#AuxSons is a collaborative, militant and solidary web media
focus-antilles-768x576 -

Musical aesthetics in the French Antilles and French Guiana

When we talk about Creole culture, we have to look past plen­ty of concepts and ideas inhe­ri­ted from “ver­ti­cal” cultures. In Europe, Afri­ca and Asia we see that phy­si­cal type, ter­ri­to­ry, lan­guage, law, music and cui­sine are usual­ly in per­fect geo­gra­phi­cal cohe­rence. On the other hand, in the Creole world, iden­ti­ties come about thanks to an unpre­dic­table inter­wea­ving of heritages.

A French Antillean – in other words, a native of Ame­ri­ca – may have black skin from Afri­ca, speak a Euro­pean lan­guage with its bag­gage of lite­ra­ture, legal concepts and reli­gious convic­tions, cook food influen­ced by Asia (rice is ever-present and the “natio­nal” spice of Gua­de­loupe is cal­led colom­bo) and lis­ten to eve­ry­thing that is hap­pe­ning musi­cal­ly around their region on a dai­ly basis.

Per­haps it is easier for a French-spea­king Antillean-French Guia­nese music lover to admit the com­plexi­ty of their heri­tage than for an artist, more easi­ly sub­ject to being assi­gned to a par­ti­cu­lar genre or style and often bound by requi­re­ments of puri­ty to which no one would even dream of sub­jec­ting their audience. A French Antillean will the­re­fore glad­ly assume a place at the cross­roads in which they find them­selves lis­te­ning to Spa­nish-spea­king music (bole­ro from Cuba, sal­sa from Cen­tral Ame­ri­ca or merengue from the Domi­ni­can Repu­blic), the vast Cuban heri­tage, so-cal­led black music from the Uni­ted States (from jazz to funk and rap), reg­gae from the north of the West Indies and calyp­so from the south, French chan­son in the broad sense (from “Au clair de la lune” to Azna­vour and PNL), all the suc­ces­sive waves of inter­na­tio­nal pop… and, of course mizik an nou.

Mizik an nou [our music] is music sub­ject to a dual search : on the one hand, for an iden­ti­ty that dis­tin­guishes it from that of other regions, and on the other, the search for a cultu­ral and com­mer­cial rele­vance that ensures the influence of these three French pos­ses­sions in the glo­bal concert of popu­lar music.

The French Antillean-French Guia­nese proud­ly flaunt their biguine, gwo­ka, bélé, kase­ko and zouk. But we must remem­ber that they also sing dan­ce­hall and “Le plus beau de tous les tan­gos du monde”, play jazz, bos­sa nova, steel drums and kom­pa with the colours, fra­grances and free­doms that belong only to them.

The only Carib­bean ter­ri­to­ries still under French sove­rei­gn­ty are Gua­de­loupe, Mar­ti­nique, Guia­na, Saint-Mar­tin and Saint-Bar­thé­le­my. But plen­ty of other ter­ri­to­ries have at one time also been French (Hai­ti, Saint Vincent, Domi­ni­ca, Saint Lucia…) or are under a las­ting French cultu­ral influence (Tri­ni­dad and Toba­go, parts of Cuba) and it would not be sur­pri­sing to find obvious simi­la­ri­ties (nota­bly the use of French-spea­king creole) in musi­cal forms consi­de­red to be spe­ci­fic to Anglo­phone areas.

French Antillean music is some­times pre­sen­ted sole­ly through the prism of the pro­fes­sed skin colour of its per­for­mers. Some are said to be plain­ly “black”; others more “mulat­to” or mixed. In either case, it is to kno­win­gly ignore the cru­cible of Creole cultures – a human cata­clysm of appal­ling vio­lence but asto­ni­shing fecundity.

Euro­pean attempts to create a New World by sen­ding in set­tlers, sol­diers, convicts and all kinds of poor wretches dri­ven out by mise­ry, arbi­tra­ry royal power, jus­tice and reli­gious per­se­cu­tion were a long lita­ny of fai­lures, tra­ge­dies, unne­ces­sa­ry wars and sani­ta­ry disas­ters, in the wake of which cities, ports, tra­ding posts and even nations were built.

As the ensla­ve­ment of the Ame­rin­dian popu­la­tions could not be sus­tai­ned over the long term, the use of the Afri­can slave mar­ket became sub­stan­tial. In the course of the three cen­tu­ries of the Atlan­tic slave trade, fol­lo­wed by a few decades of sla­ve­ry in the Ame­ri­can colo­nies des­pite the enfor­ced drying up of the source of “ebo­ny”, socie­ties were foun­ded on the strict dis­tinc­tion bet­ween races. But the oppo­si­tion bet­ween white slave tra­ders and black slaves does not suf­fi­cient­ly des­cribe the situa­tion on these islands. An extre­me­ly com­plex gram­mar of inter­ra­cial rela­tion­ships and infi­ni­te­ly subtle gra­da­tions bet­ween humans of dif­ferent inter­bree­ding and sta­tus would struc­ture these societies.

Nor are drums hit by bare hands and sur­roun­ded by rudi­men­ta­ry per­cus­sion ins­tru­ments the pre­serve of slave resis­tance music or the pride of maroons – the runa­way slaves. It seems that their ori­gins are much more com­plex, para­doxi­cal even.

Slaves were for­bid­den to cut down trees, so were unable to make hol­lo­wed out woo­den drums. Conver­se­ly, the use of old bar­rels was tole­ra­ted : the name gwo­ka, drum-based music from Gua­de­loupe, comes from “gros quart”, lite­ral­ly “large quart”, used to contain sal­ted meat and sal­va­ged to make drums. Seve­ral rhythms lin­ked to wor­king in the fields, level­ling earth and, in par­ti­cu­lar, to the cut­ting of sugar­cane remain in the col­lec­tive memo­ry, demons­tra­ting that drums were also an ins­tru­ment of oppres­sion, inten­ded to pro­vide a tem­po to slave labour.

After the abo­li­tion of sla­ve­ry in 1848, this music began to cir­cu­late more free­ly, espe­cial­ly among those living in the coun­try­side and sub­urbs, swel­led brie­fly eve­ry year by car­ni­val crowds. The gwo­ka from Gua­de­loupe, the bélé from Mar­ti­nique and the kase­ko from French Guia­na – each with their own par­ti­cu­lar fea­tures in terms of ins­tru­ments, cho­reo­gra­phy and socia­bi­li­ty – had deci­sive points in com­mon, inclu­ding a dual func­tion as dance enter­tain­ment and cri­ti­cal expression.

Lyrics were always deli­be­ra­te­ly concise, but always inclu­ded cho­ruses ideal­ly sung by all those assem­bled. This music evo­ked social themes : the expenses of life, the hard­ness of work, the infi­de­li­ty of women, the hassles of public trans­port, the changes of tech­no­lo­gi­cal pro­gress, a natu­ral disas­ter, the crush of the city as it appears to someone visi­ting from the coun­try­side, and so on.

During social conflicts, strikes by agri­cul­tu­ral wor­kers in par­ti­cu­lar, this drum music some­times car­ried with it slo­gans but, ove­rall, was low inten­si­ty in terms of its poli­tics, but could be played with mea­ning and great power. To use the Creole expres­sion, this was mizik a vié neg – not the music of old black people (vieux nègres) in the sense of age, but dir­ty, insi­gni­fi­cant and des­pi­cable black people. This music would gra­dual­ly come to be consi­de­red as the sign – and even the admis­sion – of exclu­sion. Modern French Antilleans had to become civi­li­sed, wear shoes or sing in French, and playing a drum was seen as a sign of backwardness.

In the 1970s, the bélé from Mar­ti­nique almost died out and sur­vi­ved only in a folk­lore form or in its “natu­ral” state in remote areas to the north of the island. There was a major sym­bo­lic vic­to­ry for the Gua­de­lou­pean cultu­ral revi­val move­ment in the ear­ly 1980s when drums became a part of dai­ly life in Pointe-à-Pitre and left the sub­urbs to set­tle in the city centre eve­ry Satur­day morning.

This music remai­ned in use local­ly but was unex­por­table glo­bal­ly in its ver­na­cu­lar form, which, never­the­less, has gra­dual­ly impo­sed itself over recent decades as proof of the dai­ly musi­cal land­scape of the Caribbean’s French territories.

This was not true of biguine, which, very ear­ly on, was a music of mass export, a phe­no­me­non that deserves to be under­li­ned as it became a small empire. Biguine emer­ged pri­ma­ri­ly in Saint-Pierre, eco­no­mic capi­tal of Mar­ti­nique, a port expor­ting rum and sugar. It was main­ly a creo­li­sa­tion of pol­ka, a dance rhythm from the city that domi­na­ted in the salons of the affluent classes and moved into the venues and cele­bra­tions of the wor­king classes in a rela­ti­ve­ly small city of around 25,000 inhabitants.

But biguine was not sim­ply a muta­tion of pol­ka. The new form incor­po­ra­ted local­ly gene­ra­ted rhyth­mi­cal pat­terns, blen­ding cultu­ral debris of Afri­can ori­gin (the trans­at­lan­tic slave trade was abo­li­shed in 1815), most like­ly revi­ved by the arri­val of Afri­can contract wor­kers in the wake of the abo­li­tion of sla­ve­ry. In its func­tions, it takes on the poly­se­my we find in French chan­son, alter­na­ting or even com­bi­ning recrea­tio­nal ele­ments with the serious­ness of the sub­ject. Given that pol­ka was, at that time (in addi­tion to waltz), the domi­nant rhyth­mi­cal form in urban com­mer­cial song at the advent of the 20th cen­tu­ry cer­tain­ly sup­ports the varie­ty of roles assi­gned to biguine.

Biguine sang of love in all its varie­ties, the anec­do­tal and imme­diate his­to­ry of socie­ty (inclu­ding a signi­fi­cant pro­duc­tion of elec­to­ral biguines) and, very qui­ck­ly, it began to build a signi­fi­cant nos­tal­gic reper­toire. Biguine has some­thing akin to tan­go, Creole music from Argen­ti­na, and French chan­son : its abi­li­ty to sing about itself, while cele­bra­ting the good old days. In the case of Mar­ti­nique, the des­truc­tion of Saint-Pierre would clear­ly link biguine to the myth of a lost para­dise, without depri­ving the music of its rele­vance in the here and now for seve­ral generations.

In a way, biguine was streng­the­ned in its ori­gi­nal areas by the fact that it was easy to export. The per­iod spent in France in the 1930s by cla­ri­net­tist Alexandre Stel­lio and sin­ger Léo­na Gabriel, fol­lo­wed by a large num­ber of artists who had spent varying lengths of time out­side their coun­try (Sam Cas­ten­det, Félix Val­vert, Gérard La Viny, Robert Mavoun­zy, Ernest Léar­dée, the Cop­pet bro­thers, etc.) contri­bu­ted not only to the conta­gion of a great many musi­cal forms in Europe and North Ame­ri­ca by biguine, but also to its conser­va­tism in the Carib­bean. A musi­cal stan­dard-bea­rer for the French Antilles, biguine would conti­nue to evolve bet­ween inno­va­tions (the inven­tion of biguine wabap, the com­pel­ling evo­lu­tion of ins­tru­ments, etc.) and the need to remain unchan­ged. The inter­na­tio­nal suc­cess of biguine did much for its local pre­ser­va­tion, obvious­ly more suc­cess­ful­ly than that of the mazur­ka or qua­drille, musi­cal forms of Euro­pean ori­gin spec­ta­cu­lar­ly creo­li­sed during the 19th century.

We might also consi­der zouk – born in Paris in the ear­ly 1980s – as a syn­the­sis of drum music and biguine, had so many other ele­ments – kom­pa and kadans, ori­gi­nal­ly from Hai­ti, funk, sal­sa and FM rock – not become part of its gene­sis. A labo­ra­to­ry pro­duct inven­ted by Pierre-Édouard Déci­mus, Jacob Des­va­rieux and Georges Déci­mus, three Gua­de­lou­pean musi­cians, zouk uses a basic rhythm from the Pointe-à-Pitre car­ni­val, the mas a sen jan, blen­ded with modern musi­cal and effi­cient shades bor­ro­wed from other genres.

The world­wide popu­la­ri­ty of Kas­sav’ has confir­med the rele­vance of its foun­ders’ intui­tion. Dri­ven by the diver­si­ty of its sin­gers, zouk by the group from Gua­de­loupe and Mar­ti­nique would encou­rage seve­ral gene­ra­tions of artists to take up, diver­si­fy and sys­te­ma­tise the genre, while Afri­can urban music was in turn pro­found­ly trans­for­med, the first “return trip” in his­to­ry, accor­ding to an expres­sion used by a mem­ber of Kassav’.

The hege­mo­ny of zouk was ero­ded in the 2010s, thir­ty years of abso­lute rule giving way to the influx of hip-hop pro­duc­tions or those ins­pi­red by new inter­na­tio­nal pop. Zouk final­ly took the place of biguine in the 1960s–70s, a cultu­ral pre-emi­nence felt with a full dimen­sion of iden­ti­ty. And, in the same way, the French Antilles streng­the­ned the per­cep­tion of their own truth through their music’s inter­na­tio­nal audience. But, once again, the condes­cen­sion of cities towards these regions pre­vents this suc­cess from ful­ly emer­ging as a cultu­ral victory.

Bertrand Dicale

© Christophe Abramowitz



Bertrand Dicale, a popular music specialist, columnist for France Info (“Ces chansons qui font l’actu”) and author of some thirty books on French chanson (biographies of Serge Gainsbourg, Juliette Gréco, Charles Aznavour and Georges Brassens, Le Dictionnaire amoureux de la chanson française…), is also the author of Ni noires, ni blanches – Histoire des musiques créoles, published by Philharmonie de Paris, the first book on all these cultures to be published in a musicology collection. He also identifies a number of descendants of the Atlantic slave trade in his 2011 book Maudits métis.

Please choose how you want to receive news from our online media platform #AuxSons by Zone Franche
You can use the unsubscribe link included in the newsletter at any time. Learn more about managing your data and your rights.