This interview was conducted at the second Pierre Bensusan/Didier Malherbe gig at the Met in Bury in 1998 (the first was reviewed in issue 15).
The original intention was to turn this into a Didier biography for issue 20. That never happened, but I've included the actual transcript here (warts and all). Additional questions were posed by Simon Kerry, and Pierre Bensusan joined us late in the interview to add a few comments. The gig had been notable for a heckler, who unwittingly dominated proceedings.
Didier Malherbe: .... (the gig) was very nice, it was in fact very Pierre Bensusan admirers mainly more than Gong people. But it was good - I enjoyed playing. There was just one chap, which happens sometimes with alcohol, it was in fact someone who wants to break something, the principle of the listener and the performer. It happens from time to time, but when it happens the vibe is there. This place is quite loaded as a matter of fact - I wouldn't say it is haunted, but is very heavily vibrative, I must say and sometimes it happens that you can have some funny things creeping in. I have played once with Pierre Bensusan here three years ago and it was in fact my best souvenir of the whole tour and the time after I couldn't do it and Pierre had to do it on his own. But tonight we did it as a duet and there was a quite good number of people and I enjoyed it a lot.
Sometimes it's difficult to find a place in a country where you've had some great times - you'll find other times where it evens out. But I enjoyed it.
Phil Howitt: there were a lot of Gong fans last time.
DM: Last time there were more. Tonight it was very different. but I think also it is very good with Pierre's audiences because they are very musical, they enjoy the music. They are a little bit more straight than the Gong ones! But they are musical - you give them music, that's what they want.
PH: I think you've just done a tour with Gong...
PH: How did that go?
DM: Very well. Large crowd of people - people in Rennes - good crowd and also young people - that's a syndrome it was also very nice to experience. Since a few years with the new Gong, the 'new-old' Gong, 'classical new-old Gong' - we've been playing this material in England for quite a few tours, 2 or 3 tours, quite successful and in America and Japan, a big German festival and this was the French tour.
And it was also the same thing, very young people, about 20 years who had heard about Gong and they are into it and because it's loud, it's slightly... it's not techno but it gives them ambient hints, and Steffy Sharpstrings he plays all the machines now. If you think that Tim Blake was like the initiator, maybe he can carried on after that with his own discoveries, but he had been there right at the beginning of the music and the rhythm machines and all that. Now the kids with the rhythm machines, they want some roots, they want to find some roots, or it's just the fantasy they like.
PH: That's very much reflected in the 'You remixes' album.
DM: Oh, yeah, I'm not responsible for the 'You remixes' album. I'm OK with it, but I'm not really doing that. My own movement is towards acoustic instruments. For many years. And so I come back sometimes to saxophone and play some more of that in Gong. Short Wave... we've dropped now, it is finished, I don't know if you are aware of that, but we've finished it. We did quite a lot of tours. Hugh Hopper is going to play with Daevid Allen in England very soon with Mark Kramer and Pip Pyle. Gong for the last two tours was Pierre Moerlen instead of Pip Pyle. In fact in the life of Gong we have used 10 drummers.
Sometimes when we were living in France Pip Pyle felt homesick so he was leaving the group and going back to England. Then we took Pierre and he was doing something else - classical music so he was going away. So we got Laurie Allan who was an excellent English drummer and he stayed a long time with us - every time it was different stories. And so we had to do it with another drummer and every time it was like another group. And then we got Mac Poole who had a group called Warhorse, a heavy duty group, and so the Gong was different. And then after we had Bill Bruford, which was very exciting because he was quite good, and we got Brian Davison, the Nice drummer who was quite drunk. Good drummer but a bit drunk.
PH: It was really hard to put your finger on it, but the recent tours you did with Pierre was very different to the ones you did with Pip.
DM: Different, but the material was about the same. But it's true that most of the material was from the trilogy with Pierre as the drummer at the origin, so it was more like a shoe that fits. He is very good, Pierre. He left and I hadn't seen him for quite a while, he had his own group as you know but he wandered into a lot of financial problems so he had to hide his capacity to musical company on Broadway and he's been around the world with that company for 6 or 7 years making reasonable money, and he doesn't get worse! He gets better and better. Technically he's so incredible that he can be very laid back and still be there on the spot. He's a real monster, real power. No really, because at the same time his temperament his character is very volcanic, very ebullient he's not what you can say, really cool. Of course he's a really good friend, but he's on the volcanic side whereas his drumming is placid, very technical.
PH: Has he ever played - there was Gazeuse and Shamal where you were very involved but also there was also the tuned percussion. Was that ever done live with all the vibraphones.
DM: We did a few gigs at the time. My last participation with Gong in the Seventies was this group called Gazeuse with Allan Holdsworth, Mino Cinelou and Pierre Moerlen and Benoit Moerlen. I saw him recently he's an amazing player, he lives in the mountains now. Mireille Bauer also. The problem was that it was such a different group, different options from the original Gong - it was a bit absurd somehow. For me to have participated throughout all the Gong story.
I gave a lot of myself to Shamal. If you think that Shamal was where the compositions were shared, but I did write a few and then I had this Bambooji, which was one of my first things on record with the bamboo flute, that I had been playing for years.. Because I started playing the bamboo in India and then I went to classical. When I came back from India I had the chance - some people do learn the Indian flute with an Indian master - I had a friend who did that and became a very good Indian flautist, but I came back to France and said "I may as well learn flute with some classical training" so I did a bit of this, and then I went to a cave for some months just before Gong (in the sixties) after May 68. Robert Graves, the poet, had lent me a cave, a shepherd's cave in Mallorca, in Deya, and I practised the flute there a lot, without much mastery - I was my own master, my own teacher, I wanted to start these instruments from scratch. I was doing a lot of flute rather than saxophone - I came back to saxophone after. Although saxophone was my first instrument. But the flute, especially the bamboo flute kept me away from the saxophone for a while and then eventually I did play it again with Bambooji which was on 'Shamal' in the Seventies - it was really world music.
My idea with Bambooji was to retrace the trajectory, the crossing of the sun, so it begins very Japanese, Chinese, and then it became more Indian, then it became more Eastern European, a little Bulgarian, and eventually a bit of Celtic stuff in Britain, and then it crossed the oceans towards the South American flute. And it's always the same flute, the bamboo flute, around the world, six holes, a bamboo, a mouthpiece sideways, or maybe a mouthpiece longways, it's always the same kind of flute. And so this is a composition, Bambooji where I wanted it to be a very world music idea, which happened in '77, I think, and some people were not so happy with this, they give me some funny names because jazz-rock was more the thing for them. But for myself I wanted to do this.
And since a few years my last 3 records I have played mostly bamboo flute, classic flute and harmonic flute with an album called Zeff, and then soprano saxophone, and then I discovered the doudouk. And when I discovered the doudouk it changed a lot of things for me, because I still play saxophone but the doudouk is the instrument where I really keep most of my heart.
Simon Kerry: The doudouk, from a layperson's point of view is a very melodic, almost human.
DM: It's true - it's very very nice. I practise it my own way. I didn't know much about doudouk, you know, and then suddenly ...I had heard the name and maybe one tune in an anthology, and then a guy came in to my house, a rep, wearing a white shirt and a tie - he was a rep from cable television and he sold me the cable television, he sold me everything, but I was so happy to meet him because he was Armenian. He saw my instruments and he said, Oh, you're a musician, I also play music in an Armenian group'. I said, 'you know a doudouk player?', he said yes, so I gave him a call and I got the doudouk.
I never took lessons, because, first of all it is not easy to find a teacher but also because I wanted to practise the doudouk in my own way, in my own personal way instead of copying. And it's what I do also with the bansuri, the Indian flute, I've always been in touch with Indian music and I know some ragas, but I never became very learned or properly taught by guru of the bamboo flute. I like to do this, I like my own style. I don't think it's better, because some people can get into Indian music and - I know some people, at least two or three who even in India are considered excellent players of ragas. That's one thing, my thing is to create my own study...
PH: In terms of your recent solo stuff, there has a real difference between Zeff, and Fluvius which is very jazzy and Hadouk which is heavily based around the doudouk and featuring Loy Erlich.
DM: He is quite a good partner for me with the Hadouk band and also my previous albums Fluvius and Zeff. But I am quite surprised to hear you say Fluvius in terms of jazz - it's not really jazz. We can play jazz festivals all right because anything I do has a tincture of jazz because that's where I started music. Some people started in rock, other people in folk, classical - I started with jazz. So it has a real tincture of jazz but I'm not playing jazz really, more playing like a synthesis of different elements, picking up on especially those so-called 'ethnic' instruments. They are very sensitive and they can be used in some very odd ways - some bamboo players can play some Bach and quite often it is very special - it is very special when you hear the Suite in C in B minor, on the bamboo flute - it is quite eccentric! It is quite fresh and you can adapt some of those phrases in your solos and pick up on a vibe that comes from Africa or India or wherever ... the nice thing is to open to the range of the ideas that float invisibly. And wind instruments allow you to play some sort of music and it's more than a kind of fusion - the idea with fusion - fusion was made rather jazz-rock stuff - world music has different conceptions - world music can be somehow be from all round the world.
PH: It's a very easy way of describing...
DM: Yeah, it's strange that people do that - it is music of the world. But another thing is the meeting of the world at the end of this century we are thinking of getting world citizenship and of course it is a shuffle of ideas including instant ideas, not frozen ideas, instant ideas that are actually wandering about and jazz musicians that are improvising or composing or both can actually ride on this kind of cloud and give a funny fusion of the presence of musical ideas. With Pierre Bensusan we have a different kind of fusion. His own stuff is quite interesting too because it is a melting of Mediterranean. He is Moroccan. At the same time he has been so much into Irish music....
Also our characters are psychologically so different: as you can see he is dressed in black, I am dressed in white and black but very eccentric in line, and he is very meticulous and very organised whereas I am rather disorganised, or organised in the wind, so I think.
PH: You go back quite a long way. Would it be shortly after Bloom that you first worked with him?
DM: The first time ... after Bloom. In Bloom we had a guitar player called Jan Emeric, Hungarian in origin, and now his name is Jan Wag, a Hungarian name, because his name was Jan Emeric, a made-up name, but he came back with his real name, so he has just put an album out in France. He is a very interesting guitar player, very young at the time, and he introduced me to Pierre, and both of them are guitarists for guitarists, both of them are incredible players who have spent so many hours playing on the acoustic guitar, picking not in a folk way but picking in a discovering way. It's really making a whole band out of a guitar. Just after Bloom I had a duet with Jan Emeric, the duo was called 'Duo du bas' - it's a joke, a French joke because duo means high and bas means low. It lasted about one year and then he came to a time when he wanted to study music and compostions, so we dropped, and then I had another duet with Jean-Philippe Rykiel on synth. In fact you can have a lot of compositions in a duet, and a lot of fun, which is why it is good with Pierre.
My other band is in fact Hadouk, which is a trio. The third person is Steve Shehan, he is an amazing person, half American, half Swedish, half French - that makes three halves, which is just as well for him because he is superman! He is very good, he has several records on his own. So the Hadouk trio will play at the Glastonbury festival on 27th June at 8 o'clock.
PH: What are the plans for Gong next year?
DM: Well, I don't know - ask Daevid Allen! There is a lot of demand from the audience and always there will be a continuation of Gong...
PH: Haven't you just recorded something with Daevid, a jazz...
DM: True! As a matter of fact, when we did this tour last year in America, we recorded with Ndugu Chancler who was the drummer with Miles Davis and an extraordinary Russian pianist, I've forgotten his name (Eugene Maslov) - they played this year on some jazz standards... And Daevid is singing the thing. It's nice...
PH: (to Pierre Bensusan)... Are you familiar with WOMAD? You should play there...
PB: You know what? They wanted me once to play there - they were going to pay me £100, and I said no way. Maybe I should have done... But maybe with Didier, yeah. But they would rather hire African musicians.
PH: It seems to me that the term world music seems to be very ... it encompasses everything, yet their vision of world music at WOMAD seems to be very African.
PB: It's the vision of world music in England, I think. World music is more like taking any world music, any ethnic element, ethnic vocabularly, mixing it with a creative process, melody or whatever it is, whatever instrumentation is belonging to your culture. But it can be very dangerous, but it can be very nice too. People like Paco de Lucia play that very aggressive flamenco. It's good. They take the essence of something that is so strong, and so identifiable and so true to the roots and they make it so progressive and still it has its roots... That's the idea of being native of one place...
PH: How do you find English people's reaction to what you do?
PB: I think they are open, I'm amazed
PH: (apart from that arsehole in the audience)
PB: We have problems.... People are very warm, people are very welcoming of me when I'm alone, and us when we're together, they take what they are given... We played much shorter tonight than last time. We played 3 hours last time. But we don't want to alienate people from what are doing... the comfort zone... Some people left, do you know why?
PH: There was a very mixed audience
PB: Yeah, there were some Gong fans, some progressive with fine tuned musical ears, and some guitar fans, a good mix....