35 years on and Lo’Jo remain one of France’s most non-uniform and exceptional groups. Like a Tom Waits or their friend Robert Wyatt (who guests on the new album), the 6-piece Lo’Jo inhabit their own world, with their own sound, their ‘acoustic souk’.
Their sound is full of melancholy, nostalgia, and empathy with the displaced, marginalised and lonely. The pride and strength of culture of some of these soulmates – the Touareg, Creole and Berber to name three – add further layers to Lo’Jo’s musical palette and instrumental line-up.
Poet-in-chief Denis Péan takes us on journeys, across the ocean, to inhospitable new places, sits with us on a café terrace, regards the displaced, engages with all those who speculate on what it means to be a human being in the 21st century, the limitations of choice and quest for liberty.
TRANSE DE PAPIER
Seventeen albums. Thirty-eight years of life. Those are quite some numbers. For any band. For Lo’Jo, doggedly marginal troubadours of the radiant word, the far-flung sound, they’re a shy, courageous miracle. The mere fact that they’ve survived all the dirt roads down which they’ve travelled, that they haven’t been downed by a stray bullet in the Caucasus, a sandstorm in the Sahara, an eruption on the Reunion Islands, is cause enough to celebrate. That they continue to deliver their exquisite song-poems of no fixed abode, their miniaturized paeans to the ‘bazaar of knowledge, heterogenous boutique’ that is their world, our world, is a blessing we should include in those we count every day.
“I feel I’m in the category of those that endure,” says co-founder and chief songsmith Denis Péan. “Just like Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, Buena Vista Social Club, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Moondog, Satie. I didn’t die of an overdose at the age of 27, and that’s enough for me.”
Try and apply a prêt-a-porter musical category to Lo’Jo and you’ll fail. Better to ditch the search for labels and accept Péan’s own overview of their remarkable journey: “a collective improvisation over an entire life, performed with a mixture of naïve utopianism, of faith in creativity off the beaten track, of social and political conscience, of acute curiosity for the world.”
Any regrets? More fame? Money? Hits? “Regrets can make a pretty little necklace; it’s the beauty of things unconsumed, just skimmed over,” says Péan. “I have absolutely no regrets not to have released a hit, just a frequent concern about the economic insecurity of the band. But quite apart from that, some of our songs have become very intimate hymns for a certain number of people.”
It’s true. Those people exist in large numbers in Lo’Jo’s native France, especially in the Anjou region where all the band members were born, grew up and still live. They also exist in dedicated pockets all over Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, Vietnam, Georgia, Mali, Algeria, the Sahara, Turkey, Egypt, the Indian Ocean, all the places where the Lo’Jo caravan has pulled into town to rest, eat, drink, listen, see, befriend and play, every journey yielding its precious cargo of sights, sounds and stories that provide the raw material for Lo’Jo’s art.
In any case, Lo’Jo’s latest album Transe de Papier offers no room for regret. Not an inch. Producer Justin Adams, whose association with Lo’Jo goes back to 1996’s breakthrough album Sin Acabar, has concocted clarity and concision from the three nominally divergent constituents of Lo’Jo’s music: delicate, virtuoso violin, piano, bassoon (legacy of time spent studying French baroque and early modern music at the local conservatory); tides of kora, kamelen’ngoni, teherdentlute and other recondite instruments (legacy of Lo’Jo’s many trips to West Africa and elsewhere); deep, raw, earthy grooves, (legacy of an enduring love of funk, dub, electro and other brands of rhythmic firewater). And topping it all, the luminous choral attack of the Nid el Mourid sisters, Nadia and Yamina, who sound like a female choir from the hills of Bulgaria, or the upper reaches of the Atlas mountains, where women with the courage of Cossacks belt their sadness and joy into the thin mountain air.
The band laid down some guiding principles before going into the studio: no guests (or few); no drummer (only percussion and loops); as much space as possible for the five members of the band to shine; bass (but no double-bass). Thankfully, the guests and drummer rules were only partially adhered to, since the roll-call is enticing: Robert Wyatt, Karl Hyde, the bassoonist Stéphane Coutable, two former Lo’Jo drummers (Franck Vaillant and Gabor Tury) and the late and sorely lamented Tony Allen, whose inimitable shuffle graces ‘Jeudi d’Octobre’ and ‘Le Rue Passe’. “Tony seemed someone who was profoundly spiritual and centered,” Péan says of the legendary drummer. “But he was also someone you could approach – very kind and very festive. He had one of the most impressive auras I’ve seen in my life.”
Inviting Allen and Wyatt was, for Péan, “a way of combining history and respect for the elders.” Wyatt’s album Rock Bottom was one of the many portals that offered the young Denis Péan a mental exit route from the farm near Angers, in the west of France, where he spent his childhood. Along with punk, dub reggae, seeing Don Cherry play at the Théatre d’Angers in 1978 (the dreadlocked Péan spoke to Cherry after the show - a pivotal moment) and the conservatory where he met Lo’Jo’s violinist and co-founder Richard Bourreau. But equal to, if not greater than these musical baptisms, were the words Péan devoured, his ‘trances of paper’: poems by Apollinaire and Michaux, books by Baudelaire and Nietzsche, procured from La Tête en Bas, Angers’ solitary radical book shop (it was later bombed by the far right).
‘Will tomorrow be virtuoso / Or rather a thorn in the palm? / Parabola of immensity,’ sing Nadia and Yamina on the title song of Transe de Papier.That parabola is poetry, the only thing “capable of sanctifying existence and all its mysteries,” according to Péan, ”the bridge between daily intimacy and cosmic intensity.” Phrases of vivid beauty will jump out at those lucky enough to understand French as they listen to the album: ‘History is a book made of porcelain’ (‘Pas Pareil’); ‘We greeted each other like the wind greets the water’ (‘Black Bird’), ‘I saw the dawn arise from the indecisive night / Adjusted the compass to the vagabond hour (‘Un Jeudi d’Octobre). And in the song ‘Minuscule’, sung over a tender current of kamele n’goni and violin, there’s a stanza that somehow sums up the soul of Lo’Jo. Robert Wyatt declaims it again (in French, a language he apparently loves) on the song ‘Kiosco’:
A song that lounges about the garden and smells the lily and jasmine,
Mine, she takes the pulse of the solitudes
For I am the uncertain one, who steals the perfume
While they’re mourning a few roses.
“In many ways, the French language is the only thing about which I can pretend to be an expert,” Péan says. “I’m guarantor of its transmission, but all others enchant me.” Like Réunionese creole for example, which Péan fell in love with during the course of Lo’Jo’s many trips to the island, and which features on some of the choruses on the album. “Languages have vibratory as well as semantic virtues” he says, unbothered by the fact that many Lo’Jo fans won’t be able to follow the band’s linguistic excursions. “And mystery is an essential aspect of a work for me. It touches on what cannot be expressed, where the origins are to be found, the sacred part, the alchemical crucible.”
Lo’Jo emerged from a quiet corner of France, a land of wide flood-prone rivers, discreet fertile hills, cows and vineyards, Catholic conservatism, all far-removed from the political and cultural engine-room of Paris. With little traditional music to speak of, and nothing much to excite the aspiring rock’n’roller, inspiration had to be sought elsewhere. “I have this great interest in other places,” Péan says, “in what is different, to compensate for my rural origins, which were very sedentary. My ancestors didn’t have the possibility to travel, because after all they were peasant-farmers, and when you’re on a farm you’re bound to stay put.”
Formed by Péan and Bourreau in 1982, Lo’Jo’s adventures began in earnest in the mid 1980s, when they teamed up with local street theatre company Jo Bithume and toured Europe for four years. This became the mould for the next few decades: visionary events that brought together musicians, sculptors, painters, circus-performers, acrobats, filmmakers, dancers in a confederacy of friendship and dreams. It gave birth to the Festival in the Desert in 2001, fruit of an encounter between Lo’Jo and a group of Touareg musicians and activists during the band’s first trip to Mali in 1996 (the subsequent emergence of Tinariwen onto the global stage owes much to Lo’Jo’s initiative). There was Babel Caucase, a multi-disciplinary humanitarian caravan of artists which set off for Grozny in 2007 to raise awareness of the unpardonable suffering of the Chechen people, and multiple trips to Georgia and Réunion Islands, not to mention the hundreds of more ‘conventional’ gigs that Lo’Jo have performed in the planet’s hidden folds.
Yet, the umbilical cord that binds Lo’Jo to the gentle hills of Anjou remains unbreakable. “Attachment to the land of one’s birth cannot be explained: one loves it not because it’s pretty; but because it’s ours.” For many years home was an old wine-growers domain just south of Angers called La Fontaine du Mont, where Lo’Jo lived communally, welcoming artists from all over the world to come and rest, eat, rehearse, collaborate, think. You might have stumbled on the place at any given moment and found Ibrahim ag Alhabib from Tinariwen strumming on a guitar outside a battered old caravan hidden in a copse of trees behind the house, or the Réunionese legend René Lacaille sipping his third ballon of red wine on the table outside the kitchen, or a group of Korean drummers rehearsing in the well-appointed rehearsal studio (all paid for by the local mairie). “It was a bedrock for the band,” Péan says, “an experience at once very joyous, full of creativity, healthy rivalry, with difficulties too, relating to the invention of the collective system.”
Péan regrets the “common-or-garden racism” that is on the rise in his quiet corner of France, as it is all over the country. In the past, he has confessed to being wary of big words such as ‘freedom’, ‘revolution’ or ‘justice’, preferring to express the band’s political and social conscience through vignettes rather than grand statements. But that conscience is alive on Transe de Papier, with songs like ‘Permettez Majesté’ which addresses an imaginary potentate (for which substitute any recent French President sitting behind his gilt desk at the Elysée Palace) with words that barely hide their scorn. Or phrases such as ‘Truth staggers and the west stumbles.’ (‘Minuscule’).
We all need the wonders and the lessons that lie beyond our home horizons. For Lo’Jo, they’re the life blood. “We can’t recreate the world - overcome its crimes and its atrocities - except with intelligence and in collaboration with other peoples, especially with Africa which is so close to us geographically and historically. The other possess the portion of knowledge, acuity, wisdom that is lacking in us, and vice versa. The lone man is incomplete.”
Perhaps this is what Péan means when he says, “It seems to me that with this record, I’m on time for my meeting with history.” Wandering beyond time is all very well, but when the times demand so much compassion, you have to act, or (if you’re an artist, musician, poet) speak up. In that sense, playing music that expresses its love of difference, its wonder and gratitude at the dazzling magic lantern of human life on earth, is an act of resistance. “It’s precisely because the world is retreating in on itself, that we must continue to work hard to sing the wonders of multiplicity,” Denis says, “and open the door wider. It seems to me that every generation is scared of the future, but fear is really a very bad councillor. Hope is a more enduring companion, more generous.”
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