Delgres’ latest release 4:00am brings together the personal, political and retro sound of rock ‘n’ roll blues with a Caribbean twist. WHAT A TUNE meets frontman Pascal Danaë to talk heritage, Louis Delgrès and the blues.
The 3-piece band Delgres are based in Paris, and their distinctive and powerful blues music has reached new heights in their second album 4:00am.
The band are named after Louis Delgrès, the freedom fighter from Guadeloupe. In 1802, the heroic military leader lost his life fighting against the reintroduction of slavery by Napoleon Bonaparte.
Fast forward to present day and the band’s lead singer and guitarist Pascal Danaë is talking to me about the revolutionary figure over a video call from his home in Saint-Germain, just outside of Paris.
Pascal reconnected with his Guadeloupe heritage during a difficult personal time. He’d only vaguely heard of Louis Delgrès through stories from his father but now the figure returned to his mind. “I needed a role model… Louis Delgrès became someone I could hold onto. I started pulling that thread and going deeper into his history and relating that to my personal history and my place in French society as a West Indian guy.”
Delving into the history of Louis Delgrès and his own heritage, the journey became a personal quest for identity.
“The thing about being a black guy from the West Indies raised in France mainland, is you have the carte d’indentité (the French Identity card) and this is officially your nationality, but then you have all these subtleties, these differences in your culture which make you somehow different … at one point in your life and you’re just like who am I? Where do I fit in this picture exactly?” He muses.
Born in France, Pascal didn’t set foot in Guadeloupe until he was in his 30s.
“It was amazing because everything came to life and all those stories, like wow.” He shakes his head in disbelief as he recalls the moment his father’s cousin in Guadeloupe gave him his great-great-grandmother’s letter of freedom from 1841.
This emotional experience and connection to Louis Delgrès culminated in the rock and blues song Mo Jodi (Die Today). He’s joined by RafGee (sousaphone) and Baptiste Brondy (drums), and together they formed the band Delgres.
Although the band come from different backgrounds (Baptiste is from Nantes, which used to be a major slavery port), they are a tight-knit group and their chemistry together is infectious. Baptiste and Pascal have known each other for several years from when they played together in jazz band Rivière Noire.
As for RafGee, Pascal gleefully tells me that although at first glance the conservatory-trained sousaphone-player may look like an average French guy, “he grooves like he has an African soul and he was conceived in Guadeloupe!”
Their second album 4:00AM was released this summer and the title is a nod to the often forgotten members of society whose daily shift is outside the 9-5. For example the lead single Aleas features an airport worker as the main star. 4:00AM also touches on the plight of refugees (Assez Assez), racism (L ecole) and the grind of working long hours for low pay (lundi, mardi, mercredi).
The Delgres sound is rooted in the Mississippi Delta Blues, Pascal plays the dobro guitar (an acoustic guitar with a metal resonator) and he shows me his collection hanging on the wall during our call. Typically played by Bluegrass musicians, the dobro guitar has a ringing and metallic quality which lends itself perfectly to Delgres’ uncompromising sound.
Coming from a jazz background, he explains his love for blues grew from watching DVDs of Martin Scorsese’s The Blues. He also cites Skid James and Freddie King as his biggest inspirations.
When they first started the band Pascal wrote most of the songs but now they write together. “It could start with Baptiste playing the drums and that might inspire me to play a riff, I sing a melody and RafGee comes in and there you go, you have the beginning of something, and that’s how we wrote most of the second album.”
Their unique music also carries a strong Caribbean influence; RafGee’s sousaphone adds a carnival flavour and Pascal writes all the lyrics in French Creole.
The Delgres Delta blues sound coupled with the Creole lyrics in a way reunites the Caribbean diaspora of Louisiana and New Orleans (a refuge for those escaping the reintroduction of slavery in Guadeloupe in 1802) with their homeland.
Pascal notes that as the only one not born in Guadeloupe, his parents would always speak Creole to his brothers and sisters but not to him.
Speaking about his decision to write in Creole instead of French, Pascal explains “Singing in Creole to me is a way of claiming my right, my place in this family and in the history of Guadeloupe as well because my parents used to tell so many stories about when they were young and how it was in Guadeloupe… it is a direct line to my personal roots.”
The driving rhythms of the drums, the groove of the sousaphone and Pascal’s soulful voice create a heady cocktail that will make you want to understand the meaning of the Creole lyrics.
Helpfully, Delgres’ website has translations of all the beautifully written and poetic songs.
There’s one song on the album in English, the wry Just Vote For Me. Written while Pascal was living in London, the upbeat big band track is about charming but dishonest politicians.
“We’ve been through so many elections and people coming and promising the moon and it always ends up in the same way. So without wanting to be pessimistic, putting all your faith and hope in that one person, that one messiah that will save the world and solve all of your problems is always lure and doesn’t make any sense… But then again we try not to hammer that too much, just let people come and make their decisions and enjoy the music first.” He laughs.
However, more than Louis Delgrès or social issues, Pascal says what’s most important is simply being together; as a band of individuals from different backgrounds as well as sharing a moment of unity with listeners and concert-goers.
“We are connected and we are doing this together and I would love people to have that picture in mind, we can make something being very different. It’s not so much about the flag, or your family history and all that, you can do something with your friends and be together, et voilà.” He smiles.
“And the thing about Louis Delgrès, I would say it’s a personal quest somehow, it’s helping me find my place in society and how I fit here by knowing more about who I am, it’s learning better who you are that will help you connect with others.”
When not playing shows or producing music for other artists, Pascal tells me about his passion for learning about history, and he recently read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.
“Very complex and it’s great… it explains a lot about how we behave now, there’re so many things you can’t escape, in a biological way. That’s who we are. Like primates!” He laughs. “There’s a lot of that going on and we don’t understand why.”
Delgres are currently on tour in France, as for UK dates Pascal admits the headache of Covid-19 and post-Brexit restrictions have complicated matters.
Next year is the French elections and Pascal is keen to have some dates abroad in the USA by that time.
“It’s all going crazy already… As soon as we can we go out, boop! Especially round the elections (he whistles)… Escape.”