As part of my research for the forthcoming Hugh Hopper biography it was a great privilege to speak again to Didier Malherbe. If it was Gong which introduced me to Didier’s charms initially back in the late Eighties, this was very soon matched by exposure to his brilliant debut solo album ‘Bloom’ and as his solo career has blossomed, at one point in parallel to his gigging with Gong in the Nineties, but later primarily through his outstanding Hadouk project, I have made it my mission to collect every album, every collaboration, every connection of his. A bit like that of the man whose connection I was talking to him about.
I interviewed Didier back in 1998 when he was touring with Pierre Bensusan. I also helped to bring the Hadouk trio over to Hebden Bridge in 2011 and Didier solved a puzzle for me during our chat by revealing that the astonishing tabla player who accompanied him and Loy Ehrlich on that UK tour was in fact Prabhu Edouard. “Steve couldn’t do the tour so we played with him – he’s very good”. More recently I also wrote a feature about my quest to find his elusive album with Khampha Inthisane.
Although Didier and Hugh’s paths certainly crossed in the Seventies (“Soft Machine played as part of the Fete D’Humanite (Paris, 1971) – we were introduced after the concerts and we shook hands. They had piles of Marshall amps and were playing very loud”) and again during the autumn of 1974 when Gong’s ‘You’ tour was supported by Isotope, the first time they appeared together on record, as a result of the flurry of activity described in my interview with Harry Williamson, their paths didn’t directly cross “I came to Devon but not at the time Hugh was there, as far as I remember”. A number of projects which came out of the melting pot of Oxes Cross in 1981, one of which was the album ‘Melodic Destiny’, whose release has only ever happened on the GAS/Ottersongs tape label. “We recorded with Yan Emeric, his real name is Yan Vagh, I still see him from time to time. We had a duo together so when we were there, Harry had this idea of printing some cassettes of Melodic Destiny.” This gentle but intricate folky project was somewhat pared down from the funky jazz fusion of ‘Bloom’ and I wondered why it had never been released, since, after all, many albums of worse quality, both musically and sonically, have been plundered from the vaults over the years. “Well, I don’t know either! I think we didn’t stay very long together as a duet. That might be the reason. I don’t know if the format was commercial enough, the sound is OK.”
I asked if there had ever been any possibility to release the album on the coat tails of the brilliant ‘Bloom’ album.
“For Bloom, my first record I had the group, I gathered some people, Yan Vagh the guitar player (and Jano Padovani, Winston Berkeley, Mico Nissim) and then we went to a beautiful studio down south with Jacques Loussier and we did the record. Then the guy who was supposed to produce and pay for the studio went bankrupt. Karakos – you know the story, a long story. And so he got bankrupt, so I had to wait a year before I could find proper distribution. It was difficult to find distribution.
“I finally found Sonopresse which was (part of the) Pathe Marconi division but they didn’t do anything. They did the cover, they used a very famous photographer to do the sleeve and then they kind of imposed this photograph idea, I didn’t especially like it, I kind of like the other side, with the spring shoes, but not the one on the front….” When the album was issued on CD by Voiceprint in the early 2000s, it appeared with a new cover from Christine Malherbe.
“We were supposed to do another EP but they were bought out by an English company, so they didn’t have enough money, so they preferred me to do a single. So I did a funny single (‘Danskorla’), which is kind of a song which is interesting, but the B side is fantastic. ‘The Bong’ Is much better with great musicians, African musicians. Really very good. And I still like it, although the first side is fun.”
And so the first genuine collaboration with Hugh was firstly Pip Pyle’s Equipe Out, then with Short Wave, which originally started as Hugh Hopper’s ‘Special Friends’ project. More of that in the biography, but we also had chance to talk about a range of other things.
I asked Didier about whether he had been experimenting with the doudouk as far back as Short Wave. “No, I was playing the tenor saxophone. And flute, which were the instruments I was playing with Gong. And soprano. (Earlier) I played Yamaha wind synthesizer. I played this instrument thoroughly for maybe 3 years and then I was really fed up with electronics and I came across the Zeff, which is just a harmonic flute, very simple, and as a matter of fact the Zeff, I worked a lot with it, it was very successful, I played it on TV, day to day music and also for Vangelis, it was very acoustic so it turned me on to the acoustic thing more.
“I played that with Shapeshifter. And I played it in Japan with Brigitte Fontaine. We went to a tour in Japan. Although it was a Japanese instrument the way I was playing it they were quite impressed! Then I got fed up with with electronics and cables so I came across the doudouk! And I carried on with it.
“I changed a lot you know. I stopped playing lots of saxophones. I stopped playing with drummers. I was always very much into playing acoustic things – I had a big turning.
“That’s also why I didn’t stay very long in jazz rock outfits. With bass and drums, it doesn’t fit the doudouk much. So I had a big turning at that time. That’s why I didn’t really persist with Short Wave, which is a shame because they were really nice musicians. “
I mentioned that probably my favourite document of Didier performing live is an extraordinary video with a master of the doudouk, Djivan Gasparian alongside Patrice Meyer “we went to Russia. That’s my composition (‘Serpent D’Etoiles’), it’s on Fluvius. It’s a nice one.” So was this during the early stages of learning the doudouk? “yes, I wouldn’t have played the doudouk on TV!. And he played along and improvised a bit, which was amazing.” I put it to Didier that he seemed to have a habit of going back to the source of an instrument’s origins to learn it, and compared his love affair with the doudouk to that of the khaen, the extraordinary instrument from Laos.
“Yes, we went 4 times to Laos. I’ve played the khaen for a long time because when we moved in with Gong in the last house that Virgin had rented for us near Chessington Zoo, I remember there was an old khaen on the wall, abandoned, and I became interested in the khaen. And then the poor khaen, it fell into pieces!” But Didier discovered the instrument again later “I was invited by the Laos French cultural centre, so of course I went there and I met some very good khaen players and I played some nice instruments although it’s difficult to get them tuned in. But anyway I went with Hadouk the second time and I went with my wife the third time, so 3 times.
“I am interested in playing very aged instruments with a long tradition – I bring what I have in me to mix up with the technique of doudouk or khaen, which aren’t very easy. With doudouk there are not so many notes, it is always fingers. It is difficult to master to have a good sound, it takes a lot of breath and it is not very noisy. The khaen is even more difficult because it (has a) keyboard – it is all very illogical. But I play a lot of khaen at the moment. I have some really nice pieces, I’m not sure what to do with, maybe a record.
Which brings us to the present. Most of you reading this will know that Didier suffered an accident around 18 months ago which has limited his ability to play “Something made me faint and my jaw was broken in two places. It’s a handicap – all this time I couldn’t play flute, I had to play straight flute. Fortunately there are lots of instruments I can play like the Ukranian recorder or the Chinese hulusi. But I can’t play saxophone. I’ve managed to play some flute since one week. So I play lots of flute. We try to keep our personal motivations but there are no gigs! No gigs until next year.
Before Covid, Didier had played a little in the last year or so: he appeared at the Hugh Hopper tribute gig in Paris back in May 2019, and also popped up at the festival in October at Gasny, “I do a solo act where I recite some poetry and then I play instruments – I was invited to a place where MASHU were playing”. This completes another neat Hugh link as MASHU (Mark Hewins, Shyamal Maitra, Hugh Hopper – Jack Monck performed at the Gasny gig) were another band Didier guested with back in the Nineties. Let’s hope that Didier’s health continues to improve and that circumstances allow him to continue to perform in the near future. Merci Didier!
For all things Didier, visit http://www.didiermalherbe.com/indexe.html