The Serge Gainsbourg and Babatunde Olatunji Connection

Written By: 
Justin Lui
Tags: 
Share:
  •  

The journey of a beat from Nigeria to New York to Paris to ‘New York – U.S.A.’ 

Long before he established a reputation as a clever songwriter who sang winking innuendos with a uniquely French sense of cool, Serge Gainsbourg in the 1950’s was a pianist backing other singers in Parisian cabaret clubs. 

From there, he established himself as a moderately successful recording artist, writing and recording a style of French ’chanson’ to which he later added strains of American bebop and cool jazz. By 1964, Gainsbourg had carved out a workman-like recording and performing career of a professional musician who was active, but hadn’t yet achieved the commercial breakthrough he craved. 

His records and concerts were finding an audience, but a frustratingly small one. It wasn’t uncommon for Gainsbourg’s concert dates to get canceled due to poor ticket sales. Still, he was able to survive by writing music for friends in the French film and television industries, churning out musical backgrounds and support pieces for TV variety and sketch programs (little of which was recorded for posterity). 

As the electrifying sound of the Beatles and their British Invasion brethren dominated European airwaves and charts in 1963-64, Gainsbourg – who possessed neither the youthful charm nor the rock and roll energy of these bands – despaired to a friend, “I’m dead.” 

In an interview with Patrick Chompré and Jean-Luc Leray from 1989, Gainsbourg reflected: 

“Yeah, I was having a pretty rough time of it back then – I had this air of a down on his luck songwriter about me. All these young guys with their electric guitars appeared on the scene making life difficult for me. I wouldn’t say I was exactly out of the running, but they annoyed the hell out of me because all the young kids back then idolized them and that meant I was in trouble.” 

After the despair – and some strategic thinking – Gainsbourg responded to the challenge posed by rock and roll in a couple of ways. First, he paused his own career as a solo artist and chose instead to work the youth market from a behind-the-scenes position by writing songs for teenage female performers like France Gall, which in turn helped co-create the French ‘yé yé’ pop trend (itself named after the Beatles’ “yeah, yeah, yeah” refrain). 

Also, when he later resumed recording for himself, he did so in London using English session musicians – effectively incorporating the British beat into his Franco-musical mix. Examples of this include the song Initiales. B.B. and the Histoire de Melody Nelson album. 

From the same 1989 interview: 

“I wanted the British sound. I’d had enough of “Frenchies”. The British sound was a lot cooler, it had a different style. I don’t like stagnation. One of my main motivations throughout my career has been my desire to change styles.” 

But before making those two strategic moves, Gainsbourg tried to create a hit within – or in spite of – the rock and roll scene. 

For his 1964 album Gainsbourg Percussions, rather than integrate contemporary rock sounds (which of course were inherently derived in part from African-American musical forms), Gainsbourg dug deeper into to Africa, opting to employ musical influences directly from West Africa, Brazil, and Cuba. 

The song “Marabout,” for example, was built on a thumping polyrhythmic beat driven by an African drum section and accompanied by Gainsbourg’s voice and a chorus of female backing vocals – but no melodic or Western instruments. 

Gainsbourg’s experiments with West African, Afro-Cuban, and Brazilian music on Gainsbourg Percussions would help open the door for other ‘world music’ hybrids created by later generations of Western musicians.

In 1965, Gainsbourg appeared on the musical TV program Discorama to discuss and promote Gainsbourg Percussions. Host Denise Glaser asked him, “Why African rhythms?” Gainsbourg’s answer: 

“Because we are in the 20th century. After, or at least next to electric guitars, we have to impose ourselves with something violent.” 

{“Parce que, nous sommes au 20ieme siècle. Après, du moins à côté des guitares électriques, il faut s’impose par quelque chose de violent.”} 

In another interview, Gainsbourg compares the emphasis on musical rhythms to the abandoning of pictorial representation in abstract painting. 

“I remember doing the following reasoning: abstract art has made painting explode: with music, when we make forms burst, only the percussion remains, to the disadvantage of harmony.” 

{“Je me souviens d’voir fait le raisonnement suivant: l’art abstrait a fait éclater la peinture: quand en musique, on fait éclater les formes il ne reste que les percussions, au désavantage de l’harmonie.”} 

He argued that African rhythms could shake up western pop music in the same way that rock and roll had been energized by electric guitars, and how visual art had been shaken up by abstraction. Glaser and Gainsbourg also discuss this “imposition” of foreign rhythms on French pop music: 

Glaser: You have married two elements which appeared to be very different. This means an African or Afro-Cuban music or jazz music space, with texts of your own. I believe the rhythms are not new, but the marriage is new.”

{“Vous avez marier deux éléments qui apparaissaient comme très différents. Cette à dire un espace musique africaine ou afro-cubain ou musique de jazz, avec des textes à vous. Je crois que les rythmes ne sont pas nouveaux, mais c’est le mariage qui est nouveau.”}  

Gainsbourg: “Yes, certainly, the rhythms are not new, they come from Nigerian folklore. Yes, French adapted to that rhythm, maybe it’s new, it’s certainly new.“

{“Oui, certainement, les rythmes ne sont pas nouveaux, ils viennent du folklore nigérien. Oui, le français adapté as ce rythme-là, c’est peut-être nouveau, c’est certainement nouveau.”} 

This novel mix of musical elements gave record label Philips high sales hopes, and they granted Gainsbourg his highest recording budget to date. He released the album as part of their “Les grands auteurs & compositeurs interprètes” series (“Great Authors & Composer-Performers”). 

Still, upon initial release of Gainsbourg Percussions, sales totaled only 3,000 copies. 

Despite this disappointment, in the decades since, Gainsbourg’s experiments with West African, Afro-Cuban, and Brazilian music on Gainsbourg Percussions would help open the door for other ‘world music’ hybrids created by later generations of Western musicians – see Mick Fleetwood’s The Visitor (1981), Paul Simon’s Graceland (1986), and David Byrne’s Rei Momo (1989), to name a few. His experiments also pointed the way for some of Gainsbourg’s own work later on; the call-and-response vocals on the African numbers on Gainsbourg Percussions foreshadowed his liberal use of the technique during his revered late-60’s period on songs like Qui est ‘In,’ Qui est ‘Out’, and Docteur Jekyll est monsieur Hyde. 

The adoption of black African beats on Gainsbourg Percussions also served as a musical prototype for Gainsbourg’s immersion into reggae beginning in the late 1970’s, when he recorded his Aux Armes Et Cætera album in Jamaica with Sly and Robbie, Marcia Griffiths, Rita Marley, and other ace reggae musicians. 

But where did the African rhythms on Gainsbourg Percussions come from? 

The answer is found on the Drums of Passion album by West African drummer Babatunde Olatunji. Even a casual listen of both albums reveals that the African inflected songs on Gainsbourg Percussions were wholesale lifts and reuses of entire songs from Drums of Passion

For example, Gainsbourg’s song Marabout takes its instrumental arrangement, tempo, musical key, and lead and backing vocal melodies from Olatunji’s Jin-Go-Lo-Ba (Drums of Passion). Similarly, Gainsbourg’s Joanna is based on Olatunji’s Kiyakiya (Why Do You Run Away?), and New York – U.S.A. is a lyrical rewrite of Akiwowo (Chant to the Trainman). For good measure, “Pauvre Lola” features an acoustic guitar riff pinched from “Umqokozo” by Miriam Makeba. 

(Stay tuned for the second part of this extended deep dive)

Read the Next installment: Babatunde Olatunji and his influence on Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘New York – U.S.A.’


French translation assistance courtesy of Chantal Aquin.


In Sheep’s Clothing is powered by its patrons. Become a supporter today and get access to exclusive playlists, events, merch, and vinyl via our Patreon page. Thank you for your continued support. 

Related Articles

Sort By
12th Isle
2 Tone
2020
2022
2023
33rpm
45rpm
4AD
5 Selects
5 Seletcs
7"
99 Records
A&M
Abbey Lincoln
Aboriginal
Abstract
Ace Tone
Acid
Acid Archives
Acid Folk
Acid House
Acid Punk
Acid rock
Acoustic
Adrian Sherwood
Africa
African
Afro
Afro House
Afro-Cuban
Afrobeat
Alan Braufman
Alan Ginsberg
Alan Greenberg
Alan Thicke
Albert Ayler
Album Cover
Alex Patterson
Alice Coltrane
All Genre
Altec
Amaro Freitas
Amazon Music
Ambient
Ambient Jazz
ambient techno
American Primitive
Amoeba Music
Amplifier
Analog
Anatolian Rock
Andrew Weatherall
Andy Warhol
Anenon
Animal
Animation
Anna Butterss
Antonio Zepeda
AOR
Aphex Twin
Aquarium Drunkard
Archie Shepp
Archival
Armenia
Art
Art & Design
Art Dudley
Art Film
Art Pop
Art Rock
Artform Radio
Arthur Russell
Article
Arvo Part
Ash Ra Temple
Asian Underground
Audio Note
Audiogon
Audiophile
Audiovisual
Austin Peralta
Australia
Autechre
avant
Avant-Garde
Avant-pop
Avant-Rock
Avent-Garde
Balearic
Bali
Ballad
Bargain Bin
Bark Psychosis
Baroque
Baroque Pop
Basquiat
Bass
Bauhaus
Bayou Funk
BBC
BBC Radiophonic
Beat Scene
Beats
Beats in Space
Bebop
Belgium
Bennie Maupin
Berlin-school
Best of 2020
Beverly Glenn​-​Copeland
Bhutan Stamps
Big Band
Bill Laswell
Black Ark Studios
Black Jazz
Blaxsploitation
Blood & Fire
Blue Note
Blues
Blues Rock
Bob Marley
Bola Sete
Bollywood
Boogie
Book
books
Boom Bap
Boredoms
Bossa
Bossa Nova
Boymerang
Brainfeeder
Brazil
Brazilian Folk
Breakbeat
Breezy
Brian Eno
Broadcast
Bruce Weber
Bruton Music
Buddhism
Budget Audiophiler
Cabaret
Calypso
Cambridge Audio
CAN
Candombe
Cannanes
Canterbury
Cape Jazz
Cape Verde
Caribbean
Carla Bley
Cartridges
Casio
Cassette
Cats
CD
Celluloid
Chamber Jazz
Chamber Music
Chamber Pop
Chan Marshall
Channel One Studios
Chanson
Charles Lloyd
Charles Mingus
Chee Shimizu
Chet Baker
Chicago
Chillout
Chinese
Chiptune
Choral
Christmas
City Pop
Classic Album Sundays
Classical
Classics
Clothing
Club
Cocteau Twins
Coctueau Twins
Coffee
Coldwave
Colorfield
Comedy
Commercial
Community
Compass
Compass Point
Compilation
Concept Album
Condesa Electronics
Conlon Nancarrow
Conny Plank
Contemporary Jazz
Cool Jazz
Cornelius
Cosmic
Cosmic Disco
Cosmic Folk
cosmic jazz
Country
Country Pop
Country-Rock
Covers
Cult Classic
Cumbia
DAC
Dacne
Daft Punk
Dance
Dance Music
Dancehall
Daniel Aged
Dark
Dark Entries
David Behrman
David Bowie
David Byrne
Davida
Dedicated listening session
Deep Dive
Deep House
Deep Listen
Deep Listening
Delia Derbyshire
Dembow
Demo
Dennis Bovell
Denon
Detroit
Devotional
DFA
Diasporic Disco
Dick Verdult
Diggin in the Mags
Digi-Reggae
Disco
Discogs
DIY
DIY / Amateur
DJ
DJ Shadow
Documentary
Dogs
Don Buchla
Don Cherry
Donald Byrd
Doom Metal
Downtempo
Dowtempo
Dr. John
Dream House
Dream Pop
Dreamy
Drone
Drum & Bass
Drum Break
Drum Machine
Drum n Bass
Drums
Dual
Dub
Dub Poetry
Dub Techno
dublab
Dubstep
Dubwise
Durutti Column
Düsseldorf School
Dust and Grooves
Eames
Earl King
Early Electronic
East African
Easy Listening
Eblen Macari
EBM
ECM
ecoustic
ecoustics
Electric Lady
Electro
Electronic
Electronic Jazz
Electronica
Elegant Pop
Elvin Jones
Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam
Enossified
Environmental Music
EOY
Eric Dolphy
ESG
Esoteric
ESP Institute
Essential Listen
Essential Listening
Essential Listenning
Ethereal
Ethiopian Jazz
Ethnic
Event
Events
Exotica
Experimental
Factory Records
Faye Wong
Feel Good All Over
Fela Kuti
Festival
Field recording
Films
Fingertracks
Fingetracks
Fishing with John
Fleetwood Sound Company
Floating
Floating Points
Folk
Folk Funk
Folk-Rock
Fonts
Footwork
Four Tet
Fourth World
France
Free Improvisation
Free Jazz
Friends of ISC
Frippertronics
Frozen Section Radio
Fundraiser
Funk
Fusion
G-Funk
G.S. Schray
Gal Costa
Gamelan
Garage Rock
Garrard
Gems from the Dollar Bin
George Martin
George Oban
German techno
Gifts
Gilberto Gil
Giorgio Moroder
Glam Rock
Glitch
Gogo
Gospel
Grado
Graham Sutton
Graphic Novel
Grateful Dead
Group Sounds
Growing Bin
Guide
Guitar
Gwo Ka
Gypsy
Habitat Ensemble
Haçienda Club
halloween
Hard Bop
Hard Rock
Harold Budd
Harp
Harry Nilsson
Haruomi Hosono
headphones
Heavy Metal
Henry Lewy
Herbie Hancock
hi-fi
hi-NRG
Hidden Gem
Highlife
Hip Hop
Hip-Hop
Hiroshi Yoshimura
history
Holger Czukay
Holiday
Hollywood
Holy Grail
Home Listening
House
Hypnotic
Iasos
Ibiza
IDM
Illbient
Illustration
Improvisation
Impulse!
In Conversation
In Stock
India
Indian
Indian Classical
Indie
Indie Rock
Industrial
Ingmar Bergman
Installation
Instrumental
International
Interview
ISC Classic
ISC Collection
isc guide
ISC NYC
ISC Record Store
ISC Selects
Island Records
Isolation
Italo Disco
Italo House
Italy
Jackie McLean
Jah Shaka
Jamaica
James Baldwin
Jangle Pop
Japan
Japananese
Japanese
Jazz
jazz funk
jazz kissa
Jazz-funk
Jazz-rock
JBL
Jessica Pratt
John Coltrane
John Fahey
John Martyn
Jon Hassell
Joni Mitchell
Judee Sill
Jungle
K-pop
K. Leimer
Kankyo Ongaku
Keiji Haino
Keith Haring
Keith Jarrett
Kid-Friendly
Kim Yaffa
Kitty Records
Klaus Schulze
Klipsch
Kompakt
Kosmiche
Kosmische
KPM
Kraftwerk
Kranky
Krautrock
Kruatrock
Kuduro
kwaito
L.Shankar
La Monte Young
Labels We Love
Lafawndah
Lagniappe Sessions
Laraaji
Larry Levan
Last Resort
Laswell
Latin
Latin Jazz
Laurel Canyon
Laurie Spiegel
Leaving Records
Lebanese
Lee Scratch Perry
Left-field
Leftfield
Lena Horne
Les Baxter
Lester Bowie
Library
Library Music
Lijadu Sisters
Liquid Liquid
Listening
Listening bar
Listening Party
Listening Session
Live Performance
Live Recording
Live Video
Loose Ends
Loren Mazzacane Connors
Los Angeles
Lost & Sound
lost and sound
Louisiana Blues
Lounge
Lounge Lizards
Love Songs
Lovefingers
Lovely Music Ltd.
Lovers Rock
Luaka Bop
Mad Professor
Magazine
Mandopop
Marantz
Marcel Duchamp
Marcella Cytrynowicz
Marcos Valle
Mark E. Smith
mbaqanga
McCoy Tyner
McIntosh
Meditation
Meditational
Meditative
Melancholic
Mellow
Melody As Truth
Meredith Monk
Metal
Mexico
Miami
Michael Franks
Microhouse
Mid-Century
Miles Davis
Milford Graves
Mills College
Minako Yoshida
Minimal
Minimal Techno
Minimal Wave
Minneapolis Sound
Mixes
Mixtape
Mizell Brothers
mo wax
Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs
Modal
Modern Classical
Modern Soul
Modular Synthesis
Moki Cherry
Mono
Mood Hut
Mort Garson
Motion Ward
Motown
MPB
MTV
Munich
Music Blog
Music from Memory
Music Interior
Music Therapy
Music Video
Musique Concrète
Mwandishi
Narrative
Neneh Cherry
Neo Soul
Neo-Classical
Neptunes
New Age
New Islands
New Jack Swing
New Music
New Orleans
New Wave
New York
News
Nico
Nigeria
Nightmares on Wax
Nina Simone
No Wave
Noise
Non-Profit
Northern Soul
Now Sound
NTS
Nubian Pop
Nubian Soul
Numero Group
NYC
OBI
Obscure
Obscure Sound
Occult
OJAS
On Screen
On-U Sound
online radio
Opera
Optimo
Organ
Organic
Organic Music
Ornette Coleman
Ortofon
OST
Oswalds Mill Audio
Outsider Pop
Overtone Singing
Painting
Painting with John
Pandit Pran Nath
Paradise Garage
Pastoral
Patrick Cowley
Paul Horn
Paul McCartney
Pauline Oliveros
PBS
Penguin Cafe Orchestra
Pensive
Percussion
Pharoah Sanders
Phillip Glass
Philly Soul
Piano
Pioneer
Pioneer Works
Plantasia
Plants
Player Piano
playlist
Playlists
Plinth
Podcast
Poetry
Political
Polygonia
Pop
Pop Art
Pop not Slop
Pop Rock
Popp
Popul Vuh
Post Bop
Post Rock
Post-Punk
Post-Rock
Power Pop
Premiere
Prince
Private Press
Pro-Ject
Producer
Productions
Professor Longhair
Prog Rock
Progressive
Progressive Rock
Prophet-5
Proto-techno
Psych-folk
Psychedelic
Psychedelic Rock
Psychic Hotline
Psyhedelic
Punk
Qobuz
Quadraphonic
QUARK
Quiet Storm
R&B
Radio
Raga
Rap
Rare Groove
Ras G
Rave
rca victor
Receivers
Record Club
Record Fair
Record Label
Record Store
Record Store Day
Record Stores
Record Stories
Reggae
Reggaeton
Reissue
Reissues
Releases
Religious
Remix
Retrospective
Robert Wyatt
Rock
Rocksteady
Roland
Roland Kirk
Rolando Chía
Roller Skate
Room Recordings
Room Treatment
Roots Reggae
Rotary Mixers
Rough Trade
Rudy Van Gelder
Russia
Ryuichi Sakamoto
Ryuichi Sakmoto
Sacred
Sade
Saint Etienne
Sam Gendel
Samba
Sample
Samples
San Francisco
Saxophone
Sci-fi
Séance Centre
Seefeel
Sensual
Serbian Disco
Shackleton
Shamisen
share
Shibuya-kei
Shoegaze
Silver Apples
Simeon Coxe
Singer-Songwriter
Sisters with Transistors
Ska
Sly & Robbie
Smooth Jazz
Soft Rock
Solid State
Songwriting
Sonia Pottinger
Sonny Sharrock
Soul
Soul-jazz
Sound Art
Sound Collage
Sound Installation
Soundsystems
Soundtrack
South Africa
South African
South America
Southern Soul
Space Rock
Spain
Speaker
speakers
Spiritual
Spiritual Jazz
Spoken Word
Squama Records
Staff Picks
Steely Dan
Stereolab
Stereophile
Steven Halpern
Stevie Wonder
Stoner Rock
stores we love
Stories
Streaming
Street Soul
Strut Records
Studio One
Substack
Sun Ra
Sunn O)))
Supergroup
Surround Sound
Susumu Yokota
Suzanne Cianni
Suzanne Kraft
Suzanne Langille
Swamp Rock
SYNG
Synth
Synth Pop
Synth-pop
Synthesizer
Synthwave
Taarab
Tadanori Yokoo
Takoma Records
Tangerine Dream
Tannoy
Tape
Tapes
TD-160
Technics
Techno
Techno Pop
Tel Aviv
Television
Terry Callier
Terry Riley
The Beatles
The Broad
The Fall
The Loft
The Meters
The Mizell Brothers
The Music Center
The Orb
The World Stage
Theater
Thelonious Monk
Third Side Music
Third Stream
This Mortal Coil
Thomas Fehlman
Thorens
Tim Sweeney
Time Capsule
Todd Rundgren
Too Pure Records
Total Luxury Spa
Traditional
Tribal
Trip-hop
Trish Keenan
Tropical
Tropicalia
Tuareg
Tube
Turntable
Turntable Lab
TV
UK
UK Jazz
Ultramarine
Underground Resistance
Underrated
Val Wilmer
Vandersteen
Vangelis
Vanity Fair
Varia Instruments
Velvet Underground
Vice
Video
Video Art
Vince Guaraldi
Vintage
Vintage Audio
Vintage Gear
vinyl
Virginia Astley
Visible Cloaks
Visual Art
Vocal
Vocal Jazz
Vocoder
Wackies
Wah Wah Watson
Walearic
Wally Badarou
Warp
Water
Website
Wendy Carlos
Werner Herzog
West Africa
West African
Western Acoustics
Windham Hill
wiring
World
Wrecking Crew
Yacht Rock
Yamaha
Yann Tomita
Yasuaki Shimizu
Yellow Magic Orchestra
Yma Sumac
YouTube
Yukihiro Takahashi
Zamrock
Zither