René Lacaille

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René Lacaille
René Lacaille. Courtesy of the artist

Article

The hard awakening after playing all night

He hails from a volcanic island in the Indian Ocean, but his music has universal appeal. On the one hand, he is deeply committed to one of the most popular instruments in the world, the accordion. And on the other, his homeland offers a rich and fertile cultural soil with influences from Africa, India, Madagascar and Europe. René Lacaille is an unorthodox keyboard master with a turbulent résumé spanning La Réunion to voluntary European exile.
His childhood memories sound idyllic: raised in the highlands above the west coast of Réunion, René tends his father’s goats and hunts birds. His parents work the sugar cane fields and are musicians. But by age seven, he learns the serious side of life: René goes on tour with his dad, plays the drums, and teaches himself the accordion. He shares the stage with famed saxophonist Léon Celeste, which, as he recalls, was not exactly a piece of cake: "How’s a little pip-squeak supposed to keep up? From four in the afternoon to six in the morning, I stood next to my father at village festivals and weddings and accompanied him on the accordion. Sometimes the only thing that helped me survive was the rum bottle." Nightly chord work: No wonder the young Lacaille soon grew tired of Maloyas and Segas, Creole rhythms and songs for the squeeze box, and the standard boleros, waltzes and mazurkas of the dance band repertoire.

The young Réunionnais heads off in search of new sounds and discovers them in music from France, which continues to be closely connected to the island in the Indian Ocean: "A friend sent me loads of vinyl, the Jazz Messengers, for example, or Wes Montgomery, who to this day is one of my favorites. Through Jazz, I learned how to incorporate harmonic sequences into my own songs." Lacaille turns to the guitar and pays homage to his European role models with instruments in various combinations.

During his military service, he visits the continent for the first time. He remains in the ‘Old World’ with a fake work permit that allows him to find work in dance bands and jazz clubs and he learns music theory. With these experiences in the bag, he finally returns home to the island. Ad Hoc and Caméléon are the names of the bands formed under his aegis - bands which today have a cult following. For the first time, he tries out an electrical fusion between indigenous rhythms, such as the Maloya, and the sound experience from la douce France. But his return is short-lived. By 1979, the island is too small for Lacaille. The Creole makes his permanent home in France.

Why? Because, of course, Lacaille wants an international career: "I only go back to the Reunion for concerts. If you want to play an active role in the international scene as a musician, you have to relocate. And I have many musician friends in Europe—In Germany, for example, I opened for Element Of Crime with Le Soldat Inconnu´.” In France, he plays music with the greats of the Afro- scene: Manu Dibango and Ray Lema are but a few of the major players with whom René Lacaille has collaborated. A truly decisive kick to his musical career, however, comes from a fellow Reunion countryman: "I saw Danyel Waro at the major French Festival Printemps de Bourges, he opened for the rock star Jacques Higelin, and I witnessed how he conjured a real flying carpet out of the music from the Réunion," Lacaille ecstatically recalls some 20 years later. "He reignited my desire to reconnect with the Réunion material again; since then I’ve been playing the accordion every day."

The return to his roots has an entirely different quality than Waro’s, who combines percussive archaic Maloyas with political messages. Maloya takes on a gentle metamorphosis with Lacaille: "When I play Maloya today, I sing about everyday life, for example, about a fisherman who gets his boat ready and takes it out to sea. This differs fundamentally from Danyel, who has very politically engaged texts. I am more interested in creating a good mood and in spreading joy!”

Today, René Lacaille can rightfully be called a neo-traditionalist, and an active one at that: he’s releasing new CDs constantly, and, believe it or not, will be celebrating his 55-year stage anniversary in 2009. But it was his solo albums "Patanpo" (Daqui / Harmonia Mundi, 2001) and "Mapou" (World Music Network / edel, 2004) that put him on the world music map. In these late works by the Frenchman (by choice), the variety of rhythms are most striking: he draws from African and Indian percussion along with the nimble 6/8-beat of the Madagascar Salegy, which is incorporated into the music of the Réunion. When Lacaille plays the accordion, he gladly turns to influences from overseas: he lets the Bandon flair shine through and plays the Musette: "Before I heard accordionists from Brazil, Argentina, and from around the world, I oriented myself on the accordionists who played with Django Reinhardt. As far as the Musette goes, if it’s played well, it can do no wrong. I worship the Valse Swing. Back then, we took up the Musette pieces and made Sega out of them, and we superimposed our rhythm onto them," he recalls.

But Lacaille is not only a virtuoso on the keys, he is also a troubadour. It is a pleasure to listen to the full-bodied sound of the Creole that Lacaille, as a poet whose roots are in his homeland, defends with his heart and soul: "There are so many musicians from Reunion who prefer to sing in the Creole of Antilles. I disagree with that completely. Antillean Creole is very international with all the Zouk hits. They think they are more successful because of that. Our young generation now speaks English because of all the tourists’ influence. My experience of Reunion is very different; I’d seen maybe three or four English people face to face before leaving home at the age of 20!"

It’s difficult to compete with the cultural scene that the Antilleans living in France brilliantly organize, because the few Réunionnais are scattered across the country and they don’t join forces. But René Lacaille doesn’t want to leave his adopted home town Grenoble because it’s virtually impossible to realize global projects from the island. Recently, he has been teaming up with the American Bob Brozman, a perfect duo partner for Lacaille with his penchant for island string instruments. On the album Digdig (Roberboat / edel) the two offer up a relaxed musical atmosphere, ranging from Creole, to the blues, to Brazil.

He has recently released his solo legacy with Cordéon Kaméléon (Connecting Cultures / Galileo, 2008) which is alternately a tribute to the accordion in a rocking Sega rhythm along with onomatopoeic invocations of the wind God. Poems are embedded in the music: they tell of a musician’s hard awakening after playing all night, and of the island’s tranquil evening silence. The list of performers on board reveals a slew of young musicians from the Lacaille clan. We needn’t worry about the future of a newly minted Creole tradition.

From an interview of the author with the artist.
Author: Stefan Franzen

Works

Cordéon kaméléon

Published Audio,
2008
Connecting Cultures

Mapu

Published Audio,
2004
Riverboat

Digdig

Published Audio,
2002
Riverboat

Patanpo

Published Audio,
2000
D´aqui France

Projects

This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.

WASSERMUSIK 09

(09 July 09 - 25 July 09)