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Episode 7: La mélodie de la Martinique (The Sound of Martinique)

By Duolingo on Tue 28 Jan 2020

In everyday sounds, Christophe Chassol hears the makings of a song. That refined ear led Chassol to become a renowned musician, and develop a new genre of music. But it was only by returning to his parents’ birthplace in Martinique that he would be able to create his masterpiece.

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Transcript

Ngofeen: Under the name Chassol, Christophe Chassol tours around the world and collaborates with the likes of Frank Ocean and Solange. He’s composed a dozen film scores and had a weekly segment on the classical radio station France Musique. But his most impressive feat is inventing a new artform.

Christophe: J’essaie de faire des connexions entre toutes les choses que je vois, toutes les choses que j’entends. J’essaie de capturer les choses qui me plaisent. Tout ce que je trouve beau.

Ngofeen: But in order to create his breakthrough album Big Sun, Christophe had to revisit his past and turn it into something new.

Christophe: Big Sun a été un très grand défi.

Ngofeen: Bienvenue and welcome back to the Duolingo French Podcast—I’m your host, Ngofeen Mputubwele. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories to help you improve your French listening and gain new perspectives on the world. The storyteller will be using intermediate French and I’ll be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again. We also offer full transcripts at podcast.duolingo.com.

Ngofeen: Christophe’s parents were born in Martinique, an overseas region of France in the French West Indies, les Antilles françaises. But as a young couple, they moved to the French mainland, la France métropolitaine.

Christophe: En 1963, quand mon père avait 18 ans, il a traversé l’océan Atlantique en bateau. Quand il est arrivé à Paris, il a commencé à prendre des leçons de musique au Conservatoire. Clarinette et saxophone. Je ne sais pas qui l’y a poussé, mais j’en suis très content aujourd’hui !

Ngofeen: After his kids were born in Paris, Christophe’s father was eager to send them to the music conservatory as well. For him, this was as important as school. They would sit at the piano together and Christophe would practice until he got it right.

Christophe: Lorsque nous travaillions notre piano, mon père voulait que nous disions les notes, quoi qu’on joue. Alors je chantais : do, ré, mi, fa, sol, la, si, do !

Ngofeen: By the time he was 11, Christophe discovered he had perfect pitch. When he heard a song, it was like taking dictation. He would hear a song on the radio, and he would own it.

Christophe: Je pouvais reconnaître toutes les notes. Je comprenais aussi les mélodies, les rythmes, et les accords. Je pouvais m’asseoir et écrire toute une partition, toute une chanson. Je pouvais la mémoriser, et la jouer quand je voulais.

Ngofeen: The chords in particular fascinated him: how certain notes, when played together, could create harmony and so much emotion. For Christophe, listening to music was bliss. It was so intensely pleasurable, it gave him goosebumps or la chair de poule.

Christophe: Un jour, j’écoutais de la musique, et puis j’ai entendu un passage fort, qui me parlait. J’ai regardé mon bras et j’ai vu mes poils se hérisser, se lever. J’ai découvert la chair de poule. La musique me donnait la chair de poule.

Ngofeen: Christophe set out to figure out why a specific musical phrase or chord progression would move him more than others. He’d recreate the sensation using a cassette player and then try to isolate the music that moved him so much.

Christophe: Je me souviens. J’étais petit, dans mon lit. J’étais allongé, avec un magnétophone à mes pieds. Mon plus petit doigt de pied était sur la touche « rewind », et j’écoutais. Quand j’entendais un passage que j’aimais, je poussais « rewind ». J’écoutais. Et puis encore « rewind », « rewind », pour revivre les passages que je préférais.

Ngofeen: This listening method—through loops and repetition—never left Christophe. In his free time, he listened to music and tried to understand it. He went to the university to study philosophy, but he would cut class to take extra piano lessons. He was obsessed.

Christophe: Je jouais de la musique tous les jours. Huit heures par jour. C’était difficile de m’arrêter. J’ai vite compris que j’allais faire de la musique toute ma vie.

Ngofeen: So Christophe set out to build a life as a musician. He went to the prestigious Berklee College of Music, in Boston, Massachusetts. He studied jazz and contemporary music. At 21, he had his own band and he led an orchestra of 24 musicians. But his passion was scoring movies.

Christophe: Au début, je voulais composer des musiques de films. Je voulais raconter une histoire avec le son et l’image. J’ai beaucoup travaillé pour le cinéma, la télévision, et la publicité. J’ai fait ça pendant 15 ans.

Ngofeen: His parents weren’t thrilled about this choice. They wanted something more stable for him. But Christophe was building a career as a working musician and composer—things were going well. He even went on tour with two of France’s pop icons, Sébastien Tellier and the band Phoenix.

Christophe: Je vivais avec ma femme à Santa Monica, en Californie, dans un centre d’art, nommé le 18th Street Art Center. Nous n’avions pas beaucoup d’argent, mais nos projets artistiques nous rendaient heureux.

Ngofeen: But then, in 2005, tragedy struck Christophe’s family.

Christophe: Il était cinq heures du matin, et je dormais. Mon téléphone a sonné, bien trop tôt. Je savais que c’était important. J’ai répondu au téléphone, et j’ai entendu la voix de ma sœur qui m’a dit qu’il y avait un problème avec l’avion de mes parents.

Ngofeen: Christophe’s parents were en route to Martinique, where they’d bought a house, when their plane crashed. West Caribbean Airways Flight 708 collided with a mountain in Venezuela, killing all 160 passengers and crew.

Christophe: J’avais 29 ans, et deux des personnes les plus importantes de ma vie étaient parties.

Ngofeen: Christophe returned to Paris grief-stricken, but he found solace in his music and work. When Youtube was created, he spent hours looking at videos online. And that gave him endless material to sample and to score. He began to play with speech harmonizing.

Christophe: Je prends un discours, quelqu’un qui parle. Et j’écoute la musique de leur voix. Je découvre les notes de chaque mot, de chaque syllabe, et je les joue au piano. Je les transforme en musique. Tout ce matériel musical était là. C’était comme une explosion.

Ngofeen: Christophe had studied composers like Steve Reich, Hermeto Pascoal and Béla Bartók. He knew sampling sounds, voice and field recordings was nothing new. But he wanted to create something special with it: he wanted to convey the magic of the world as he heard it—the music of everyday sounds.

Christophe: J’ai filmé et j’ai enregistré. Des sons, des bruits, des voix, des images. Puis je les ai mis en musique. J’appelais ça Ultrascore. J’ai décidé de voyager pour capturer des endroits et des moments et les transformer en musique.

Ngofeen: No one else was really doing what Christophe was doing—it was pretty experimental. But the French music label Tricatel believed in his work and signed him. So he embarked on the creation of his first albums and multimedia projects.

Christophe: Je suis allé aux États-Unis, et ensuite en Inde. Dans mes albums, je voulais capturer le monde. Capturer la magie des images, des sons. Je voulais utiliser le monde comme un instrument de musique.

Ngofeen: Each album earned some critical success, but Christophe struggled to find his audience. Then, in 2014, he challenged himself with his most personal project yet, an album about his parents’ birthplace: Martinique. He set out to revisit his past and capture the beauty of the island.

Christophe: Je me souvenais de mon enfance. Quand j’étais petit, j’allais presque chaque été en Martinique avec ma famille. Alors j’ai pensé : « Je dois faire mon album en Martinique. » Je voulais le faire pour mes parents.

Ngofeen: It had been almost ten years since his parents died. He visited Martinique a few times since, but this time it was different. He was a man on a sonic mission. He took a mini film-crew with him—a camera operator and a sound engineer.

Christophe: J’ai donné un objectif à l’équipe. Pendant deux semaines, nous devions capturer les sons et les images de la Martinique. Après, j’allais retourner dans mon studio et les transformer en musique.

Ngofeen: Christophe planned to create music from the material they captured. He’d isolate sounds, identify their notes, and combine them with musical instruments, harmony and rhythm. He also planned to edit the footage and release a video version of the album.

Christophe: J’utilise les images que je filme comme j’utilise les sons. Je choisis des images, puis j’en fais un montage. Pour le concert, je voulais montrer les images sur grand écran, pour jouer avec le lien entre l’image et le son.

Ngofeen: Christophe’s first stop was his parents’ house. He hadn’t been there in a couple of years. There, he found a treasure trove: his father’s album collection. Artists like Eugène Mona and bands like La Perfecta and Malavoi. There were so many local music styles: the zouk, the ragga and the biguine.

Christophe: J’ai trouvé des disques de chanteurs et de groupes légendaires de la Martinique. Mon père aimait beaucoup ces albums. Il écoutait très souvent cette musique. Il la jouait aussi.

Ngofeen: Christophe had always enjoyed the music, but he hadn’t listened to it very often. He put an album on the turntable—la platine. He was blown away.

Christophe: Je mets un premier disque sur la platine. Celui de Malavoi. Et puis un autre, de La Perfecta. C’est une très belle musique. Très familière. J’écoutais ces chansons quand j’étais enfant. Elles me font penser à mes parents.

Ngofeen: The island of Martinique is often called l’île aux fleurs, because of all of its flowers. But for Christophe, it really was l’île aux oiseaux. Christophe traveled the island with his crew and they recorded the birds they saw.

Christophe: Je voulais enregistrer les oiseaux. En Martinique, les oiseaux sont partout. Ils chantent tous de manière différente. Alors je voulais commencer mon album avec le chant des oiseaux.

Ngofeen: Christophe also wanted to capture the sounds of the local language: le créole martiniquais. So he recorded strangers in the streets: men playing dominoes, a woman selling coconuts at the market. Christophe also asked street musicians to share some of their music with him.

Christophe: Je marchais dans la rue avec mon équipe documentaire. Quand je voyais des gens intéressants, j’allais vers eux. Je parle le créole, donc c’était facile pour moi de parler avec eux. Je demandais la permission de les filmer et de les enregistrer.

Ngofeen: Christophe had planned his trip during Carnaval. The capital of Martinique, Fort-de-France, has a carnival just as wild as New Orleans’ or Rio de Janeiro’s, but with its own musical flavors. Christophe wanted to soak it all in.

Christophe: Le carnaval dure quatre jours. Les gens et les musiciens mettent des costumes, ils dansent. C’est joyeux, mais c’est aussi une forme de rébellion. Contre le racisme, contre le pouvoir. C’est très ironique, et je voulais capturer ça.

Ngofeen: Carnaval is rooted in Martinique’s colonial past. In the 17th century, French colonizers and slave owners threw lavish costume parties. Enslaved people created their own counter-celebrations with their own culture and music. When slavery was abolished, Carnaval became a fusion of the two traditions.

Christophe: On a filmé et enregistré le plus de choses possible. Les danses, les costumes, les masques. Les gens, leur voix, leur musique. C’était bientôt la fin de mon voyage, et je voulais capturer le plus de matériel possible. Surtout, la musique de la Martinique.

Ngofeen: Christophe had reached out to local artists he admired, but many of his requests went unanswered. But then something unexpected happened. He was talking to one of his uncles, explaining how he hoped to feature the musicians his father loved most.

Christophe: Nous avions seulement deux jours sur l’île avant notre départ. J’étais avec un de mes oncles. Je lui parlais de mon projet, quand il m’a simplement dit : « Au fait, je connais Pipo Gertrude. C’est un très bon ami. »

Ngofeen: Pipo Gertrude is a legend in Martinique. He is a singer of the biguine band Malavoi. And he has a special gift: he can imitate birds—all the birds on the island. Christophe couldn’t believe it. This opportunity was almost too good to be true.

Christophe: C’est fou comme les choses se sont passées. Le lendemain, j’étais avec Pipo Gertrude, et on le filmait. On parlait des oiseaux. Il les imitait. On a tout enregistré. J’étais impatient de travailler avec ça dans mon studio.

Ngofeen: Pipo’s voice was music to Christophe’s ears.

Christophe: Chaque mot, chaque syllabe, est une note de musique. Note après note, la voix devient une mélodie. J’ajoute des accords et des harmonies. Je change les rythmes, et ça devient de la musique.

Ngofeen: Christophe returned to Paris with 50 hours of footage to pick apart, reassemble, and score. He surrounded himself with computer screens panned out across a desk and his keyboard right underneath. He brought in other musicians to play alongside him.

Christophe: Je suis resté dans mon studio pendant des semaines. Dix heures par jour. Je voulais la perfection pour mon album. Mais j’avais trop de possibilités. Parfois, je voulais arrêter. Parfois, je ne savais pas comment finir.

Ngofeen: Christophe’s father taught him to persevere. So he kept going, even when he doubted he could make something coherent of all this material. But in order to finish, Christophe had to let go of perfection.

Christophe: Mon père m’a appris la rigueur. Il m’a appris à ne pas abandonner des projets. Mais il faut savoir s’arrêter. Un projet n’est pas infini. Tout ne doit pas être parfait. C’est nécessaire de faire des erreurs, et de les accepter. Et puis, à un moment, le morceau est fini.

Ngofeen: In 2015, Christophe finally released Big Sun and kicked off an international tour. It was an immense success! Since its release, Christophe has performed over 200 shows on four continents.

Christophe: Mes parents auraient aimé l’album. Je voulais le faire pour terminer ce chapitre de ma vie. Mais j’espère que ceux qui écoutent Big Sun ont envie d’appuyer sur la touche « rewind », comme moi, quand j’étais enfant. Alors, ils peuvent écouter encore, encore, et encore. Pour revivre les sons de la Martinique.

Ngofeen: Christophe Chassol continues to tour performing Big Sun. Chassol’s newest project, Ludi, is a musical film inspired by the novel The Glass Bead Game by German author Hermann Hesse. You can also catch him on France Musique for a full music lesson, delving into melodies and harmonies.

Ngofeen: This story was produced by Abigail Murta and Natacha Ruck.

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Credits

This episode includes recordings from Pogotron under the Creative Commons Attribution License.

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Protagonist & Narrator: Christophe Chassol
Producers: Abigail Murta and Natacha Ruck
Managing Editor: Natacha Ruck
Sound Designer: Martine Chaussard
Mixing & Mastering Engineer: Luis Gil
Executive Producer: Martina Castro