RIP Charles Duvelle / by Cyrus Moussavi

Charles Duvelle signs a record for Hisham Mayet at his home near Paris, summer 2016. Photo Cyrus Moussavi

Charles Duvelle signs a record for Hisham Mayet at his home near Paris, summer 2016. Photo Cyrus Moussavi

Charles Duvelle

(1937 - Nov 30, 2017)

We lost a great one.

Charles Duvelle was a musician, composer, photographer, and musicologist (don't call it "Ethno!") who recorded dozens of albums across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

A child of French colonialism (literally), he was born in "Indochina," as he called it. He didn't return to France until age 9. "Dirty, cold, and without color" he said when we asked him to describe the Marseille of 1946.

Duvelle didn't stay long. He spent much of his life traveling, first organizing local radio archives across Francophone Africa, then recording albums for France's Disques OCORA label.

His approach was innovative in both technique and humanity.

"Sound is a whole: The sound which is performed outside has to be reproduced as it is. Organ music is recorded with natural reverberation in a church, because this is its normal environment. But if someone is normally playing any instrument or singing outside, it’s better to keep recording outside instead of in a closed recording studio."

And so Duvelle ditched the studio and began making recordings outside, capturing the energy  of performances as much as their sound. Listening back decades later, you feel you're there. Sometimes he moved amongst the musicians with the microphone and his Nagra 3 during a performance.

"I had to behave not only as a witness but as a musician—using the microphone like a musical instrument."

"[This] situation was complicated—and exciting at the same time—because it needed more intuition, mobility, communion with the musicians, and adapted skill to control together the microphone and the recorder. I felt a bit like I was improvising with a music instrument, or behaving as a video cameraman—trying to transpose the vitality and truth of the musical scene into a really good musical recording."

Duvelle's second innovation was in presentation.  This music wasn't readily available in the "west," and people weren't sure how to approach it. Duvelle packaged and released the albums in elaborate cloth binding with detailed notes. 

"I had the money, and I had the desire of having beautiful products. And also, I wanted to attract so-called “refined” people with popular traditional things. So I thought that this music should be treated as well or better than the Deutsche Grammophon series [preeminent German publisher of western classical music]."

Today people are putting out "deluxe exclusive" impossible to afford reissues of music from all over the world. But at the time, treating this music with respect, as a commercial product and also as pure art, was unheard of. 

"Many kinds of world music—particularly oral traditions from Africa—were unknown, just because they had no means of being disseminated worldwide. Collecting part of this fantastic potential and publishing for the first time such new music was of course quite exciting.

But for whom—the public? I don’t know who is the public! Maybe some pop musicians, some jazz musicians or even 'serious' contemporary composers. The Beatles, at that time, one of them was interested. Serge Gainsbourg—have you heard of this one? He went to see me several times, and he was also quite excited by different kinds of African music."

Last summer I spent two long days with Duvelle. Brittany Nugent and I came along with our friend Hisham Mayet, co-founder of Sublime Frequencies. Hisham grew up on Duvelle's records, and felt kinship with Duvelle's rejection of dry academic practice in favor of spirit, energy, humanity. Hisham and Charles were finishing up a book of Duvelle's photos, and we were along to film the interviews and add a few questions of our own. 

Duvelle was charming and gracious, spending hours showing us his immaculately organized music collections, scrolling through a lifetime of photos and videos on his little laptop, remembering with a wry smile and humor run-ins with greats like Rakotozafy. He even cooked us lunch, served up with bottles of rose and bemused questions about US politics. 

"What would you be doing if we weren't bothering you today, Charles" I asked at one point. 

"Playing piano like every day," Duvelle said. 

Yet another thing that made him unique in this world of musicology. The man was a musician first, and it was when talking about music that he was at his most insightful and eloquent, transversing generations and cultures in a few sentences:

"I don’t like writing music. I think this system has produced so many kinds of beautiful music, but it limits new possibilities of creation. This is why I am so attracted by oral traditions of creation and communication. As I told you, I like to improvise music. I can build an organized and structured music without the help of writing, just because I am used to it. 

Also, today there are so many means of recording and editing music through digital techniques that writing has lost a lot of his power. In that respect, it is interesting to notice that the great Asian civilizations—Indian and Chinese, for instance—knew how to write long before Western civilization, but did not use any writing system to play or transmit their refined art."

He said it with his glint and his smile. Then he sat at the piano and improvised.

Listen to some of Duvelle's work here.

Thank you to Hisham Mayet for bringing us along last year. Thank you to Charles Duvelle for the warmth and the music. 

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