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Interview: Chassol on Carnival and Producing Frank Ocean

After traveling down musical pathways in New Orleans and India on his last two albums, French director, pianist and composer Christophe Chassol has turned to his family’s homeland in Martinique for his new album Big Sun, along with an accompanying documentaryWe reached out to Chassol to talk about carnival in Fort de France, and working with everyone from Martiniquan rappers Samak and Sissido to Laurie Anderson, Phoenix, and American rapper Frank Ocean.

First of all, congratulations on the new album! It’s really beautiful. Tell me about your family’s background in Martinique. What did your parents tell you about it?

I have a large family in Martinique–my mother had 11 brothers and sisters, and my father about the same number, but they didn’t speak very much about their childhood, which I think was pretty rough.

Did you listen to a lot of music from Martinique when you were growing up?

Yes, my father played in various bands as a saxophone and clarinet player. They played all sorts of styles such as biguine, mazurka, compas, a little bit of zouk, as well as some jazz and fusion. I used to go to the rehearsals with him, trying to play melodic lines on the synth by artists like La Perfecta, Malavoi or Kassav. If I was to sum up the West Indies soundtrack of mine and my sister’s childhood, I would choose “En nou allé” by La Perfecta, “Sun” by JM Harmony and “Marinelle” by Malavoi. I’d also have to include more traditional songs my father played obsessively on the clarinet, like “Serpent Maigre” (Thin Snake) and “Femmes Martinik Douces” (Sweet Martinique Women).

Was this your first time going there? How much time did you spend?

No, I used to go during summer throughout my childhood and teenage years, then more sporadically as a young man. We stayed for two weeks during the shooting of Big Sun in March last year.

What kind of music did you hear in Martinique? How did you meet the artists who you worked with on the album?

There are lots of different sounds in Martinique. As well as those styles my father would play, you can hear Latin dance music (salsa, chacha, merengue) and a lot of jazz, Haïtian (compas), biguine, ragga, reggae, military marches and percussions transe. There’s also some electronic-based music and French imports (crooners and mainstream stuff), but not a great deal of classical music.

To prepare for the shooting of Big Sun, I read articles and books, including several by Frantz Fanon, but I also watched a few documentaries about West Indies music and history. After that, I made a list of the people and musicians that I wanted to interview and meet, and tried to make appointments with them.

The idea was to leave some space between the interviews in order to keep some spontaneity in the encounters. For instance, Mario Mass, the flute player from  “Mario Parts I & II,” is a wonderful musician that I have known since my childhood, because he was on a lot of the releases in my dad’s record collection, as an arranger, keyboardist or flautist. I absolutely had to meet him, so I found his contact on Facebook, and he accepted. Conversely, I made contact with Pipo Gertrude [of Malavoi], who features on “Pipornithology Parts I & II,” on the penultimate day of shooting. One of my uncles told me very casually, “Oh, by the way, I know Pipo Gertrude; he’s a very good friend of mine. Would you like him for your film?”

So I’ve found that the spontaneity of my agenda has become a very important parameter in the meeting of the characters in the film.

What’s carnival like in Martinique? How does it compare to other traditions that you’ve seen in places like New Orleans?

I wanted to go to Martinique during that period because I had never seen the carnival. I felt that it represented a unique moment of inversion, or reversal, in which a rather traditional, conservative society was allowed to go berserk. From my experience in New Orleans, I felt that the Martinique carnival was naughtier, really more geared around sexual humor.

How does the history of slavery affect what you saw in Martinique? Did that influence your album?

Of course it was a big influence because of what I saw around me. For instance, while filming the last sequence, “Reich & Darwin,” I saw these drummers with ape masks wandering the streets, and I instantly felt compelled to shoot them, for one main reason: I found them aesthetically beautiful. Suffice to say, I am a fan of Planet of the Apes, not just for its score by Jerry Goldsmith, but also for its look.

But almost instantly, I know and can perceive the political side of it. Especially at the time the film was made, in France, our Minister of Justice, a black Guyanese woman (and one of the most outstanding French politicians), was being called a chimpanzee, a monkey, and having bananas thrown in front of her on camera by young Catholic extremist kids. What you have to understand that a lot of people like me just laugh when we see that on television, because of its archaism. Those racist degenerates make us laugh. In Big Sun, I didn’t want to make any specific statement about slavery, but rather to speak about the power of music and image. And I find the image of these men with ape masks beautiful. But of course, those black guys drumming with those monkey heads make me think of rappers who say “nigger” because they can, because they don’t care, and importantly because they are taking that word and re-appropriating it for themselves.

Tell me about the film that you made. How does it go together with the album?

It is not the film that goes with the album, but rather the music that can be listened to with or without the whole film. The whole purpose of my work is to make an object that is at the same time a film and a musical piece, and to reveal the power of music within this synchronicity. During the creation of my last album, Indiamore, my label Tricatel–created by Bertrand Burgalat and run by Cyril Vessier and Céline Lepage–advised me to release the album and the film, while I was just thinking of releasing one object. And they were so right to do so.

If people haven’t seen the live performance, or if they don’t have access to the Internet, they may not know there is a film at all. But discovering the images that are the first material of the composition after having listened to a lot to the album is a joyful sensation!

Are you working on Frank Ocean’s new album? How did you get connected and what can you tell me about that?

I worked with Frank on some tracks in London, Los Angeles and Paris throughout 2014. I would work all night long with him and Ommas Keith, and it was wonderful, creative, fun and challenging. I would meet people like Rick Rubin or James Blake during the sessions, but I would be the only one in the room who didn’t know who they were. Frank is innovative, curious, and incredibly talented. I asked him how he heard about my work. He told me that his friend Diplo made him listen to Indiamore. They wondered how I did the speech harmonization, so they called me. The curiosity of those two crate diggers really amazed me.

I read that this album is part of a trilogy with Nola Chérie and Indiamore. What are the themes that connect the albums?

To be honest I don’t think of it that way. I think it is journalists that drew the links initially, but I don’t know why. Although I haven’t been working towards that aim, there are still links between the settings of each of the albums. There is the shared Creole culture between Louisiana and the West Indies, as well as shared history between the West Indies and East India. But the place where we shoot with Marie-France Barrier (camera) and Johann Levasseur (sound) is not the most important thing–what counts first in these works is the attempt to speak about the power of music, and specifically its power to give a different reality to an image. The chords are my main tool. The harmonies within the suites are the real connection between the albums.

I thought  your tracks with Sissido and Samak were really cool. Do you have any plans for more collaborations with any of these artists?

Thanks a lot! Everything is open at the moment; we will see what comes from Big Sun and the tour that goes with it. We play in Martinique next year, and I am sure I will invite them on stage. But on May 11 and 12, I am performing Big Sun in Paris and have invited Pipo Gertrude on stage with Lawrence [Clais, his drummer] and me.

Why did you name your main theme “Reich and Darwin”? How do they relate to carnival and to the album?

Oh, it is very simple. Reich is for Steve Reich and Darwin for Charles Darwin. That sequence’s main spine is a piano pattern that I played in a hotel in Martinique. It is one of the main patterns from Big Sun and you see only my hand in the film. In that sequence, the frame of my hands playing that pattern is cut by images of those Planet of the Apes drummers in the streets of Rivière-Pilote during carnival. I play another piano pattern on top of the one that is shot, just like Steve Reich’s techniques in his works “Piano Phase” and “Six Pianos.” And Darwin because of the monkeys–simple!

Why do you call the album an “ultrascore”?

Oh, it is a neologism that I made in 2006 to describe the kind of work that I was doing. I have been writing film scores since I was 20 years old. Composers can be very literal with the way they score the action (“Mickey Mousing”), or very psychological, by scoring the emotions of the characters, or what is not seen in the frame. In my video works, I want to think that I am scoring neither the action, nor the psychology, but the objective reality of the sounds coming from the images. So, in a sense, ultra stands for ultimate objectivity, and score for composition.

Tell me about some of the other projects you’ve worked on, like with Laurie Anderson and Terry Riley. Also how was touring the world with Phoenix?

I met Laurie through Sophie Calle, a French writer and artist who I worked with in 2007. She invited me to play Indiamore in New York at the River to River Festival, and we are also looking to do a piece about a story she has written on her dog, birds, and 9/11. I have been speaking with Terry Riley for three years now and we just met two weeks ago in Brussels through our mutual friend, the painter and music-lover Jean-Pierre Muller. I have got a lot of ideas for him, but for now you’ll have to watch this space!

Phoenix was over 10 years ago now. That is where I met my drummer, Lawrence Clais, who is an exceptional musician. I am also working with Jamire Williams who is equally talented. Anyway, Phoenix was my first worldwide tour, and we had so much fun. I think of the four of them as the four Beatles. They are the sweetest guys, really fun and talented. We always shared ideas and learned a lot from each other. I introduced them to minimalism–Steve Reich, Terry Riley, John Adams–and they taught me pop music tricks which helped to simplify my musical structures–a very useful skill. The first U.S. tour we all stayed together on the bus, and it was wonderful–what more can I say?

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