Guadaloupean producer Henri Debs's influence on music from the Lesser Antilles spans four decades. A compilation made by Hugo Mendez and Emile Omar, divided into three volumes, the first of which (1960-1972) has just been released goes over this musical history which also features also Casimir Létang, Guy Conquette and Ry-Co Jazz.
What would music of the Lesser Antilles have been without Henri Debs? Perhaps precisely what we know of it, that is, beguine and zouk. Debs himself, however, had quite a clear idea of the question, and he would label the albums he produced in the 1970s with the following: “Debs Albums, saviour of West Indian music – If we defend it nowadays, it’s because Debs saved it once”. The compilation helps to distinguish between advertising slogan and reality. Debs Albums – An Island Story: Beguine, Afro Latin and Lesser Antillean Music 1960-1972 is the first of three volumes that will recount this saga, up until the mid 1980s. We owe this work to Hugo Mendez (Sofrito) and Emile Omar (Tropical Discoteq) who opened their ears and plunged into the boxes of 45s – the tapes have been destroyed – in which the names of Raymond Cicault and his “Orchestre Volcan”, Sydney Lérémon and his Friends from Calvaire Baie-Mahault, or even Dolor and the Diables du Rythme can be found.
The story begins in 1932, the year of Henri Debs ‘s birth in Pointe-à-Pitre, in a family of Lebanese origins. He grew up surrounded with five brothers and three sisters, developed a passion for cycling, to the point that he got his first job because he took part in the Tour de Guadeloupe. Both a street vendor walking the city’s sidewalk, and a self-taught musician (flute, saxophone, guitar), he joined, aged 20, the El Calderon Jazz, the island’s best orchestra. When he got hired as a clothing store manager, the music he played in the store was so loved by the clients that he decided to sell them albums! And this led him to set up a recording studio in the backroom of the shop, where the adventure of the Debs Albums would begin in 1959. Biguines, boleros, tangos, cha-chas, reggae or zouk, the catalogue comprises more than 300 singles and 200 albums spanning half a century.
“Henri Debs was pragmatic. Before he got into any kind of artistic consideration, he wanted things to work”, Emile Omar would deem, and this while recognizing the genius of a producer who, after having started out with what was only rudimentary equipment, had a studio at the cutting edge of technology set up in the 1970s. “Thanks to him, records of Lesser Antillean music have as good a sound to them as productions made in New York in the same period. Everyday he was in the studio, from 3 in the afternoon ‘til 1 in the morning, he knew how to spot a good song and would release up to two albums a month in 1976. It’s not for no reason that he lasted 40 years, when other labels would fall flat on their faces”. The compilation covers a decade characterized by eclecticism, a decade during which one gets to hear important players such as Vélo and Guy Conquette, the standard “Si I Bon Di I Bon” by Ry-Co Jazz, or Haitian or Trinidadian artists stopping by the island, and even two tracks by Debs himself – who, even though he launched Zouk Machine and Tanya Saint-Val, himself missed the shift to zouk at the turn of the 80s, when his brother George produced the first Kassav’. Influential both in the Antilles and in mainland France (he was the owner of a record shop in Paris), in turn idolized and criticised, Henri Debs was unanimously paid tribute to when he passed in 2013. The next two volumes of Debs Albums International – An Island Story (to be released in 2019) promise to be an homage to the whole of his oeuvre.
Debs Albums International – An island Story: Biguine, Afro Latin and West Indian Music 1960-1972 (Strut Records/Differ-Ant)