Her disheveled hair, her face lit up with a big smile, Jean-Philippe Rykiel dances his fingers on the keys of his piano. The majestic instrument occupies a place of choice in the studio set up on the ground floor of the Parisian duplex, in the middle of several synthesizers. A bell rings. Philippe, who has been tuning the musician's piano for fifteen years, has just arrived. Leaving him to his work, Jean-Philippe takes the stairs that lead to the apartment, on the first floor. The accommodation, spacious, is arranged in such a way as to facilitate its movements. He has been blind since when he was born in 1961, he was placed in an incubator with incorrectly set parameters. “We didn't know how to properly dose the oxygen then. A month later, it was discovered that my optic nerves had been burned. »
Large bay windows let light into the living room. Agnès, her assistant, sorts through papers and greets us. Dressed in a red sweater, Jean-Philippe sits on the sofa and prepares his cigarette using a rolling machine. “Very early on, I was drawn to music,” he confides. His parents, fashion designer Sonia Rykiel – who died in 2016 – and his father, Sam – who died in 1976 – had musical ears. “My father listened to a lot of jazz. Pianist Thelonious Monk really blew me away when I was a kid! He draws on his cigarette and immerses himself in his memories. “My grandfather had given a piano to my big sister, Nathalie, but I appropriated it to the point that I no longer let her go near it. »
Electronics as a magic wand
His parents wishing to integrate him among the able-bodied children, Jean-Philippe divided his schooling between the Institute for young blind people and traditional establishments such as the Buffon and Victor-Duruy high schools in Paris. “I was a dunce at school. Music was what interested me the most. As a teenager, he tried his hand at the drums and continued to play the piano, until his parents gave him his first synthesizer at the age of fourteen. “Electronics allows you to go into different worlds,” he says thoughtfully. Learning to play all these instruments amuses him: “It was like having a magic wand. I could now transform myself into a percussionist, a saxophonist, a violinist…” Jean-Philippe then took an interest in English progressive rock, jazz rock and pop, artists like Emerson Lake and Palmer, Genesis and Stevie Wonder. And very quickly made his first recordings and decisive encounters. “The first was Véronique Sanson, whom I met thanks to a ski instructor”. Jean-Philippe then worked with Brigitte Fontaine on her album Vous et Nous, in 1977, as well as with the saxophonist, flautist and poet Didier Malherbe. Then, after meeting the progressive rock group Gong in 1973, in Tunisia, the composer produced, with one of its members, keyboardist Tim Blake, the disc Blake's New Jerusalem, in 1978.
Lama Gyourmé, voice and good humor
A few years later, someone close to the Gong group, a German Buddhist named Doris, offered Jean-Philippe to meet Lama Gyourmé, a Bhutanese, she said, “with a fabulous voice”. “She was not mistaken. During his first visit to my house, over a cup of tea, I asked him if he could sing so that I could play with him. I recorded this musical jam and played it to the man who was to become my agent, Jean-Michel Reusser. He found it so beautiful that he put together our first album”. Released in 1994, Wishes for Awakening went gold in Spain and sold 200 copies worldwide.
“During his first visit to my house, over a cup of tea, I asked Lama Gyourmé if he could sing so that I could play with him. I recorded this musical jam and played it to the man who was to become my agent, Jean-Michel Reusser. He found it so beautiful that he put together our first album. »
Jean-Philippe smiles as he remembers an anecdote during a tour in Italy. “Lama Gyourmé had ordered a dish of spaghetti al dente, but surprised by this method of cooking, he thought that they were not cooked. The lama, however, kept his smile. The composer never saw him in a bad mood. Also, each performance with him is a joy: "It's always so wonderful to find ourselves on stage, each year, at the festival for peace at the pagoda of Vincennes", he says in a singsong and dreamy voice. Since this first CD, their fruitful collaboration has resulted in two other albums: Rain of Blessings in 2000 and Songs for Peace in 2011.
The voices of the Himalayas are not his only love. Having met a Ghanaian musician at a Parisian party, he left to discover his country in 1982. This was “the starting point of my African adventures”, he specifies. With the Senegalese Prosper Niang and his group Xalam, he composed two albums. Jean-Philippe also performs with stars Youssou N'Dour and Salif Keita.
Latest collaboration: the Kangaba-Paris album, released in October 2018, with Malian balafon player Lansine Kouyate. Jean-Philippe points to the instrument in question in a corner of the room, under the stairs leading to the terrace: “It's like a big xylophone. Next to it are a traditional kora from West Africa and an ardîn from Mauritania. If he does not know how to play them, these instruments represent, for him, a strong symbolic character: “They are the journey, the discovery of other ways of living”. The composer likes to embark on these musical and human adventures. Next trip, he hopes, “Bhutan in the company of Lama Gyourmé”.