose. Despite his health problems, he didn’t want to hang up. The audience appreciated him enormously and so did we.