Ricardo Villalobos @ Katapult Party (04/04/14) / end of passage: Zambla – “Derrière les rochers” and Mari Kvien Brunvoll – “Everywhere You Go” (Villalobos Celestial Voice Resurrection Mix)
The name was Zambla. The Google results might not be so glorious: a Facebook page with a couple of likes, the mysterious description "Under the mantle featuring Zambla" on the cover of a record, and a music video directed by "Zambla himself" with barely a thousand views. The track is called "Derrière les rochers" (behind the rocks). Questions come up immediately: Who produced it? Who is under the coat? Who is really Zambla? And why the hell does nobody speak about this tremendous treasure? During the following months, I let these questions sink in, at the same time systematically mixing the track in every DJ set I played. Sometimes thirty-year-olds would burst out laughing listening again and again to what for them was "some oldschool shit, some kind of gay 90s sound." I constantly replied that I found it in a Villalobos set that I had heard when, one day, someone snapped back that indeed it was a classic by the Chilean. The next day, I decided to track down Zambla.
Let's restart in September 2015 when a message from Zambla was reached me via Facebook. Patrick Droit, the boss of Fakir Music and Zambla's mananger, invites me to call him, surprised about this new interest in the artist who was also a long-time friend of his. And he tells me everything.
“15 days later, it was all over the place”
His story begins in 1999. Homework by Daft Punk, released two years earlier, is the most emblematic work of the French Touch wave, over the world, finally pinning France's name on the map of world music. Patrick, who had his own studio, just went bankrupt. One day, his friends who stayed inside gave him a CD and said, "Look, here's what we did." These guys are the collective Sous le manteau (that is beneath the cloak). "Two weeks later, it was all over the place", Patrick lets me know.
The crew was producing tracks for several artists. The core of Sous le manteau even became, in 2001, the group Grand Tourism to whom we owe the title "Les Courants d’air" which served for five years in the TV commercials of the French opticians Krys.
"We don't come from Versailles, but we took part in the same musical movement, the French Touch", explains Patrick. Late that evening, a certain Christophe Galud, photographer and video director, came to the studio to talk about the demos of the collective: "He flowed. A bit like a rapper would, but not at all in time. He did not write any word, he spat everything just like that. Well, his words are not that sharp these days, but he is quite a bon vivant, this boy. But it was all improvised. This is a guy who has a sense of humor, he has bite, a special way to express himself, and I don't mean his accent which is more reflecting him as a person, it makes him actually laugh." The crew hooks up, Zambla was born. Once the voice was recorded, Sous le manteau sticks to the words of Christophe as well as the tempo and gives birth to a title, which is only one version of almost eight minutes long "Derrière les rochers".
An unlikely success story
The summer of 1999 arrives, and the contract for the single is signed at Gambler, a division of Sony. At that time the Internet is still in its early stages and the promo single is "homemade". The first copies are not CDs, but vinyl records (at the time a dying format) sent out to every beach club DJ in the whole of France: "From Calais to Biarritz, Perpignan and Nice. At the Papagayo in Saint-Tropez, it was a massive success, they were playing it for years, perhaps they're still playing it", the manager laughs. You can tell the success by the look on his face, but many would stress it on a greater than national level. The sadly departed Leon Mercadet, former editor in chief of Novaplanet.com, the Radio Nova website, displayed the song in full length on the homepage for at least two months, to the great surprise of Patrick: "After Nova, NRJ and Fun followed the example. Incredible, because this version, as vulgar as it is, was almost eight minutes long, so played in full length! But it still worked and we finally ended up in the prime time."
It was a surprise for the whole collective. Zambla seemed to become THE summer hit of '99 – but still didn't have a music video. For the production, his friends and him went to Fontainebleau to find some sand, sun and rocks - because they couldn't afford to return to the beach: "We didn't have a penny, it was extremely tough. Even worse, as we showed up there, it began to rain. Throughout the filming, which took one day, we had lousy weather." The video then lands on TV channel M6 as the single simultaneously reaches gold status in Belgium and was heard everywhere around Lille and on the French Riviera. Zambla was even invited to perform live for the tour of NRJ.
In autumn, the track is found on dozens of compilations, on some major labels as well as on some specialized ones, and the single was sold more than 500,000 times to nearly all kinds of media. With the money earned, Patrick founded his own business, Fakir Music, to handle the consequences resulting from the success: "We still weren't rich. In the end we reached 25% of takings from the track, the rest went to Gambler, but we had a really good year."
"A project, nipped in the bud."
Sony's subdivision closed down one or two years later. During that time, the group Sous le manteau and Zambla were working on new songs with the spirit of making an album, "It took time, because the guy was still a little unmanageable, but we progressed". Finally, in 2003, the album - which has no title - was released by Fakir Music, distributed by Night & Day, one of the largest distributors of French music back then. The single "J’suis pas rassuré" (I'm scared) was set to motion by one of the greatest filmmakers of that time, Didier Kerbrat (David Hallyday, Robyn, Yannick Noah…).
The promo was meant to appear professional, but the necessary financial and human investment were therefore anything but fair: "We organised nights all over Paris, we spread ourselves in all directions. We were on the radio again, Fun, NRJ, Nova, FNAC had put a sticker "Green Award" on the records on the end display. Then a few months later, the distributor had closed down. We did not know it at the time, but they were on the edge of bankruptcy and did not really invest in the release." The album did not meet with expected success. "One day, I received a letter telling me that if I wanted to reclaim the CD stock, I could go to the warehouse. I took about 3000 copies", said Patrick with a hint of bitterness.
Shooting the video for "J'suis pas rassuré", in 2003
Fakir Music went from door to door of all distributors, but they refused to take over their baby, not tempted by the idea of revitalising a half-failed project : "We found no one, so the cause was laid to rest." Months later, Zambla went back to his job as a photographer and bought a mountain refuge in ruins in order to rebuild it (which he is still doing) on the Canary Islands. Game over.
Internet, the chance 2.0
On the phone with the manager, while heavy rain drums down on this bleak day in September 2015, I can not help but myself to think that the music industry is full of stories like this, of careers breaking down or taking an expected, undeserved tumble. I also thought to myself that all this would make a pretty good movie in the style of Eden, Searching for Sugar Man or, more recently, Belgica. I was about to hang up when Patrick asked me if my call had anything to do with "the buzz that is going on right now around Zambla". Strange, the last time I had a look, nothing had topped the thousand views. And he talks about a buzz. He went on to talk about a certain guy called Benzaie. The name didn't mean anything to me, but then it was all beginning again: "Recently, I had a look on Zambla's Facebook to see what was going on. Just for fun, I posted something on Zambla's page. There, I saw that the post reached actually 4000 people. I am used to 30 or 40 people being reached, but not to an effect like that. I saw increasing likes, comments, too. I wondered where this could come from. I started to snoop around a bit and I found a guy named Benzaie on YouTube."
450,000 subscribers, 80 million views on the whole of his channel: Benzaie is a guy who films himself playing video games. His community is so strong that it's able to take a video from 1000 to over 450,000 hits. The video I'm talking about is the clip for "J'suis pas rassuré" and the explanation is given by Benzaie in person: "It began as a private joke I had with a friend in a video of my series HARD CORNER" tells me the gamer based in Finland by mail. In the comment section of the video, many have already recognized the link to Zambla.
Later Benzaie used his sound even in the background (in the 26th minute in this video), then outright garnished the character of the video game he's playing with an image of Zambla (followed by numerous votes of the online community around the 20th minute of this video). He specifies: "This song quickly became an anthem for my community, the silver-tongued Zambla even made my cat go crazy and they were calling for his music every time a character was 'not reassured.'" Benzaie has his own ideas on the success of the song: "Zambla, that's just not the kind of outdated stuff you find on Bide or Musique.com. This is a real and perfectly crafted style that gives you a special feeling and its effects are the stuff of cult already. The music is truly floating and foreshadowed many things we hear on air nowadays. This was a kind of music produced for the Internet generation before its time. That certainly would explain why there are thousands of people which are listening to Zambla at 3 in the morning playing some violent game!"
When Patrick found out about all that, he directly picked up the phone: "When I contacted him to say thank you, he was at first actually afraid that I would yell at him for the copyright! (Laughter.) Since then, plenty of young followers asked for a vinyl album, but no one had ever produced it." Good news, because at the time of writing, a crowdfunding campaign through Ulule had been created to call for financial contribution by the online community to get the pressing of the vinyl album payed. In just two days, more than 50% of the target had been achieved and at the time this article will be published on Trax, you may even be able to order it.
But some questions remain: What will Zambla do? Will he return to the Canary Islands? Will he enjoy this revival to announce his comeback after thirteen years of silence? Or go back on tour? Will he shoot a music video? Or even better, produce another album? Unfortunately, the day after our phone call, the manager crushed all hopes: "Within the team, we have no news of Zambla at all. He is aware of what's going on, but he is not available. I would say that those early 2000s were a moment of grace. A kind of unlikely relationship (and no easy one) between a common spirit, a strange and eloquent talent and musicians who lust for new sounds. Alchemy seems to have run its course. He was a phenomenon but he never then became an artist or truly took up the role of author. But the character, himself, remains. And he is quite alive and pretty respected in the new generation that is rediscovering him. Today he has moved on and is living in a life in seclusion. In summary, we will not get him back this time." But is that not exactly how legends are made?