Martinique and Guadeloupe have unquestionably been the center of activity musically for the French Antilles. The popular music of Martinique and Guadeloupe that is currently best known internationally is zouk. Although it is a relatively recent musical genre (born in the late 1970s), zouk’s roots and historical heritage include earlier traditional genres that go back to the music of the Afro-Caribbean populations of the 19th century.

Among the most prominent influences on zuok are biguine and gwo ka of Martinique and bèlè of Guadeloupe. Gwo ka and bèlè were popular musical traditions in Martinique and Guadeloupe in the early 20th century. They were festival or carnival music in which percussion played a central role, particularly the tambour, a conga or barrel drum, and the ti bwa (a percussion instrument made of bamboo that was held horizontally and struck with sticks). During Vaval or Carnival, music and dance groups of 50 to 100 people formed and passed through the streets singing and dancing. The dance developed as a dialogue structure between the singer and the dancers, with a pattern of questions and responses. The tambour and the ti bwa (along with the accordion), are central parts of various ancestral musical genres of the Afro-Caribbean populations of Martinique and Guadeloupe, as well as in traditions that developed later throughout the 20th century, including biguine and chouval bwa, and later, zouk.

It was biguine, however, that achieved international popularity during the 1920s and 1930s. Between 1920 and 1950, biguine music was the most popular dance music in Martinique and Guadeloupe. But biguine also became popular in Paris and was the music in style in the clubs of Montparnasse. The key figure in the popularization of the genre was clarinet player Alexandre Stellio, who emigrated from Martinique to Paris in 1929 and whose music went beyond biguine in the cultural circles of France.

Biguine remained a central part of the music of the French Caribbean region until the early 1950s and influenced a series of musical genres that appeared in later years in Martinique and Guadeloupe, including kadanscadence-lypso (or kadans-lypso) and zouk.

Zouk was conceived as a genre that would combine or synthesize elements of various musical influences from Martinique and Guadeloupe, such as Haitian kompagwo katambour and ti bwa, as well as biguine and cadence-lypsoZouk’s origins are closely tied to the group Kassav, and especially to its first record in 1981 titled Love and Ka Dance, with such popular songs as Zouk-la-Se and Sel Medikaman Nou Ni. Perhaps the best known zouk song at the world level, however, is Maldon, by the group Zouk Machine. It is unquestionably the biggest hit of all time among French Antillean music with more than a million singles sold. It was the number one single in France for nine weeks.

Author: Luis Galanes
Published: May 23, 2012.

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