Didier Malherbe is a legendary French musician. Inspired by Charlie Parker, he began his career playing sax. Today, although he plays flutes, alto clarinet, ocarina, Laotian Khen, Bawu flute, Hulusi and many other wind instruments, an ancient Armenian woodwind instrument named the Duduk has become his preferred instrument.
Didier is best known for his work with the cult bands Gong, in which his nickname was Bloomdido Bad de Grass, and Hadouk. He has played on over 70 albums and published two books of sonnets. In July 1968, Didier came to Deià for the first time. He was 25.
Towards the end of 2019, I spoke with Didier Malherbe about his time in Deià and his life as a musician. He was in Paris. Amiable and softly spoken, with a good memory, his conversation was sprinkled with charmingly archaic hippyish phrases. He was a pleasure to talk to.
How did you come to Deià in the first place, Didier?
It was the summer of 1968 and my friend Mati Klarwein was going to Deià. Another friend named Didier Leon, a painter, suggested I go. People were telling me it was brilliant in Deià. I also knew that the musician Daevid Allen, who I’d met before, was going to be in Deià.
What were you doing in France before you came to Deià?
My thing was jazz. I started as a jazz player in Paris when I was 17, as a sax player. This was real jazz.
Before I went to Deià, I was playing my music in the theatre scene, for a comedy-rock play called Les Idoles, as well as acting. This was one of my first experiences on stage. I was working with the director/writer Mark’O. The actors were Pierre Clementi and Bulle Ogier, who became quite famous afterwards. We did a performance in Brussels where I met the Living Theatre and an actor named Hans introduced me to Daevid Allen for the first time. I was also playing quite a bit of free jazz.
1968 was a year of huge political upheaval in France. Were you politically active?
I suppose I was more or less part of the revolution. I didn’t throw stones or anything like that. But I did participate a bit, along with my friends in bands. We would stick up posters with a revolutionary attitude.
How long did you stay in Deià?
I arrived in July and stayed for two months, left, and then came back in September for three months. After Deià, I went to Formentera.
And is it true you lived in a cave lent to you by Robert Graves?
I lived in the cave when I came back in September. It was a shepherd’s cave near the little amphitheatre over the road from Robert’s house where he used to have plays. I stayed there for maybe a couple of months at least, perhaps more. It started to get a bit cold because there was no proper window, only a transparent plastic sheet. But there was electricity so I could have a little stove, which made things a little easier. So, Voila, I was living like a hermit there, practicing yoga, playing lots of flute – I didn’t bring my sax – and writing some poems. I really worked a lot. I have some great memories. It was probably the best time of my life.
Did you play Mallorcan music?
No. I was great friends with Pepe Ferrer, a Mallorcan guy and a real hippy who’d been on the road to India. A few years later, I learned that he’d gone into the government. I was playing all the time with Pepe. He was playing classical music by ear. He didn’t know classical music, but he was using some very nice chords on a nylon stringed guitar and had very beautiful compositions I could play along with on the flute. Apart from that, we were doing some jam sessions with people at parties.
What was it like to be in Deià at that time?
I met very interesting people. There were the writers Jakov Lind and Alfred Dursen, among others, and plenty of American and English painters, writers and musicians.
And what were your impressions of Robert Graves?
He was a very beautiful, impressive man. He liked me and I’ll tell you why. It was because I’ve always been fond of Greek mythology. I did Greek at university. I was someone he could talk to about mythology and Greek civilization. So, from time to time, he would invite me to have a conversation.
And, in spite of himself, he was an important figure in hippy culture. He didn’t particularly like hippies but he was emblematic for them because he talked about psychedelics in his books, mushrooms being the origin of the notion of Paradise, Eden and all that.
Did you read The White Goddess?
Of course, and also a beautiful book called the The Greek Myths. In that book he references psychedelics as important to culture and religion around the world, especially Mexico and India as well as in Greece.
When did you join Gong?
In Deià that summer, I was seeing Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth often. They were living in their house up by the church. Kevin Ayers was in the village but not Robert Wyatt. We created Gong in 1969 and recorded the first album Magic Brother. I was with them for eight years.
Why do you think Gong took off in the way that it did?
The band was new and rather good and there was a strong vibration because we were living altogether and improvising a lot. Gong was very different from other music. It was a bit naïve. Although the music wasn’t particularly constructed, it wasn’t free so it was not too hard to listen to. The music was a mix of Daevid’s songs, with their strong lyrics, free jazz, country music and – because I’d learned how to play bamboo flute in India – there was an oriental flavour. Although he didn’t want to be one, Daevid was a very good leader and a strong singer. He was a quite a spiritual man and had lots of talents. Camembert Electrique, our second album which came out in 1971, was take up by Richard Branson of Virgin who was selling records cheaply to the student market at that time. Virgin sold Camembert Electrique for 59p, which was the price of a single and very cheap. The album went into the Melody Maker charts – Melody Maker was a British rock magazine – which was astounding for an album of very special music that was not at all commercial.
What do you feel about the legacy of Gong?
I didn’t realise how influential Gong was when I was in it. It’s something you only notice years after. In France and England, our gigs influenced people. Daevid was very French, which appealed in France. That’s why it’s the album is called Camembert Electrique. The music was very innovative and people in England liked that. Also, Daevid’s Pothead Pixies mythology struck a chord with the English, because of leprechauns and all that kind of thing. Hippies especially dug it.
How do you think that summer in Deia influenced you?
It was such a great summer. There really was a nest of heads in Deià at that time, which did me a lot of good. The conversation and vibration were very intense. It was different from Ibiza because people there were more into drugs and joyful living. Deià people were more intellectual. The atmosphere influenced me a lot. As I said, it was probably the best time of my life.
Have you been back to Deià?
I went back maybe 10 or 15 years ago. The people were the same. The village was practically the same, except that there were some hotels and life there was maybe 3 or 4 times more expensive, and there were lots of rich people.
Did you go back to the cave?
Of course. It remained the same.
Find out more about Didier Malherbe here.