St. Germain’s album “Tourist” (2000) fused French house and Blue Note jazz and seemed to fit every scene. It was played everywhere: the cafes with their second-wave combinations of milk and coffee; the boutiques stacked high in shades of beige, grey, and variegated white; the deliriously uncomfortable restaurants with the hard, reverberating walls; the lounges with arcane flavors of vodka.
“Tourist” was a genre-bending musical esperanto that broke down borders. It was futuristic and idealistic, and seemed primed to accompany us into the new millenium. So it was a bummer when “Tourist” faded into the aughts without a proper follow-up from St. Germain (real name: Ludovic Navarre). And it was a little nerve-wracking when that follow-up suddenly materialized this month. Would it be the long-awaited album fans wanted to hear? Or the sequel no one needed?
Thankfully, “St. Germain” is no “Electric Boogaloo.” Navarre pivoted, and delivered an album that is similar in spirit, but charters new territory. There is still a combination of house beats and capital-I Instruments, but the American jazz and blues inflections have been almost entirely usurped by the sounds of Mali, where St. Germain finally found a sound that could take him beyond the music of “Tourist.”
You’ll probably hear “St. Germain” in the third-wave coffee shops, but the record rewards a closer listen. And the more we listened, the more we wanted to know about the record, so we got ahold of Mr. Navarre, who, in between rehearsals with his band in Paris (their tour kicks off next month in Budapest), was kind enough to field a few questions via email.
NOTE: For maximum effect, hit “Play” and start reading.
Wingtip: When Paul Simon began recording his Graceland record with a series of jam sessions in South Africa, he was challenged to fit those foreign sounds into an American pop structure. How did you eventually blend the Malian music with house and electronica music?
Ludovic Navarre: I always thought of mixing African music with blues and giving it a deep house sound. I’m interested in sounds from other places. I did a remix for Gregory Porter, “Musical Genocide,” with African musicians having a Malian flavor already. At the beginning it was difficult to match the Malian musicians’ approach with my electronic rhythms, but I wanted to work with these African musicians because of the way they play; the music, points of reference, rhythms are all completely different. From electro I keep the cycle loop with a lot of variations.
WT: You experimented with Nigerian and Ghanaian music before settling on Malian music. Why did the music of Mali click in a way that the others didn’t?
LN: I have listened to a lot of different African music for a long time. Malian music is blues’ closest cousin. The Malian musicians were easier to find in Paris, as there’s a big Malian population there. I really wanted the more traditional sounds and these musicians are playing traditional instruments.
WT: Your earlier music included nods to the American blues on songs like “Alabama Blues.” Your lead single on St. Germain is “Real Blues.” What are you reconsidering or clarifying with this title?
WT: How was the studio set-up in Mali different from your set-up in Paris?
LN: Unfortunately I didn’t go to Mali. The vocals were recorded in Bamako, the capital city, by Nahawa Doumbia on “Sittin’ Here.” She is a great artist, has made a lot of albums and is a star in Mali. And I discovered Zoumana Tereta online. He contributed his incredible voice and played the soku, a type of violin, on “How Dare You.” He is considered one of Mali’s master violinists. I really wish to visit this country.
WT: Your music became a coffee shop fixture, an ideal, atmospheric sort of sound, but it becomes much more detailed with a closer listening. Do you have an ideal listener in mind, or do you like that it plays equally well in coffee shops, stores, clubs, and at-home?
LN: The thing is that you could listen to the music loud or not…so you could find your own way and place to hear it. I always try to explore different styles, like reggae, blues, jazz, and now African, in a deep house sound. It may be the reason why my music can be played in different places.
WT: Could you tell us about your stage show? What will your role be on stage?
LN: There are eight of us on stage, with instruments like the kora, n’goni, guitar, bass, keyboards, saxophone, and percussions. My role is both composer and conductor, helping the musicians adapt to an electronic framework. I’m a conductor…without baton!
WT: How open are the live arrangements for improvisation?
LN: I always like when the musicians propose to me some new part. It’s difficult for me to play the same pattern every night when on tour. I can talk to them during the show, and encourage them to play their part longer or shorter. The live part is done with human people who want to do their best.
WT: Have you tried rehearsing any of your classic tunes with the new band?
LN: Yes, we are rehearsing “Rose Rouge,” for example, and it’s really exciting to give a new musical color to the tunes.
WT: Your new single and album cover features a mask of your face, and now, [in the “Real Blues” video], an artist, presumably Gregos, covertly affixes more of these masks to walls throughout Paris. Could you talk a bit about this collaboration?
LN: I used to live in Montmartre in Paris, and I have a mask of Gregos’ face stuck in front of my house. Gregos is a French urban artist who lives in Montmartre, too, and it was easy to get in touch with him. I love his work. He did my face in a white plaster mask for the album and we put some sand around the face with the African map design. You have already seen him in the “Real Blues” video [see below]. It’s really him who appears in it. He paints a lot of the faces with flags of different countries. These masks are stuck on walls in different cities like London, Amsterdam, Montreal, etc… You have to find one and take a selfie with it. Amazing!
WT: You’ve made it clear that you didn’t want to repeat yourself and release an album that sounded like “Tourist 2.” Any idea where you’ll go next, musically, to avoid a “St. Germain 2”?
LN: For the moment I’m just really excited to go on stage with new musicians. We are in the middle of the rehearsals. I have fews ideas for the future, but I’m not there today.
WT: You have noted South African house music as an influence on your current work. I wonder if you could give some examples of South African house music, as well as Malian blues music, for readers who would like to dig a little deeper.
LN: I listen to a lot of Afro-house music from South Africa. I love the sound and when you hear it you know it’s from South Africa, just from the sonority. My favorites are Black Coffee, Boddhi Satva, Black Owl, Culoe de Song, and Atjazz, who did the remixes for “Real Blues” and works a lot with South African musicians. You could discover some of them on The Mixmag mix I did in September. Enjoy!