Date: June 18, 2010
Location: The Carlton Arms Hotel
Interviewed by Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi & Jim Hoey
Photos by Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi
There is a French tribe of musicians known as Lo’Jo who have been around for over 25 years, led by one Denis Pean. This past summmer, they arrived in NYC to play a clandestine show at Brooklyn’s French bar Zebulon, and another at the more renowned Central Park Summerstage, sharing the bill with headliner Salif Keita. If you’re familiar with globetrotting artists like Salif Keita and Manu Chao – and their international style, namely, songs sung in any number of languages, rhythms borrowed and melded with sounds from around the world, and an all-pervading sense of wonder and exploration – then you might have some idea of what transpires when Lo’Jo takes the stage and, as they say, “plays with time, cultivating an anarchic garden to make everything beautiful and wild”. What’s unique about Lo’Jo, though, is that around 1996 they started traveling to Africa, Mali in particular, and meeting up with desert blues artists like Tinariwen and Ali Farka Toure, and mixing those West-African rhythms with their French folk and European circus-burlesque elements. The result is an unusually dense sound, grounded in the city, country, and desert, at home anywhere, yet rootless and restless beyond what’s found in any one place. DooBeeDooBeeDoo’s own Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi met with Pean this summmer after attending Algerian singer Rachid Taha’s NYC concert and receiving a tip about Lo’Jo playing the secret show in Brooklyn, before the Central Park gig. The following interview is the result, conducted at Denis’ hotel a little bit later. [Ed. note: This interview was conducted in English, with only small changes made for clarity, in order to preserve the spirit of the conversation]
Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi: The band’s name, Lo’Jo, it’s really Lo’Jo, like an African name, and Joe, an American first name, everybody can pronounce it, it can stay in your brain. What is it about your name?
Denis Pean: It means “Imagine”, this name, totally. It’s symbolic as Lo’Jo, Yin and Yang, one element in each of the cosmogonic sense, of the word.
S.L: So it doesn’t have any real meaning, just in the cosmic sense? And it’s your invention?
D.P: Yes, totally.
S.L.: So, your band is almost older than the Rolling Stones, around for 25 years, is that correct?
D.P: Yes, 25 years, but we’re not exactly older than the Rolling Stones.
S.L.: 25 years ago, Lo’Jo started, at that time when you had this idea, were you interested in cosmology or religion?
D.P.: Not religion, but mystic things, and the human relation with elements and power coming from nature, shamanic culture, but not too much. I’m interested in finding things in life, political, whatever, human and I try to translate my vision by sound. The first thing for me was around 14, I had no training in music, but I saw a picture in my mind, and everything I do is to follow this picture, like a revelation. It was clear. It was not a concrete thing, but a mix of color, form, and sound.
S.L.: Do you still have this picture or idea in your mind? Are you still following it?
D.P.:Yes, I want to approach this picture, it’s my base.
S.L.: It seems like then when you die the image will become real, so you’re trying to get closer to this image?
D.P.: I want to catch this closer in my music, and I’m very interested in poetry. My inheritance is poetry, I started that
before music, and continued at the same time, but my cultural inheritance is poetry.
S.L: So in America there are many poets, people like Burroughs, who start with poetry and later use music to support
the poetry. So for 25 years you have been the leader of Lo’Jo for the whole time. Last night, were most of the band members playing with you there from the beginning?
D.P.: Well, I’m the only original one, but the violin player came a few years later, and Nadia has been in the band for 20 years now.
S.L.: She was on the left of stage last night?
D.P.: Yes, close to me on stage, and her sister Yamina came 20 years ago, only the drummer is not, Baptiste. When I began the band, he was not born.
S.L.: But yesterday, the show was very concise and focused, it sounded like you have been together for a long time.
D.P.:Yes, because he is a very sensitive guy, and open.
S.L.: When I saw him first I thought,”What, he’s a drummer?”
D.P.: He’s a young normal guy, very open, he had no direct musical education about world music, his father was a rockabilly drummer.
S.L.: So how do you choose your musicians?
D.P.: I don’t choose, it’s like love, you don’t choose exactly your wife, a day, a few days, 3 days, 20 years, you don’t choose at the beginning the story to connect you together. Lo’Jo is a band of musicians so we have an interesting social life, in our own country, we have a collective house, we live with other artists, it’s the house of Lo’Jo, rooms for people we invite and like, space for many African musicians. Next week we’ll have Tinariwen a Saharan band. One month ago we had Solila Quest, MCs from Florida, dancers from Palestine, and a rock band from France. It’s not Paris, I live in the countryside, in the West, Angers. It’s well-known for wind, very pacific, many artists, painters nearby. Known for the sunlight.
S.L.: So then, it seems like you have a commune or Lo’Jo art center?
D.P.: Usually they say the “House of Lo’Jo”, an office, rehearsal studio, a fireplace, a garden, a big kitchen, it’s good for the winter, to play guitar at night. Of course I live there too. It’s nice.
S.L.: So over 25 years ago, from then, to last night at Zebulon, how much has changed, of your sound?
D.P.: Not too much, I never care about fashion. I want to follow my own genre, style, and my inheritance is large because I traveled in North Africa, Mali especially, and there is a good connection between the people of France and Africa, we speak French together and there is a good connection.
S.L.: So then what I saw and heard and experienced last night, it was Lo’Jo, yes?, I could feel that the vocals were
important. Were all the ideas coming from the poetry? Are you the only composer?
D.P.: I compose most of the program, sometimes Yamina gives the rhythm, or Baptiste with a groove, and I follow with a song, but I am the main composer.
S.L.: So you said poetry is still number one for you?
S.L.: Is it possible you have music and get the poetry from that, that everything you can’t express with poetry comes
through in the music?
D.P.: Yes, sometimes, it’s possible, and at the moment I join the two.
S.L.: So, what is your poetry about? I’m sorry I don’t understand French. Or may I tell you what I felt during the show?
I felt that you talked a lot about the loneliness of a person, it canbe by the death of a good friend or a relative, or the problems in life that you get lost or unhappy. But I felt in your songs that it’s loneliness, it’s about loneliness, but even though you’re lonely, you don’t give up. The other thing I felt is that there’s happiness, life is not that easy, it’s dirty. But it’s still good to be alive.
D.P.: Sure, there’s something dramatic in the music of Lo’Jo, because I like drama in music, about harmony for example, minor harmony mostof the time, because it’s a precious way to play. I would like to have a special music theater for every song, like you change the picture behind the song each time. A minimalist song, a powerful song with
rhythm, if we play in a theater, we play more in this way, with a precise light program, if we play in Europe, not like in a club. Not flashing, but with a certain, subtle, way of lighting things.
S.L.: So with the visual, it seems like you’re also trying to paint onstage, so you think in color, in musical terms, in language?
D.P.: I began with the circus, I was a poor guy, a poor fellow in my own time, I never visited a house in the country, I didn’t think about the future, I had a Lo’Jo obsession and one day in 1988, a circus company, street theater invited me to play around Europe, with some acrobats and things like this. And I was a clown musician, and we learned the way to improvise for each little huge thing, and to be present for each powerful event. It was a very good education. We had a huge show in the main place of each village, with cables, and acrobats, and we played with this. Four years we played all over Europe with this show. Especially in Germany, I played all over there.
S.L.: Yesterday, when you were trying to cue your musicians you had certain hand movements, I wasn’t sure if you were dancing or, were these signs?
D.P.: Yes, it’s a way to give power to the audience, but it’s a kind of mime, a way to catch the power.
S.L.: What I really liked about your sound was the balance of western instruments and African instruments, the way everyone used traditional instruments, the kora, the bells, the toms, and then, what do you call the Malian guitar, like a lute with one string?
D.P.: Ah yes, the imzad, a little violin coming from the Sahara desert, usually played by women at night. A melancholic instrument, seems like a flute, only one chord, and we have the calabash instrument, too.
S.L.: Also the singers, I really liked because, on the left, Nadia, and Yamina on the right, sounded great together. But they had their own voices. One seemed shamanic, rough, and the other seemed controlled, delicate.
D.P.: Nadia is wild, her personality. The personality of Yamina is secretive and serious.
S.L.: She seemed subtle and inside. Did Nadia ever do sabar dancing because the way she danced last night was like sabar dancing.
D.P.: No never, the girls are self-taught. They never studied music, no. Me, I began in a rock band like all teenagers in my generation. All my friends were involved in punk rock, but I wanted to do something different. I was very interested in Pere Ubu, or a special instrument, the possibility of sound. I can do Lo’Jo with only a stick, or silence, or twenty saxophone players, or two drummers, I don’t care about….
S.L.: Like last night I felt that when the instruments played a solo, there was improvisation, but it seemed like most was composed. Was there much improvisation?
D.P.: Yes, some parts, the way to change the harmony, we just have a sign in that moment, or to change the rhythm, and there’s some free violin parts, for example.
S.L.: Yesterday, it seemed like you had a time table, like only one hour, did you go through all your songs?
D.P.: No, we have many songs, it depends on everything.
S.L.: Here you are called nomads, and caravan, how do you feel about your band, are you gypsies or nomads, or a caravan, as people describe you?
D.P.: No, I’m not gypsy, I’m not a nomad, that’s specific. I’m a guy from the countryside of France who did a band, and now I travel all around the world, all the continents. Sometimes, it’s true, we go, like in Grozny and Chechnya, like a caravan, with 50 people: musicians and filmmakers, circus people, and farmers, we went 3 years ago.
S.L.: This was where terrorists are sometimes, yeah? Was it you or the band Lo’Jo playing with the caravan?
D.P.: Yes, this was Lo’Jo, the name of the caravan was Badel Caucus, in 2007, and next September I will join this caravan again and go to Istanbul, and travel to all parts where there are Chechnian refugees in Europe, because they are spoiled by Russian power, it’s a strange political situation, and we have many friends there.
S.L.: Who are the leaders of this caravan?
D.P.: The leader is a girl, French filmmaker named Mylene Savloy, and there’s also a Russian girl named Sasha, very interested in this situation, of Chechnian people in Russia. I have a film about this, I can send you. The caravan did shows everywhere – on the road, in the forest, little villages, schools, we have a special truck and can in a half an hour get ready to play. And we played in a valley of Pankisi close to the big Caucusus mountains, close to the resistance federation of Chechnya. We met great musicians in Georgia, like Niaz, he did a very good stuff about collecting old Caucasus songs, he’s a modern player, he plays the panduri, a specific Georgian kind of guitar with 3 strings, a special Caucasus instrument, from a mix of cultures.
S.L.: Now let’s talk about Africa. There has been a connection as you mentioned, between France and Africa, but let’s talk specifically. In your music you use African sounds, and rhythms in your electronics, and in the vocals. What is the reason you got interested in Africa, and what country is your favorite?
D.P.: I know especially Mali, I met people from the south, Bambara people, and also I met, on my first trip in Mali, in the capital I met nomadic people from the North, it was very strange for me, they were artisans and musicians, and they talked to me and started mentioning the name Tinariwen. I felt I was confronting a kind of legend, young people and the young people talked about the rebellion songs, from the Sahara desert, “what is this band?”, I thought.
S.L.: What was the first time you went to Bamako, the Mali capital?
D.P.: It was 1996, and that’s when I first met Tinariwen. I was there playing concerts, in a theater festival. I became friends with these nomadic people, I like very much their traditional music with percussion, tende imizad, a little violin, but also they play a kind of blues I never heard before, with songs about the fighting against the Malian government in the 80’s, 90’s, the Civil War, I understood these musicians lost their native country to go into refugee camps, in Libya, Algeria, it was very strange. At the same time I organized a festival in my own country, in Angers, and I invited the first band, not exactly Tinariwen, but a mix of people I first met. That was the beginning. After, we organized to go to the desert in Africa and play with these people at the beginning of the millennium, in the area of
Kidal, close to the desert. We carried equipment to the desert, material to build the stage, we organized everything, down to the toilets. One day a friend asked us, “Can you come down and play down on our sand, in our dunes?” With an old truck, we carried all the equipment, we had a problem with robbers, but we had very good protection. We had with us all the respected chiefs of the rebellion. A few years ago they fought with Kalashnikovs, and they used to know exactly this area. We had so good protection. And the generals all come from Bamako. All the people thought we were crazy, all the ambassadors of France said you should never go in this area. But in fact, I met so good people, they had the kind of big commercial parties in the past, and were the organizers, but they stopped because of the Civil War.
S.L.: But those were more domestic, no?
D.P.: Yes, those before were tribes of the Sahara, a way to do business, and music, and camel races, things like this. But for 10 years they hadn’t existed. There was a drought, no more water, it was a pity, the animals died, plus the war. And the government doesn’t want the natives to speak their own language, they put in a French school in place of the Bambara school. They lost the culture, the old way, the borders were given by the French, after the Civil War, it is a ity for nomadic things. For a camel you need to do free and great kilometers more, but now there is a border! It’s possible, the water is just one kilometer after the border, but you can’t cross….
S.L.: So you did that festival twice in the desert, 2001 and the next year, right?
D.P.: Well, after there was a little one in Tessalit, and after, the beginning of a huge one, Essakane Festival in Timbuktu. But we stopped in this moment….
S.L.: So you put on this festival 3 times?
D.P.: Yes, but it was too huge, the political things, about tribes, ecologic things, I cannot understand, it was too difficult, I am a musician, sometimes people came from Germany, Switzerland, all over Europe, to help, sometimes to make trouble, the original spirit was lost.
S.L.: What was the original meaning?
D.P.: It was very simple, a connection of friends, with some people, and we decided to do the party together,
have a good sound and a good moment. But after commercial issues, it changed.
S.L.: I don’t know what video I saw but Robert Plant was there at this festival, but was he there from the beginning or later?
D.P.: The exact history, Robert Plant played with a guitarist at this moment named Justin Adams. He was the artistic producer for 2 CD’s of Lo’Jo, and we invited Justin for the first time in Mali, and he was in love with Malian music, before the first desert festival. And Justin started to have a strong connection with Malian people. And a few years after, when we did the 3rd festival, he was playing with Robert Plant and invited him to play, when Ali Farka Toure played and Muson Gare, and Afe Bumkun.
S.L.: Ali Farka Toure, this is the next thing I wondered, he was not a Tuareg, was he?
D.P.: No, Songhai, there are many ethnic differences. The Bella were the slaves of the Tuareg people in the old time. There have been many ethnic problems over time here. What was very incredible was the mix of populations at this festival. People who usually hate the other communities, it’s incredible the racism between black people of the south, they say white for Tuareg.
S.L.: The people of southern Mali call the Tuareg people “white”?
D.P.: Yes, because of their face. They are not so black, like Bambara people.
S.L.: So was Ali Farka Toure important as a supporter of the festival?
D.P.: Well no, but he was important as an artist and symbolic representative of Niger, specific ethnic from Niger. Tinariwen from the Northern area, other bands with incredible rhythmic styles, people who play in Guinea with a radio sound, of saturation, a rock and roll sound, very high frequencies and the big calabash, and we have western
rock, Lo’Jo, French hip hop MCs, and Ali Farka Toure.
S.L.: Before I started to listen to Tinariwen, I listened to Ali Farka Toure. Do you think Tinariwen was influenced by Ali Farka Toure?
D.P.: This is the history of music, in this area, I don’t know who was the first who had this kind of feeling, nobody knows about this. Tinariwen were influenced by rock music, because in the refugee amps of Algeria they began to hear the music of Led Zeppelin and many bands coming from the hippie generation, Jimi Hendrix, and they were influenced by Arabic songs, because the origin of Tuareg is the first nation of this area, before the Arabs, they have the specific writing called Tifinagh.
S.L.: Is it an alphabet?
D.P.: It is a sign system, yes, and they did divination with the signs, they drew signs and could say, for example if your wife is pregnant, if you will have a boy or a girl. It is a writing for divination, for divining the future, and you can see this writing from Egypt to the Canary Islands, on stones, coming from all time.
S.L.: Now, so you gave up, so who is doing now the desert festival?
D.P.: I don’t know, there is a new director coming from Timbuktu, and a new partner from the USA.
S.L.: So, actually, the desert festival as it was has ended now, is that right?
D.P.: There’s a small festival in Essouk, [ed.-a remote Saharan village in the Northeast of Mali, in the Kindal region].
S.L.: But as big as it was is over? So what I saw on the DVDs online and what you showed me are from your festival, right? What I saw of Ali Farka Toure, Tinariwen, Oumou Sangare, and those other famous artists in the desert, that is over now, yes?
D.P.: Yes, I was just involved for the first 3 years. Only my sound technician and a few others are involved now. But we don’t play, Lo’Jo, any more. I was in Mali one month ago but in Bamako, close to Guinea.
S.L.: So you know Mali better than France, is it possible?
D.P.: No, no, Mali is a very complex area, many different ethnics, and many different languages, for example, I don’t know.
S.L.: Now, speaking of Lo’Jo, what would you like to do in the near future musically, or poetically?
D.P.: Yes, a new CD, in a different way, and also a new book.
S.L.: By the way, how many CD’s have you put out?
D.P.: 12, I think. I also have a project very interesting, we met in Poland in 1988 a photographer, Bogdan Konopka, he did photographs of Lo’Jo since 1988, over 150, we want to do a book with this incredible art. Photographs for a Sonic Object will be the name, and I want to read the lyrics of Lo’Jo for an ensemble of four wind instruments, bassoon, bass clarinet, trumpet, and tuba. Like in a classical ensemble with jazz instruments who can explore subtle ways to change it.
S.L.: So you want to make a CD to accompany this photo book?
D.P.: Yes, but with different musicians, no songs, exactly, more symphonic. I have a friend who played along time ago in Lo’Jo, he will do the scales or arrangements, and a little orchestra will play this with a soloist, sax or trumpet or a trombone player. I don’t know when it will be, but we began to choose this, we need some money to do this, with very good picture, black and white, and to organize the session with the musicians.
S.L.: How do you sell your CD’s these days?
D.P.: You know, like everywhere, it’s a mix between selling Cd’s after shows, in stores, and over the Internet, and it’s bit of a crisis in Europe. We are our own label and producer/publisher. But we use Wagram for distribution.
S.L.: Something that is very difficult, even musicians like Salif Keita and Baaba Maal haven’t made it yet in the
American market. In Lo’Jo’s case, I would love to see you guys come more and sell CD’s after the concerts in the US and do more. How do you feel?
D.P.: We just want to be able to come and play.
S.L.: So you don’t have any expectations to come and become “big”?
D.P.: No, I just want to live and play my own music with the band I choose, and follow my idea, if I can eat each day.
But my best ambition, is to in my countryside have each day an open table of 10 or 15 persons at my side. Just that,
each day in my house, it’s good if I am able to have enough food for travelers, musicians, artists, family, I don’t need nothing more, my band live, and a table to eat with friends is the only thing I want.
S.L.: Yesterday you said you aren’t married, but aren’t you married because you are a person who has enough people around and enjoys with these people so that you don’t need to be officially married?
D.P.: Well, I live with my daughter, I was never married, but she is 21 and I met my daughter when she was 17, but now we live together and we have a very, very good connection.
S.L.: So what does poetry mean for you?
D.P.: In the old time, in North America, the first nations had a stick of wood or two, on the ground to give directions to the next travelers, I think poetry is the same, and music. You put two sticks of wood in place, and the guys come along, and if there is danger, you give information, or if there is a nice place, you can give the direction. Message, signs, symbolic signs to organize the life around something important.
S.L.: So music is for you a guide for living, a guidebook?
D.P.: Yes, in this period of history, music is a very good way for peace, I think. What is the worst in the world? I think, ignorance.
S.L.: That’s the reason I left Japan, because everyone says Japan is very kind and human, and peaceful because of Hiroshima. But unfortunately, Japan ignores everything outside.
D.P.: They ignore their own history also, in Japan I think, they don’t choose to learn their own history at school. It’s the same in France, most of France are very ignorant of their own history and specifically the history of colonialism, I learned in Africa in the beginning of the 60’s, an Italian man did a great picture about the war, The Battle of Algiers, and at the first time the film was very important, people didn’t even know about this history. The history came about twenty years later. It’s always the same, there are many compromises in Africa, with the French government.
S.L.: Thank you Denis, could you do something now at the end of this interview, you’ve told me so much, but could you do some short poetry as an ending?
D.P.: Yes, how about some poetry about the origin of the universe? This is a poetic vision, not scientific.
If you want that there are many books….
Listen to Denis’ poetry
Translated by Louis Michalot
At first, comets stammered,
Neither fish nor harbors, no clocks, no measures
But snatches drift, no shelter for the lie, or screens for the gold.
It was blazing traces, the beauty smoldering her rituals and poison,
It sounded a rare music destiny of the next marine routes, breaches of
blue but not yet hallelujah
dry drum or rattle, but echoes of satin
They were flown in Bengali wild gusts.
Initially, a trance in a trance manufactured silhouettes, facies fakir
Frigate cell powder jungle road for now, it was a racket of gametes
fly without pistils or sacred spring.
Still no crack or misery docks or mooring for our skiff, no valley
Pinquicy or banquet in Belize,
still no tiger in the circus but amar sketches of Zen gardens,
No marabout Gardanne or flag, nor smile, nor even a statue of Stalin,
Not to drink in coffee of the day
(Original French poem)
Au début, des comètes balbutiaient,
Ni poissons, ni rades, ni horloges, ni mesures,
Mais des bribes dérivants, pas d’abri pour le mensonge, ni tamis pour l’or.
C’était des traces fulgurantes, la beauté couvait ses rites et le poison,
ca sonnait une musique rare destin des prochaines routes marines, des
brèches d’azur mais pas encore alléluia,
ni râle de tambour sec mais des échos de satin
C’était des bengalis sauvages envolées dans des bourrasques.
Au début, une transe dans une transe fabriquait des silhouettes, des
faciès de fakir,
Des frégates de cellule de la poudre de jungle en route pour
maintenant, c’était un boucan de gamètes volée de pistils sans sacre
Pas encore de crique ou la misère accoste, ni d’amarre pour nos
esquifs, pas de vallée au Pinquicy ou de banquet a Belize,
pas encore de tigre au cirque amar mais des esquisses de jardins zen,
Pas de marabout a Gardanne ou de drapeau, ni sourire, ni même de
statue de Staline,
Pas encore de dernier verre au café du jour
Denis Pean – vocals, piano, harmonium, percussion
Richard Bourreau – violin
Nadia and Yamina Nid El Mourid – vocals, saxaphone
Nico Kham Meslien – bass
Baptiste – percussion, drums