Zouk: Rhythm of the Lesser Antilles

This article first appeared in the Spanish magazine Nueva Música, which was published in Seville. It reappears exclusively on www.worldmusiccentral.org with permission from the editors. The text has been edited to update it. Author: Carlos Galilea. Translated by: Angel Romero.

They are two small islands of that Caribbean sea reminiscent of lost paradises. Dreams of rum, of white sand beaches and transparent waters, of available bodies and sensual dances. There, where music is always presentin the buses, in the stores and, indeed, in the Saturday night dances. In the neighboring islands, Spanish and English are the dominating languages, but in these isles people speak French and Creol, a mix of French with some English words and African syntax that the slaves, arrived from different parts of Africa, invented in order to communicate. The names of these islands: Martinique and Guadalupe. Barely 2,800 square Km and little more than 650 thousand inhabitants between both islands (although there are just as many living in continental France). And, they, however, have been able to generate music whose trail can be followed through most of the planet.Of the natives that populated the islands before Columbus arrived to their coasts, there are hardly any remains. Guadalupe and Martinique are now daughters of Africa and Europe. In 1946 they ceased to be French colonies in order to be converted to a French department. A paradoxical situation, since geographically it belongs to the American continent and, on the other hand, its economy is integrated in the European Union. In spite of a rate of unemployment four times superior to which there is in the French mainland, and aside from problems of political identity, they possess a standard of life superior to that of the immense majority of the Caribbean islands. Nothing to do with the insulting poverty of other places that are supposedly a holiday paradise.

Talking about music in Martinique and Guadalupe means talking about the ‘biguine’
that was born from the promiscuity of European and African forms. It was performed
in its early stages by an orchestra that featured clarinet, trombone, banjo
and a drum, that showed clear similarities with the small jazz bands in New
Orleans. It is the same ‘biguine’ that was danced in the 1930s in Parisian clubs
like the Ba Negre or the Boule Blanche. But at the end of the 1950s, with the
first microgrooves and the first record players, the musical expressions characteristic
of the French Antilles were going to be literally demolished. Just like those
hurricanes that sweep the region with certain frequency, leaving a desolate
panorama in its aftermath. The orchestras from Haiti imposed their cadence and
compás relentlessly. Without forgetting the boleros
and sones arrived from the Spanish-speaking islands. It was that way until 1984.
It was during that period when a group called Kassav (the kassav is a mandioca
cake with coconut and sugar) was going to release a strange manifest in ‘Creol’:
Zouk-lase sel medikaman nou ni (zouk is the only medicine that we have).
The zouk were, at the beginning of the 20th century, some fiestas, popular dances
that were very ‘hot,’ to which, it seems, many gentlemen of the bourgeoisie
were accustomed to go without their wives. That is, a synonym for black music
and licentiousness. The local culture was seen then by the dominant class as
something worthless as long as it was associated with a culture that was supposedly
inferior. On the other hand, there were no aesthetic concerns in the zouk. Its
only purpose: that everybody danced until exhaustion.

What Kassav proposed, in the decade of the 1980s, with the name of zouk is an explosive rhythmic mixture: a magic cocktail with the ideal proportions of Haitian compás, calypso, funk, rock and traditional rhythms of the French West Indies. It is shaken conveniently with the help of technology in any sophisticated recording studio, and it is served in any dance hall. All those whose ears are tuned only to music from the English speaking countries should abstain. Although, as a curiosity, one could mention that Miles Davis admitted the pleasure that kassav gave him, in his autobiography, and that the New York Times has praised the music.

Kassav was the first Antillean group to receive a gold album, in 1986, gathering more than forty thousand people in a concert celebrated in the L’Anse-Bertrand stadium, in Guadalupe. In Paris, on June 21, of that same year, it would be three hundred thousand. The members of Kassav have performed in the main capitals of the globe. And, as penitence for French racists and as form of sarcasm, it is the French group that sells more CDs.

Jacob Desvarieux (1.80 meters tall, weighing 100 kg) says that “when the people went to the disco, they could not listen to Antillean music because the records didn’t sound well.”That, in fact, was one of the tricks of the group created by the siblings Pierre Edouard and George Decimus, and Jacob Desvarieux: achieving that their albums sounded in a way that they could compete in the radio stations and the discos with the most sophisticated products of the international record industry. And, also, as Desvarieux explained during that time, “we were able to find a type of music that has the rhythm of black music and the harmony of white musicthe base of the Antillean culture: the spirit of hybridization.”

After the trail of Kassav there are artists like Ralph Tamar, Tanya Saint-Val, Joelle Ursull, MariJose Alie or the women of Zouk Machine. Zouk seems to have taken over the pop charts in the French Antilles. Even, often, with recordings that repeat the same outlines, without much inspiration. But, surprisingly, its success has allowed the recovery of musical expressions that were considered unacceptable earlier, because of its ties with the times of slavery. So, syncopated rhythms like the chouval bwa, or the bele, and drums like the qwo ka or the ti bwa, are being heard again. One of the artists that has become interested in the music roots is Kali, recovering a tradition with a brilliant band named Malavoi: Creolized European dances (polka, mazurca.) served by sugary voices, charming violins and elegant arrangements.

This record, wrote Jacob Desvarieux and George Decimus on the back cover of Zouk-la-se…, is dedicated those of us that have grown on the other side of the sea, so that they don’t forget their roots. And it is to the merit of Kassav to have returned the pride of being Antillean. For that reason, if you ask a young woman from Pointe-a-Pitre or Fort-de-France which is her favorite group, she will easily respond, without hiding her pride, that it is Kassav. That is, without forgetting to give you with a beautiful smile.