The best thing about drinking wine from a hollowed out ram’s horn is that you can’t put the thing down. You have to keep holding onto to it otherwise it’ll topple over, and if you’re holding it, you might as well carry on drinking. Inevitably, with a ram’s horn goblet in hand, the wine keeps flowing and the party keeps going into the small hours. It’s a very Georgian kind of drinking vessel.
In a largely deserted museum gallery, Lo’Jo’s lead singer and songwriter Denis Péan stares placidly at a portrait of a man pouring wine into a ram’s horn. It’s by the great Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani, the son of peasant farmers who lived a marginal life over a century ago, painting shop signs to earn a bowl of soup and a hunk of bread. Now his work has pride of place in Georgia’s National Museum of Art. There’s something about his paintings of carousing men and sad-eyed Georgian beauties that’s beyond calculation, as if they were painted by a child who also happened to possess the gentle curiosity and bitter-sweet experience of an old man. They remind me obliquely of Lo’Jo’s music.
As we coax our hearts open to the power of Pirosmani, I ask Denis what he finds so seductive about Georgia. He’s visiting the country for the fifth time and has quite obviously fallen in love with the place. “It’s a humour, a taste, a smell,” he replies, “a charm that goes beyond discussion or argument. Take their love of a good feast for example. I mean, you can be anywhere, lost in the depths of the countryside, and people will bring out a large table, a white table-cloth from their chest, a large pitcher of wine and suddenly, from nothing, there’s the wherewithal to put on a feast for one hundred people. It’s splendid.”
Denis’ words evoke another table that is equally ready to feed friends and strangers alike at any moment, one covered in a tatty old oilskin cloth and laden with succulent grilled meats and bottles of red Anjou wine. It dominates the kitchen of Lo’Jo’s large, ramshackle headquarters near Angers in the west of France. Most members of the band once lived together in this solid old farmhouse, but communal life has its limits and Denis is the only Lo’Jo who lives in the place now. The others have all gone off to raise families in houses and apartments scattered around the gentle hills of the Loire.
Nonetheless, the house is still the hub of the band’s roving existence. The place was renovated over a decade ago by the music-loving mayor of a nearby town and fitted out as an residential music laboratory, an ideal communal creative space, all at the tax payer’s expense. “It’s a cosmopolitan place,” Denis says, “modelled on a dream, or a utopia that’s almost within reach. The traveller finds shelter there, the table is always open. It’s a pivot for chance encounters, an open book for children.” Lo’Jo’s latest album, Cinema El Mundo, was written, rehearsed and recorded in a barn that adjoins the house.
Like Georgia, stuck out on the frontiers of what was once called ‘the Christian world’, Angers, in French terms at least, is a marginal place. But then Lo’Jo are also an defiantly marginal band. Not for them the ratatouille of Parisian showbiz. “To be marginal simply allows you to be free,” Denis confirms with a matter-of-fact shrug of the shoulders. “The music business tends to sell itself for a kowtow and forget about the cosmos. Once it seemed hard to exist as a band so far from Paris. Nowadays it only feels like like an immense advantage.”
In 1982, Denis Péan and violinist Richard Bourreau decided to create a little side-project to alleviate the tedium of their classical music courses at the Angers conservatoire. They called it Lo’Jo because the name meant nothing much in particular whilst sounding naive and playful. They pooled their instruments – bassoon, violin, cello – and their passions – Debussy, Robert Wyatt, Led Zeppelin, Leo Ferré, Coltrane, punk rock – and came up with a sound whose originality deepened as the band began to integrate musical flavours from the four points of the compass.
Then in 1988, Lo’Jo were invited by the local street-theatre company Jo Bithume to provide the music for a touring show called Décrocher La Lune (Unhook The Moon). It was a carnival on wheels, a caravan of late twentieth century Pierrots and Bozos, musicians and acrobats, revellers and pilgrims. The show toured Europe for three years and Lo’Jo discovered their essential love of travel. Like 19th century botanists, Lo’Jo were propelled to new horizons by a powerful curiosity, an avid appetite for new shapes and colours, a lust for a fresh view of the human circus. And when they returned home to Angers – from Mali, The Sahara, Reunion Island, Algeria, Turkey, Egypt, Cambodia – it wasn’t rare butterflies and orchids they brought back but new sounds and new instruments. These were then integrated into a style that grew ever more unclassifiable.
“It’s exciting to travel to unlikely places and play,” Denis tells me, “and travel nourishes the songs that come afterwards, because it nourishes our knowledge of the world. Our music talks about those journeys, those migrations.”
But can travel also become a form of escape? “I don’t know if we really chose to travel. It just happened.We found ourselves taking to the road, and it suited us. It’s become totally natural in fact. But it’s true that I have this great interest in the elsewhere, for what is different, in compensation for my rural origins, which were very sedentary.”
So was travel a kind of revolt? “No, not a revolt. Just to a reaction to my reality. My ancestors stayed at home, because they weren’t interested in the rest of the world, but also because they didn’t have the possibility to travel. They were peasants after all, and when you’re on the farm, you have animals and you’re bound to stay put.”
I ask Denis how he reacts to the word ‘exotic’? “Well it has that negative appearance, linked to tourism, which finds something interesting simply because it’s far away. But Lo’Jo isn’t searching for the exotic, not at all. In any case, I don’t see anything particularly extraordinary in the idea of mixing different sounds, because in one hundred years, two hundred years, all music will be like that. It can’t be otherwise.”
In other words, embrace the Babel that is human existence, the “knowing bazaar, heterodox boutique, made of outlandish flavours and treasures, the great big market of the apocalypse” that is life, according to the lyrics of ‘C’est La Vie’, one of Péan’s greatest songs. But let it serve your own voice, not the other way round.
Searching for the exotic tends to produce fusionistic gewgaws, in which the parts militate against the whole. Lo’Jo do something quite else. Their polyglot clutter of instruments and sounds, the sawing imzad of the Sahara, the fizzing kamelgoni and sprinkling kora from southern Mali, the wheezing south Asian harmonium, the melodica, clarinet, sax, violin, bass, all of them serve a coherent style. All the rhythms and flavours that echo through their songs – funk, rock, jazz, chanson, créole, maloya, ragga, tindé, oriental pop – are brushstrokes in a picture that sits comfortably in its frame and makes sense. Everything serves a whole that has been carefully constructed through years of experimentation and changing line-ups.
With the relatively recent addition of drummer Baptiste Brondy, a 26-year-old toddler compared to the venerable founder members, the group now has a settled and permanent feel about it. Péan’s Gallic growl sits atop the alien yet sweetly familiar harmonies of Nadia Nid El Mourid and her sister Yamina, the daughters of North African migrants who settled near Angers in the 1970s. The agile gracenotes of Richard Bourreau’s violin flirt with the earthy bass of Nicolas ‘Kham’ Meslien, both upright and electric. Brondy’s drums inject youth and energy.
Central to the band’s appeal are the lyrics of Denis Péan, a fine poet who has published several books of poems. He travels without a laptop, camera or smartphone, relying simply on his mind to store pictures and sound. “I’m surrounded by people who take pictures,” he tells me. “Writing is a different approach to reality. Memory just preserves what is essential, which is the feeling of a place. A song depends on the décor. It’s a film in words, with the impressions, the moments, and without judgement, because it’s reality and nothing more.”
Every Lo’Jo album, and there have been thirteen so far, lays out a table and invites other musicians to come and join in the feast. The opening words of Cinema El Mundo are intoned by Robert Wyatt. Other guests include Ibrahim Ag Alhabib from Tinariwen, The Mauritian Sega soul rebel Menwar, René Lacaille from Réunion Island, Malian ngoni player Andra Kouyate and many more. Lo’Jo invites the world to its banquet, in music, in word, in person, and then serves their world up for our ears to feast on.
Niaz Diasamidze is another guest on Cinema El Mundo. He’s a big rocky boulder of a man who plays genial host during our stay in Tbilisi. Diasamidze isn’t only a master of the Georgian panduri, a three-stringed lute through which, according to Péan, “the whole country breathes”, he also makes the instrument and is soon to open a panduri shop in the old ‘silk road’ quarter of Tbilisi. Diasamidze speaks perfect French, is the founder and director of the annual Art Gene festival of traditional music and dance, owns Club 33A where Lo’Jo are performing this time round, and runs an music equipment shop and hire company. Oh, and he has his own band called 33a who play the best contemporary Georgian music I’ve heard so far and can eat and drink the hind legs off a Caucasian mountain goat. Quite a dude is Niaz.
In the early 1990s, during the turbulent heat of the post-perestroika years, Niaz was studying graphic design at the École Des Beaux Arts in Tbilisi. The place was breeding radical young musicians with plenty to say. “During those years, everything was the opposite to what it should be,” he tells me in his nicotine stained voice. “There was the civil war between us Georgians, which should never have happened. There was the war in Abkhazia with the Russians. In fact, everyone around me had a weapon. A machine-gun then was like a cigarette is now. Not even worth mentioning.”
Niaz picked up and started playing the electric guitar, “because I liked the sound of the fuzz pedal!” But then, the rebellious rocker turned into an hungry pilgrim in search of Georgia’s authentic musical voice. With groups of friends, Niaz would drive up into tiny villages up in the hills and mountains of Gouria, Kakheti or Abkhazia to listen to old people singing old songs. He wasn’t the only one. Many contemporaries seemed to share his quest. “There was patriotism in there too, because they [the Soviets] tried to oppress our identity so much, that a feeling arose during those years, to go out and rediscover our music and our poetry. Identity still motivates me. Without that I wouldn’t play music. It wouldn’t interest me.”
Niaz tells me that life is improving, and that Georgians are learning how to be free again. Cranes, scaffolding hard hats and dust are all over Tbilisi. There are two cities in one here: the old one, wrinkled, arthritic, palsied and the new one, peachy, proud and hopeful. When Lo’Jo first visited the place in 2005, as part of Babel Caucase, a inspirational caravan of painters, clowns and musicians that crossed the whole of Europe en route to Grozny to raise awareness of the suffering of the Chechen people, only the old Georgia was in evidence.
“It made me think of something which I never knew,” Péan remembers, “which is the French countryside of perhaps one century ago, with its women in their large scarves, pushing their clogs through the earth. And those small holdings, those little parcels of land.” Yamina Nid El Mourid likened the Georgian countryside to Africa, only white not black.
Babel Caucase never reached Grozny. Instead, Lo’Jo played a concert in a Chenchen refugee camp high up in the Pankisi Gorge, near the Chechen border. It was a wild, emotional, drunken night, that teetered on the edge of disaster for a while but pulled itself up high and smiling by the end. In its spirit of crazed adventure, without a safety net or rider, it was a bit like the first Festival in the Desert in the far north east of Mali, which Lo’Jo helped to organise in 2001.
I ask Denis whether he was frustrated not to reach Grozny. “No, because I’m satisfied with what the moment brings me,” he answers with a sage shrug. “And I’ve always, during my life, liked journeys that happen thanks to the cancellation of some other project. I find myself an innocent, like a virgin in the situation, in that cosmic flaw which you never imagined would happen, which was unintended.”
Andy Morgan. (c) 2012
First published in Songlines Magazine – Oct 2012