On a cold, dark January evening, in the southern French Alps, two intrepid music lovers set off from Briançon to Le Monêtier-les-Bains in search of some new sounds. The KevinAyers.org team had received a tip off that the Hadouk Quartet, featuring Didier Malherbe, would be playing at the Altitude Jazz Festival. The venue was the Salle du Dôme at the foot of the ski slopes. Wouldn’t it be great to go along to hear the band, take some photos and try to grab a moment with Didier to talk about his work with Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen and Gong?
As the support act finished we skilfully placed ourselves right in front of the stage, drinks in hand, poised for the musical treat ahead. And what a captivating delight the next ninety minutes was!
The Hadouk Quartet brings together the considerable talents of Loy Ehrlich (gumbass, hajouj, yayli tanbur), Eric Löhrer (guitars) Jean-Luc di Fraya (percussion and amazing vocals) with Didier himself “the master of the breath”. Musicianship of the highest quality, exotic customized instruments from around the world and several lifetimes of experience transported us to other worlds, different dimensions, better places. Didier played the soprano sax, the classical flute and the doudouk with precision and flair. Tunes such as ‘Chappak’ and ‘Bora Bollo’ filled the air, serious concentration alternated with smiles on stage. The audience were captivated; the applause was spontaneous and heartfelt.
I took several photos, no flash of course, to capture the players in mid-song. Like scenes from a Caravaggio painting, the play of light on the musicians’ faces… I didn’t mind the blurred hands, the feeling of movement. I got “the” photo I wanted of Didier, nice and clear, playing the soprano sax. Portrait photos of the other band members too, and a few general ones of the group. Enough now, concentrate on enjoying the music…
When the set was over we didn’t think we had much chance of meeting the musicians. The venue was busy and the evening was carefully supervised to comply with current regulations about public gatherings in France. The music continued with a crazy local ragtime band and some fire-eating. We had a beer and went to look at the merchandise, pondering whether to spend our pocket money on the “Hadoukly Yours” CD. It would be nice to get it signed we thought…
Suddenly I was aware of a tall gentleman in a dark overcoat with a shock of dandelion clock hair and gold-rimmed spectacles standing in front of me. Loy Ehrlich. For those familiar with the Children’s TV classic Mr Benn, it seemed “as if by magic the shopkeeper appeared!” Loy smiled encouragingly and I thanked him (in my best French) for bringing Hadouk Quartet’s beautiful music to our remote valley. I nudged Rick who was deep in conversation with the alcohol and drugs prevention representative. Yes really. I had to mention Kevin Ayers and Gong to Loy at this point, plus our previous adventures in Deià. Loy’s eyes lit up and he gave us this memory of a Kevin Ayers gig from 1973…
Loy referred to it as his “first concert” – I should have asked him to clarify whether he meant as a musician or as a spectator or whether it was his first Kevin concert. Anyway it was at Birmingham University in England. Loy was there with Didier. Kevin’s band consisted of Glaswegian rock’n’roll legend Archie Leggett on bass, Phil Miller on guitar? (Loy had to delve into his memory to find the name). We didn’t establish who was drumming, it could have been Mick Fincher perhaps. During the concert Kevin looked down from the stage and in a spontaneous gesture invited Loy to play bongos on one of the songs. I got the impression that was a magical moment in Loy’s life.
“But you will want to meet Didier” said Loy “He has many more stories. Stay just here and I will go and find him…”
“Oh yes please, we’d love to, if he has a moment” we chorused.
Five minutes later Didier himself appeared. Strangely enough nobody paid much attention as he wandered over to talk to us! We thanked him for the beautiful concert and he proceeded to give us his souvenirs of Kevin… and to take us on a journey through time and space. We spoke in English, at Didier’s request, because he welcomed the opportunity to do so.
Fasten your seatbelts folks it’s about to get interesting…
First of all we touched down on the Balearic island of Formentera in the summer of 1966. Didier’s first meeting with Kevin who he described as “a beautiful man, so blonde, so cultured”. Kevin was there with Jane Aspinall, a society figure of the time. Her “soon to be ex-husband”, John Aspinall, was a gambler and casino owner. As Didier talked I could imagine the white sand, the deep blue sea and the warm air on my back.
“But I don’t know why Kevin drank so much” said Didier suddenly, and it wasn’t a criticism of any sort it was just somebody trying to understand. “I think a lot of people have asked that question” I said. “You hear that it’s because he was shy but I don’t know whether that is the reason” added Didier. I said that yes, the shyness was something that a couple of Kevin’s friends had mentioned when I was researching his life.
“But still…” said Didier and then suddenly we landed in England in 1973 at the Birmingham University gig that Loy had already spoken about. I could almost see Kevin and Archie Leggett, a big man solid as a rock, through the smoke and the crowd. Archie had played bass with all the “greats” and was one of Kevin’s collaborators on the Bananamour album. I told Didier that a good friend of ours used to drum with Archie Leggett, back in the 70s. “They had a great big bottle up on stage” marvelled Didier. Remembering our manners in the present we asked Didier if he would like a drink. “I’m fine” he said. “I just had a beer. That’s enough for me”. Touché!
Perhaps thoughts of Bananamour had brought back memories of the Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico, whom it’s generally acknowledged is the subject of Kevin’s track ‘Decadence’. So our magic carpet touched down briefly in Belgium at a festival which featured Kevin and Gong. Nico was there and it seemed that she and Kevin were together… the exact date of this is obscure.
“I have another souvenir of Kevin for you” said Didier, “This is a really good one, Gong and Soft Machine in a big church in Lille…”
Would that be the cathedral we wondered? We assumed yes. ”Go on…” we said, encouragingly. Didier continued:
“Well I think the priest in charge thought it was a good idea to reach out [to the young people] but it got a bit out of hand. Gong played first and the way that the equipment was set up it was quiet but when Soft Machine came on the stage it was very loud… and Kevin, well the dressing room was in the sachristy and he found the bread, you know that they use for the Holy Communion, it has a special name…
“Wafers?” I suggested.
“Yes, wafers” agreed Didier. “Just before we went on stage Kevin said to me, ‘Tip your head back, open your mouth and close your eyes’ and I thought he was going to give me some kind of trip, but no, it was a holy wafer…!”
“I bet he’d already found all the communion wine!” I added, irreverently.
“And there were people smoking with chillums, getting stoned and some people were making love against the pillars. It was crazy… I think it was the last time they tried an event like that in the church” said Didier.
Returning to 2016 we took a brief pause while Didier spoke to a couple who had bought the ‘Hadoukly Yours‘ CD. Then we continued our time travels with a glimpse of life in Paris in November 1967. Didier talked about the psychedelic awakening at the ‘Fenêtre Rose’ event held at the Palais des Sports. (Jean-Jacques Lebel was one of the instigators of this event). Didier referred to it as the ‘Pink Window’. This was the Soft Machine concert which changed his life.
At the time Didier was a student of Literature, he already played jazz saxophone and had also been studying the classical flute. He didn’t imagine that it was his calling to be a classical musician or a jazz musician. When he heard the experimental rock music that Soft Machine played that day and witnessed the exotic charm of Kevin Ayers on stage Didier had a moment of revelation:
“Kevin was very impressive, he had a lot to do in the band, playing bass and taking lead vocals on many of the songs. Robert (Wyatt) and Mike (Ratledge) too… it was all very good”.
We talked about the heady mix of unusual time signatures used by Soft Machine. The numbers 7 and 5 were mentioned here. Didier’s epiphany was confirmed further the next day when he met Daevid Allen in person on “the Paris campsite”, near the river Seine. Didier also mentioned David Graham as a huge inspiration at this point in his life. “Do you know… blues, in Tangiers?” he asked. We couldn’t get this reference straightaway but when I got home and Googled “David Graham” I realised he was talking about the influential folk/blues musician of the 1960s, Davey Graham. Didier travelled in India and north Africa during the early 1960s, experiencing the diverse music and cultures of these continents. I believe he met Davey Graham in a commune in Tangiers.
“Coincidence happens quite often in the world of Kevin Ayers” continued Didier and we agreed. We told him about our chance meeting with Kevin’s dear friend Nigel in the village of Montaulieu back in April 2014. “Montaulieu was our summer residence”, confirmed Didier, “because Bob (Benamou) our manager had a house there”. I had a sudden flashback to the lush green mountainsides of the Rhône valley and mischievous Nigel with his bucket of whitewash.
Then we were off again on the magic carpet to Deià, Mallorca in the summer of 1968. “That was the best summer of my life“, said Didier. Rick and I smiled and said strangely enough we probably spent the best weekend of our life there, at the celebration of Kevin’s life in 2013.
“I was hosted by the family of Robert Graves, the writer” explained Didier. “There were parties every night”, he added wistfully.
I mentioned that we had met Robert’s youngest son, Tomàs, at Kevin’s celebration. (Tomàs Graves writes about Didier in his book ‘Tuning up at Dawn’. Didier’s lodgings were a former sheep hut and he could often be found sitting in a tree, perfecting his flute technique). All the “characters” were in Deià that summer: Kevin, Daevid Allen, Gilli Smyth, the talented painter Mati Klarwein… Kevin was moving towards a solo career while Daevid’s visions for a series of albums took shape amongst the mountains and palm trees. Memories of rocks and clear waters at the Cala de Deià filled my head briefly. The sun felt warm on our shoulders…
On our way back to the present day we touched down briefly in 1971 at Abbey Road in London. “The home of The Beatles” was how Didier referred to the world famous recording studio and I could feel his sense of awe. He was there with Kevin to record tracks for the ‘Whatevershebringswesing’ album. I mentioned the beautiful final track ’Lullaby’ which features Didier playing two different flute parts over the sound of trickling water and a beautiful piano accompaniment. Didier told us:
“They have an underground room there that is like a ‘cave’, (French speakers use this word for cellar) we were down in the cave making the music”. It seems that this provided a natural reverb for the track. How very dark and mysterious I thought. I should have asked Didier about the opening track ‘There Is Loving Amongst Us’ orchestrated by David Bedford, to which Didier contributed the saxophone part, but time was moving swiftly on…
Rick was now trying to remember events where he might have seen Gong and Didier. They started talking about the Gong 25th Anniversary festivities in London (October 8th and 9th, 1994) and finally decided, correctly, that The Forum, in Kentish Town was the venue. There’s footage of Kevin Ayers, with very tousled hair, performing ‘The Lady Rachel’ with Daevid Allen and Marvin Siau in front of a psychedelic light show. Rick’s memories of the night were slightly hazy for some reason. I’m sure that Didier’s are crystal clear. Anyway, that’s where we left Kevin, strumming a guitar and entertaining his fans.
We dragged ourselves back to 2016 and the foyer of the Salle du Dôme. I later estimated that almost an hour had flown by while we were chatting. Didier kindly agreed to pose for some photos and wrote a lovely dedication inside the front cover of our ‘Hadoukly Yours‘ CD. Part of it says:
“In joyful memory of Kevin Ayers”
We’ll drink to that!!
We are very grateful to Didier for spending so much time with us and to Loy for the introduction. Thank you both very much! This was a completely informal, unprepared conversation and we hope that people enjoy it as such. Didier and Loy talked about Kevin with considerable warmth and admiration. I have tried to write it down as accurately as possible, while adding a few background details from other sources. I think we could have gone on chatting all night. I would have liked to ask Didier some more technical questions about his instruments and I didn’t even mention my descant recorder/clarinet playing teenage years! It was a magical evening for us and a memory to treasure. My impression of Didier was of somebody living perfectly in the moment, very much at one with himself and the universe.
By the way, Didier hasn’t published his memoirs yet but he has written a beautiful book of sonnets “L’Anche des Métamorphoses” that he would love us to read.
‘Lullaby’, from ‘Whatevershebringswesing’ featuring Didier Malherbe:
Gong 25th Anniversary Festival at The Forum, London. 1994:
Official footage of the Hadouk Quartet, 30th January 2016, with Didier playing doudouk. The piece is called ‘Chappak’:
The photos of ourselves with Didier were taken by the lady selling the CDs. I forgot to ask her name. Un grand merci de notre part! Also, a great big Thank You Very Much to Steve “St Tropez” Foster for giving us the “heads up” about Hadouk Quartet and the gig.
We always welcome any comments, corrections or further information to make our posts as interesting as possible!