Martinique and Guadeloupe are undoubtedly the most important centers of musical activity among the former French colonies in the Caribbean, including Haiti. In a broad context, the subregion of French Caribbean musical influence consists of Martinique and Guadeloupe, Haiti, French Guyana, as well as the islands of Dominica and St. Lucia. These latter two islands, although part of the former British colonies (and currently independent countries), show strong influences from Martinique and Guadeloupe because of their geographic proximity. Dominica is located south of Guadeloupe and north of Martinique, between the two islands, and St. Lucia is located south of Martinique.

The popular music of the French Antilles that is currently best known internationally is zouk, from the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. 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, such as the mazurka, the waltz and the quadrille, especially the latter. The quadrille, the masked dance of Napoleon’s court in France, was introduced to the French Caribbean islands in the early 19th century. The slaves, who were prohibited from playing their drums and dancing to their native music (under the argument that they were pagan rituals, the dances were erotic, and that the drums concealed a secret language that would allow them to communicate over long distances and aid in communication in the event of a slave revolt or rebellion), learned to play the music of the French upper class, because they provided the music at the plantation owners’ parties. The slaves developed a burlesque version of the quadrille dance, which they performed in their camps and in which they made fun of the dominant class that oppressed them. Even today, the local form of the quadrille continues to be an important symbol of Afro-Caribbean identity in the French islands, as well as the British and Dutch islands. And zouk’s deepest roots can be found in the quadrille.

But zouk’s influences are much broader and include other musical genres such as kompas and cadence of Haiti, cadence-lypso of Dominica, biguine and gwo ka of Martinique and bèlè (also known as tambour and ti bwa) of Guadeloupe, as well as funk, jazz, rock and Cuban salsa.

Both 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). In the early 20th century, during the vaval or carnival, musical groups (known as “groups of various colors”) traveled around the island on floats, followed by a multitude of dancers (from 50 to 100 people) who danced to the music. Each musical group was identified with a location and played a repertoire known as vidé de biguine (or simply vidé). Vidé de biguine was based on a structure of dialogue between the singer and the dancers in which the singers sung a verse and the audience responded with another verse. The dancers also contributed to the music with improvised instruments or anything they could use to make noise. In modern times, these improvised instruments are made of plastic plumbing pieces, bells, or cans and bottles.

The tambour and the ti bwa (along with the accordion) are also central to the performance of various musical genres that emerged among the Afro-Caribbean populations of Martinique and Guadeloupe later than gwo ka and bèlè, including biguine and chouval bwa, and later, zouk.

Chouval bwa was a kind of traditional music in Martinique that combined percussion with the accordion and a flute made of bamboo and was accompanied by a dance called manege (literally, carousel). The concept referred to an island adaptation of the French “bois cheval” (literally, wood horse) that referred to the horses on carousels.

Biguine, however, which was played during the same era as chouval bwa, was the genre that achieved international popularity during the 1920s and 1930s. Between 1920 and 1950, biguine music was most popular for dancing in Martinique and Guadeloupe. Later, as happened with the popularization of Latin music in New York (such as the mambo and the chachachá, etc.), 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 immigrated to Paris from Martinique in 1929 and whose music went beyond biguine in the cultural circles of France. What distinguished biguine from other Caribbean dances of the era was the importance of the melody, which was led by the clarinet. The clarinet was accompanied by a series of modern instruments such as the violin, cello, guitar, saxophone, piano, drums, and the traditional “chacha” (a kind of maraca). The songs’ lyrics were in Creole.

Like Stellio, many beguine musicians forged their artistic careers in Paris, playing their music in the famous cabaret La Canne à Sucre. Among them were clarinet player Maurice Noiran (a disciple of Stellio), guitarist and trumpet player Pierre Louiss, and singer Moune de Rivel. The French record label Frémeaux & Associés has reproduced on CD the original recordings of some of the best beguineperformers who appeared in the clubs of Paris during the 1930s and 1940s, including clarinetists Alexandre Stellio and Eugène Delouche and violinists Ernest Léardée and Roger Fanfant.

Biguine remained a central part of the music of the French Caribbean region until the eruption of Haitian kompa in the early 1950s. But it was mainly during the 1970s, as a result of a significant diaspora of Haitians to Martinique, that Haitian cadance was introduced to Martinique, where it mixed with the local cadence rampa, another popular form in style at that time, to form the genre known as kadans. This new genre rapidly achieved great popularity and served as a symbol of cultural unity for the entire French Antilles region.

Later, in the 1980s, kadans was mixed with rhythms from calypso from the English-speaking islands, leading to cadence-lypso (or kadans-lypso), which also became popular internationally. The origin of this new genre is closely linked to Gordon Henderson (who came up with the name cadence-calypso) and his group Exile One. Although Henderson was originally from Dominica, he settled on Guadeloupe in 1969 and it was from there that he launched his musical revolution in the 1970s. Strongly influenced by the Rastafarian and Black Power movements, the lyrics of cadence-lypso often contained strong nationalistic and revolutionary content and it was sung only in the common language, Creole.

During the middle 1980s, the musical genre known as zouk finally emerged. It 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-lypso. The genre was also widespread in French Guyana and some linguists say the origin of the word zouk is Guyanese, where it was commonly used, beginning at least as early as the 1960s, to refer to a kind of unconventional “dance hall” or private party. From there the term evolved to mean simply “party” or “festival,” particularly a private one. The music was associated with dancing and parties. The dance was performed by couples, dancing close, with the man taking the woman by the waist and the woman embracing the man around the back of the neck. Others attribute the origin of the word zouk to a derivation of mazouk, which was the local island form of the mazurka.

Zouk’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 Sel Medikaman Nou Ni and Syé bwa. Kassav’s history began in 1981 when Pierre-édouard Décimus and Freddy Marshall decided to modernize Martinique’s popular music. Closely tied to the popular music of carnival, Décimus adapted it to techniques of modern music. Both men also recruited Jacob Desvarieux, an acclaimed guitarist, and Jorge Décimus (brother of Pierre-édouard), a cellist. Despite the popularity of the group Kassav, perhaps the best known zouk song at the world level 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.

In the 1990s, a version of zouk called zouk love emerged. Patrick Saint-Eloi is recognized as its most important creator and precursor.Zouk love is different from traditional zouk in that it has a slower, more sensual rhythm and its lyrics are about love, accompanied by a couple’s dance that is erotic. Saint-Eloi wrote many of the first zouk love songs, including hits such as DarlingWest-IndiesRèv an mwen and Zouké. But it was Jocelyne Béroard with her song Kolé Séré (sung in a duet with Philippe Lavil) that led France to discover zouk love. The single Kolé Séré has sold more than 500,000 copies in France and zouk love remains today the most popular form of zouk in the Antilles, in France and in the Canadian province of Quebec.

Beyond popular music, the French Caribbean also has other musical traditions that are specific to a single island. In Haiti, for example, there is a range of musical genres derived from Vodou ceremonies, such as rarapetwo, and mizik rasin (roots music). This latter genre emerged during the 1980s in Haiti during the Duvalier dictatorship and established close ties with the reggae movement in Jamaicaand with the Black Power movement in general. The singers (mostly young), wore their hair in braids, Rastafarian style, and mixed elements of ceremonial Vodou music with elements of rock ‘n’ roll and integrated electric instruments into their bands. They promoted a lifestyle similar to the hippies in the United States, including a rejection of capitalism and a call for recovering cultural roots and communal living.

Haiti is also the birthplace of kompa, which is a modern version of Haitian méringue (related to Dominican merengue) that was most popular on the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe in the 1970s, where it had an important influence on other musical genres of the region, such as kadens, cadence-lypso and zouk.


Author: Luis Galanes
Published: May 24, 2012.

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