Friday, July 21, 2006

Music Review - Zouk

In a concert Sunday that left no hips unmoved, Kassav' defined zouk and zouke, the noun and verb in French Antillean Creole, for the band's first Manhattan audience. Zouk (which rhymes with ''juke'') is the Caribbean's most up-to-date dance music; it comes from the cross-pollination of ritual and carnival music from Guadeloupe with other Caribbean and North American dance music and French pop, delivered with modern instruments and recording-studio precision. Zouke means to party, preferably with a zouk band and a dance floor. Kassav', a band of musicians from Guadeloupe and Martinique that's now based in Paris, played two hours of buoyant zouk that made a sweat-drenched audience at the Ritz zouke from start to finish.

Like other Caribbean dance bands, Kassav' assembles horn, guitar, percussion and keyboard riffs into lilting dance grooves. But it also adds a layer of nightclubby polish. Its three vocalists - Jocelyne Beroard, Patrick Saint-Eloi and Jean-Philippe Marthely - strut the stage like pop singers. (Miss Beroard introduced songs in English, while the men spoke Creole.) Sometimes, a pair of dancers would do a routine; in other songs, the singers and band members strutted through their own steps.

But the stage business rarely interfered with the danceability or variety of the music. Kassav', using the guitarist Jacob F. Desvarieux's arrangements, plays songs that develop from beginning to end; the horn section plays lines that repeat and change unpredictably, and often a short coda will introduce a handful of new riffs. To a North American ear, Kassav' can sound more immediately familiar than other third-world music. Along with gleaming synthesizer sounds, it often uses a solid bass-drum beat (although more subtly than disco music), and its melodies unfold in short phrases, closer to American and European pop than to the longer lines of African and Caribbean music.

Jean-Claude Naimro, on keyboards, summons sounds as down-home as an accordion and as modern as electro-pop; Mr. Desvarieux's guitar solos looked toward American blues and country and West African highlife. Yet for all its borrowings, Kassav' rolls its music forward on rhythms direct from Guadeloupe. At the center of the stage was a percussion setup that featured two horizontal log drums, the traditional ti bois drums of the Antillles, whose beat clicked through most of the set.

Kassav' is an international ambassador for Caribbean dance music; even singing in Creole, their songs about love and dancing got through to the audience members who didn't understand the language. Yet the remarkable thing about Kassav' is that for all its international ingredients, the music still sounds like the makings of a glorious carnival.

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