Night is giving way to a new day. Crickets scratch the satin-dark tropical air. We could be on Reunion Island, in Bamako, deep in the Caucasus.
Then a gentle pulse seeps over the horizon like the dawn. The journey begins. The destinations, the ports and havens of wonder along the way are multicolored and richly painted. Over an hour later we arrive at the final act. The song “Au Debut,” growled in sage tones by singer and composer Denis Péan, brings us back to where we began, to a night that’s giving up its fight with the dawn, to the beginnings of time.
This is Cinéma el Mundo (World Village; U.S. release: October 9, 2012). A world full of image, color, sound, and story--and a striking group of musical guests, from British rock maverick Robert Wyatt to desert blues guitar master Ibrahim Ag Alhabib (Tinariwen) to avant-global cellist Vincent Segal (Chamber Music). It’s all there: a woman called Lila who leaves before dawn, the mosques that form a string of pearls around the neck of Algiers, two rusted hulks in the port of Buenos Aires, a blue titmouse in an instant of pure air, dragons sliding over roofs above the market in Vientiane, dreadlocks in an Occitan passageway, the flow of people escorted through a neighborhood of flies by a proud fanfare of stars.
2012 is Lo’Jo’s thirtieth year of existence, and Cinéma El Mundo is their tenth album. The band was born on the margins, in and around Angers, the city that slumbers securely in a crook formed by the Maine and Loire rivers in the west of France. They have stayed on the edges ever since, musically, geographically, philosophically. “To live on the margins is just a way of remaining true to one self,” Péan says. “There was a time when it seemed as if it was very hard to exist far from Paris. Right now it only seems like an immense advantage.”
But their fecund province, with its gentle skies and rolling hills, its marching vineyards and wide lazy rivers is no prison for vegetative attitudes and small-mindedness. Anjou has bred big dreams in Lo’Jo, dreams that have transported these musical adventurers to every point of the compass, and back. Their trunk full of sounds and instruments is thickly plastered with the labels of their travels; The southern Sahara, where they helped to organize the very first Festival in the Desert in 2001, and subsequently launch the international career of the Touareg poet-guitarists Tinariwen; Tbilisi and the Caucasus, where their Babel Caucase caravan stopped over en route to Chechnya; The Reunion Islands in the southern Indian Ocean, just one of Lo’Jo’s many homes away from home.
From all these horizons, Lo’Jo bring sounds, instruments, experiences and friends back to the blank canvas of their native land. “I come from a region where there is no specific musical culture, no folklore,” Péan says. “So I make fire out of every kind of wood.” The band’s musical DNA is so complex and intertwined that your only reward for trying to sequence it will only be frustration and sterile science. What matters is the living breathing whole. Lo’Jo sound like the harmony that the builders of Babel Towers sought but never found, like Nino Rota on a non-stop round the world ticket, like the antidote to globalization’s reductive evils, like a hymn to variety, to the human circus in all its incarnations. To listen to one of their albums is to travel with the heart open, always fresh to bitter-sweet wonders, not possessing but praising, savouring everything along the way.
When Péan sings he could be the shamanic twin of Tom Waits or the Gallic poet brother of Johnny Cash in his late American Recordings phase. Violinist Richard Bourreau brings the rigors of training at the Angers Conservatoire to the job of arranging and plotting all that chaotic inspiration, of fixing without killing. Bassist and double bassist Kham Meslien and drummer Baptiste Brondy nail down polyglot rhythms only to wrench them free again. The Nid El Mourid sisters, Yamina and Nadia, are the Berber cousins of the B52s, vocalist vagrants roaming the outer fringes of Europe, the lush hills of Georgia, the red dirt roads of Mali and the brown bare backs of the Atlas mountains. This sextet is the nucleus around which countless free radicals have orbited for moments of magic during the past three decades; Robert Plant, Robert Wyatt, Tinariwen, Justin Adams, Reunion Island maestro René Lacaille, Georgian panduri legend Nias Diasamidze, cellist Vincent Segal, electro-rocker Guillaume Asseline and many more.
The place where Lo’Jo’s strange and unclassifiable musical flora is nurtured and grown is a huge rambling former farm house sitting between two noisy expressways, surrounded by fields not far from Angers. It’s called ‘La Fontaine du Mont’ (‘The Fountain on the Mount’). There, outside the kitchen door, under a canopy of sunlit leaves, the table awaits guests from the occident, the orient and all points in between. “It’s a cosmopolitan house,” Péan says without a boast, “made in the image of a dream or a utopia just out of reach. The traveller finds his place of rest, food always on the table, with an organisation based on an ecological perspective, a communal life. It’s a place on which encounters pivot. It’s an open book for children.”
It’s also where Cinéma el Mundo was captured in its entirety and where, to use one of Péan choicest phrases, “sounds were harvested in their moment of grace,” a process deftly facilitated by producer Jean Lamoot. Brought up in Africa, Lamoot is a name to conjure with in his native France, a man who has mid-wifed albums by a jaw-dropping array of talent from Noir Désir to Alain Bashung, Salif Keita, Nneka, Souad Massi, ONB, Mano Negra and Vanessa Paradis. A deep knowledge of African music, rock and chanson made him an ideal choice of producer for Lo’Jo and able to capture the delicate colours, the fragile shapes and shy intricacies of their music. “He’s very humble, fragile even,” explains Péan, “but totally determined if he sense the moment is right.”
There at La Fontaine du Mont, in a barn turned studio and musical laboratory attached to the main house, the scenes of Cinéma el Mundo took shape. Collaborators came and went, in person or on tape; Menwar , Gan Guo, Andra Kouyate, Vincent Segal, Stephane Coutable, Ibrahim and Eyadou from Tinariwen, Niaz Diasamidze, Robert Wyatt, with their strange menagerie of instruments, their little glass shards of colour and sound, all welcomed and seduced by atmosphere of Lo’Jo’s home base. To Péan, Robert Wyatt was something of a returning hero. “The album Rock Bottom left an indelible mark on my adolescence,” he says. “It’s like a spring that is never exhausted, a great big gift of existence.”
And over the music, Péan painted his words which, to him, are like “the fossils of signs and symbols preserved in the amber of a song.” In Denis Péan, France has something of a Loire valley Pablo Neruda or Dylan Thomas, whose Llaregub Hill is the entire world. He’s has published several books of poetry in his time, as richly coloured and linguistically sourced as Lo’Jo’s music. “I like poetry because it’s something completely unsellable,” he says. “You can’t earn a living from it, which has the effect of purging the number of competitors. It’s a precise craft, like that of a stone cutter.” Half of Lo’Jo’s magic lies in their lyrics, a fact which presents a fair challenge to those who barely scraped through their French exams at school. But it’s a mountain worth the climb, dictionary in hand, Google translate at the finger tips. It’s the key to Lo’jo’s inner sanctum, the one full of sliding dragons, defeated towns in their indecent mornings, where Madame Carnaval presides in her moment a grace and people carry their treasure and their tut in the same bag, selling their last few coins for a handful of snow.
It’s the place where Cinema El Mundo was born, shot by shot, take by take, scene by scene. Have a little patience and Lo’Jo will take you there. –Andy Morgan