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Musical Tradition in Martinique: Between the Local and the Global

Monique Desroches

(translated from French by Sharon Berman and Catherine Potter)

1. Introduction

Ever since the end of World War ll, the world has witnessed the opening up of its social, economic and cultural spheres. Daily reports from the media of worldwide events have been almost too effective, giving the impression of a simultaneous sharing of ideas and emotions. Yet the uniformity suggested by such globalization prompts reflection on its inherent consequences. Moreover, the passion and enthusiasm so in vogue in the 80s (and until recently) has begun to dwindle, in parallel with a kind of an antithesis of globalization: a veritable nationalistic explosion on the religious, linguistic and cultural fronts.

Hence, two main musical trends can be traced. The first is inspired by tendancy toward globalization and is well illustrated by the music industry's creation of a new genre, "world music". This new commercial genre is characterized by, among other things, a fusion of stylistic elements, the borrowing of foreign musical instruments and establishing a common pool of rhythms and special effects. Much as many airports feel like "nowhere lands", so does sometimes this fusion genre evade geographic ties. A second trend, doubtless in reaction to the first, expressly highlights stylistic elements particular to a culture, an ethnic group or a distinct social context. This "territorialized" musical expression is often embedded within a socially-oriented quest for identity, whether of a national, ethnic, cultural or religious nature. The growing popularity of traditional music, the space given it in international festivals, the movements for the return to the source and roots, as well as the numerous commercial releases are dedicated to this genre.

We are today witnessing the breaking down of the identitarian links that had been woven through colonialism in favor of the establishment of new references that stem from multiple sources: langages, religions, geographical and cultural territories, etc....

Despite constant chages and adjustments, Martinique's music has nonetheless maintained expressive elements which distinguish it from other Creole traditions, even if on a more global level it also contributes to the flux of tansnational music.

In the pages that follow, I will attempt to situate contemporary Martinican musical practices in relation to these two main currents mentioned before. It is my hope that in doing so, the role of music in the quest for cultural identity will be recognized, in particular the influence music has had in the development of a martinican identity.

This musical survey begins in l946, when Martinique gained the status of an Overseas French Department, and continues on to the present (at the time of writing, 1995). A brief description of the island's social history and an introduction to the idea of "creolization" will be followed by an in-depth discussion of the predominant musical practices in Martinique in those five decades. Performance context and the factors which have contributed to the popularity of certain musical genres will be also studied.

2. Social Background

Martinique is a young society formed through the contribution of différents social groups: Caribbean, West African, French and East Indian (mainly Tamil).
While French is the island's official language, Creole is used in everyday communication. This type of bilingual society, in which the vernacular tongue remains in active use without an official status, has encouraged the emergence of a parallel culture based on oral tradition. The use of Creole, notably in public contexts, has become a symbol of both identification and of assertion for the people of Martinique, setting them culturally apart from Metropolitan France.

The island's population, numbering approximately 320,000, is composed largely of the descendents of West African slaves and their métissage (mainly with the French and later with the Tamils). Like other Creole areas, the island is marked by interculturalism and as such its musical practices are complex and drawn from muliple sources, old and new. It is this intercultural dimension which inspired researcher Depestre to write: "The Caribbean serves as a kind of crucible in which the elements of interculturalism can be clearly identified ... The extreme healthiness of the culture is the result of the crossbreeding of the diverse elements which have shaped the sensitivity and the reasoning of the people in this region." (as cited in Berrouët-Oriol and Fournier 1994: 19)

This métissage has specifically transformed martinican's day-to-day life by creating a multiple frame of reference for identity. French, African, Asian or Creole elements might be present during a musical event, depending on where and when it takes place ( for instance, at school, at work, or within the family). This phenomenon has caused anthropologists specializing in Creole culture to speak about cumulative identities (Fuma and Poirier 1994) or situational -contextual belongings. (Benoist 1994 ) Musical practices are also influenced by these same processes. Moreover, the island's traditional and popular music not only contributes to a trend that emphasizes identity, but for many the music itself has become a symbol of the quest for a Martinican sense of belonging. In regions where métissage and fusion the norm, identitarian links are in constant movement. Ethnicity can therefore be defined on the basis of social, ideological and political trends, and music can either bear or reflect these trends.

3. Musical practices: a product and a process

In Martinique, music serves above all to describe the environment, not only in terms of sound but also social and cultural aspects. A symbolic universe unto itself, music reflects simultaneously that which binds people together and that which sets them apart. Indeed, beyond the rifts that can be traced back to the times of slavery, Martinique has always been characterized by a melting-pot of ethnic heritages, giving its musical practices a unique contour.

Four options have always been available to local musicians:

  1. conservation or the abandonment of traditional practices;
  2. adoption of new practices;
  3. innovation, and
  4. creation .

However, the choice between these options is not randomly made. While Martinicans have delved deeply into their past traditions, in doing so they have reinterpreted them in accordance with current contexts and in light of their quest for cultural identity. The musical borrowing and reinterpretation so characteristic of Creole regions is considered an integral part of the creative process, thus giving birth to the term creolization. The transformation of original elements and the substitution of others; changes in function; attempts to retain ancestral customs; the borrowing of some expression of modernity and the denunciation of others, the reinterpretation and consequent recreation of certain musical genres, all these traits serve as reminders as to how deeply Martinique is anchored in a Creole identity. Through the Martinicans' unique style of social expression, it is clear that oral tradition lives on in Martinique, from the krik-krac tales told at funeral wakes to the vwa of the bélè dance singers and even in the parades that occur spontaneously during Carnaval.

A comparison between contemporary musical practices with descriptions of early practices reveals, among other things, that Martinique's musical traditions have followed both a regional and an insular trajectory. This can be seen as a process though which musical practices have constantly evolved around social, cultural and economic changes, particularly since 1946. Musical examples which were each performed and appreciated during a specific period will illustrate this process.

4. Music and the quest for a cultural identity

4.1 The Martinican biguine: a reference genre.

In identifying an authentically Martinican musical genre, discourse on musical tradition singles out the biguine, due to its early origins and frequent use. The biguine (referring both to the music and the accompanying dance) can be distinguished by the two following binary rhythmic patterns:

Two main types of Martinican biguine can be identified based on the instrumentation in contemporary musical practice, which I will call the drum biguine and the orchestrated biguine . Each of these refer to contexts of a specific origin. The drum biguine, or bidgin bélè in Creole, comes from a series of bélè dances performed since early colonial times by the slaves who inhabited the great sugar plantations. Musically, the bidgin bélè can be distinguished from the orchestrated biguine in the following ways: its instrumentation (cylindrical single-membraned drum (bélè ) and the rhythm sticks (tibwa )); the call-and-response singing style; the soloist's improvisation, and the nasal voice quality. According to a recent study by Rosemain (1988), the biguine figured in fertility rituals practiced in West Africa, but its ritual significance has since disappeared in Martinique. The biguine could be thought of, then, as a continuation of a value system that is in essence African but now with the sugar plantations as its social platform. The late singers Ti-Émile, Ti-Raoul and Eugène Mona remain to this day symbols of the bidgin bélè.

The orchestrated biguine has taken a completely different route, however. Its more hybrid ancestry can be traced to Saint Pierre, an urban center which since the 19th century has harbored a considerable number of residents of French descendance. While it keeps the syncopated character of the bidgin bélè , this urban biguine takes on an almost Dixieland flavor by virtue of its complex instrumentation (see Table 1). The melody, while sung in Creole, uses a verse-refrain form, bespeaking an unmistakably French influence. The well-known Mwen désennd Sin Piè , as well as many other melodies popularized by Léona Gabriel, the Pierre Rassin Orchestra and Loulou Boislaville, among others, would fit into this category.

In Table 1, the characteristics of the drum and orchestrated biguines are distinguished by highlighting the stylistic elements of each, as well as indicating the place of origin. The table also reveals that the same binary rhythmic pattern maintained by the tibwa (as notated above) is present in both cases, suggesting that this rhythm that characterizes the biguine , and could therefore be called its main identifying trait.
Table 1

4.2 The "kadans" or the birth of a Creole identity in Martinique

For many years, the musical environment with which the entire population of Martinique identified itself was essentially defined by the two types of biguine (with the mazouk and the Creole waltz), along with certain latin-american rhythms. It was not until the 1970s that this soundscape underwent substantial changes. The causes of this transformation were many but one major event is worth special mention: the immigration to Martinique of a great number of Haitians fleeing their country for political reasons. To the urban centers of the French West Indies the Haitians brought with them the kadans ("cadence"), a musical genre already familiar to some Martinicans via local radio stations. The kadans is characterized by a subtle use of musical accents, syncopation and instrumental color, derived from the mini-jazz orchestras of Haiti (featuring brass, lead and bass guitar, bell and drums). The vocal technique used in the kadans also contributes to its distinctive flavor by the use of onomatopoeia and long, drawn-out tones reminiscent of bel canto.

This new music upset the relationship that Martinicans had maintained with their music up to that point, former ties to island history and the traditional music of their ancestors now becoming overshadowed by the new, freshly imported music. However, the arrival of a popular music from another island served ultimately to highlight a sociocultural commonality between the two cultures with their shared history of slavery and a common language, Creole. So it was that the island's cultural landmarks were no longer purely based on Martinican history and society but became something more vast in nature, embracing the entire Caribbean.

While the music that had previously been produced in Martinique had most often come from groups that had been formed on the spot at events of an equally spontaneous nature, the kadans set a whole new dynamic into motion, with new players, production values, and socio-economic settings. Here were groups whose status approached that of "professional", among whom the majority had already recorded commercially and whose success had been transmitted by the media throughout the Creole-speaking Caribbean, setting a standard which local musicians aspired to meet. The kadans swept the country by storm, and the majority of Martinican musicians turned to the performance and composition of Haitian-style kadans, recording on French and West Indian lables (the singer David Martial and the group La Perfekta come to mind as examples of this musical phenomenon), and for the first time in history the Creole Caribbean moved to the same rhythm, and to the same music.

The result of all this upheaval was that the islanders' quest for cultural identity could no longer be considered solely Martinican but also Creole. The founding of the Journée internationale du créole (International Creole Day) in the early 1980s, since held annually on October 28, could be seen as the official manifestation of a sense of belonging for this great Creole culture, wherein music has played, and still plays, a key role.

4.3 Zouk : a musical and social phenomenon.

The musical hegemony of the kadans thus dominated the musical scene throughout the 1970s until the advent of zouk in the mid-1980s. Much more than a new concept or a fad, zouk is a true musical phenomenon that reaches beyond the borders of the West Indies to the continents of Africa, Europe and America (see Guilbault l993). But from a traditional and a social point of view, one can see that the essential expressive elements of zouk are drawn from pure French West Indian traditions, using the bélè, makè or oulè drums to hold down, along with the ti-bwa and the rattle chacha , a rhythm whose basic pulse comes from the drum biguine. The founders of the group Kassav (which epitomizes the zouk sound), Pierre-Edouard Décimus and Jacob Devarieux, then mixed in the festive ambiance and sense of release which marks the vidé (spontaneous street carnival parade), and integrated rhythmic elements of the dances of old. In this way a zouk (a dance party), after the fashion of the balakadri (from the French bal à quadrilles) and the bal granmoun (old-time evening balls) featured the new zouk sound in alternation with dances such as biguines, slows, and mazurkas to punctuate the evening's ambience. On top of this already successful formula, the creators continued to creolize by slipping in the syncopation of calypso, bringing the bass to the fore as in reggae, emphasizing guitar solos, and adding staccato brass, all solidly anchored in the ostinato figures of the drums as heard in the contemporary Zairean sound. The popularity of zouk lay in its inventors' ability to engineer and balance its borrowed musical elements so effectively that the resulting atmosphere of sheer joy and release became associated with the genre.

Zouk gave the region a second wind, perhaps even a new life, and became the common ground, the moment of exchange and synthesis where all could meet. In this way, zouk could be seen not only as the reinterpretation, but the recreation of a music which may originally have come from diverse sources, but which now consecrates itself entirely to the expression of Martinican identity. With zouk, Martinican music entered fully into the European and American market, where the recording industry responded to the laws of commercial supply and demand. Unlike the phenomenon of the kadans, where Martinicans drew their inspiration from foreign musical genres, zouk proposed a new musical model, where, among other things, women voices played a central role, that united first the entire West Indian community and eventually musicians and fans of Black music the world over. In addition, following the example of the American and European rock scene, Martinican musicians began to take a growing interest in the visual dimension of performance, where the stakes had become as important as those of the aural dimension. Theatrical staging (choreography, costumes, repetetive movements and lighting) was incorporated into the Martinican musical experience, shifting its appearance from that of a simple dance to a veritable spectacle. For banal as it may seem today to those familiar with rock concerts, music videos and the like, when one compares the rural biguine of the 1950s to zouk , it is clear that a significant transformation took place in those thirty years. New values and relationships were created between the people and their music, where the latter is no longer simply intended to be danced to, but also to be seen.

To be sure, zouk is result of the fusion of certain musical genres from the Caribbean, Africa and Europe, but it also represents the Martinicans' desire to put forth an image of the French West Indies that would remain Creole while meeting up with modernity. A new dimension to identity was added, inspired by musical, commercial and aesthetic trends, and would ultimately come to characterize a transnational culture.

4.4 Contemporary trends

Three main avenues remain available to today's Martinican musician.4 The first is the continuation of the trajectory taken by zouk in the mid-1980s, but which musicians now clothe in new sounds (such as richer harmonies and orchestral diversity), which I call "post-zouk". The group Kwak, for instance, would fit into this category. Modernity, transnationality, marketing, commercialization, creativity are the landmarks put forward this post-zouk movement.

The second main musical path I call a "return to the source", which advocates the return to musical beginnings by favoring music that draws from the past, thereby emphasizing common musical roots. Distinctions formerly made between traditional and popular music are becoming increasingly fine as the latter continues to incorporate more and more elements from the former (rhythmic and melodic expression, traditional content and performance context) and as traditional music practices grow rarer due to massive urbanization as well as Caribbean overseas migration. This new approach seems to be the chosen avenue of a good number of contemporary musicians, some of whom have revived, at times almost completely, music from ancestral traditions or music from the era preceding Martinique's departmentalization in 1946. The group Racines is an example of this phenomenon--their 1988 recording of the same name became a bestseller and hit the top of the charts soon after its release. Other musicians use traditional Martinican rhythms (biguine, mazurka ) as a foundation and continue to sing in Creole, but choose to develop and integrate foreign instrumental techniques and harmonies such as those of jazz, among others. The success of Mario Canonge's 1991 recording Retour aux sources belongs to this category, which could be seen as a continuation of the trend begun as far back as the 1960s by Marius Cultier and the group Fall Fret. . Today, recording companies and distribution and marketing networks alike accept music with an ever-diversifying signature, among which traditional music figures strongly (good examples again being the group Racines , Max Cilla, as well as the group Bélè nou ).

The third musical avenue would be rap and raggamuffin, which fans have completely adopted, part and parcel, without it ever having passed through the filter of reinterpretation, as was the case with other imported genres. Here, identity is linked with Black culture, and a variety of concerns are addressed, especially the denunciation of the unequal sharing of power and resources. The creole family is then extended and the points of reference, different from the ancient ones. But orality and creole language remain the key features of this new music as it was the case for traditional practices. Whether the music's historical elements will be retained or eventually forgotten, it will be interesting to follow the evolution of rap and raggamuffin in the years to come.

5. Conclusion

Musical practices: a product, a process, an issue.

Despite constant changes and adjustments, Martinique's music has maintained expressive elements which distinguish it from other Creole traditions, even if on a more global level it also contributes to the flux of "transnational" music. The coexistence of the diverse musical practices and aesthetics mentioned earlier leads me to believe that Martinican music is currently at a crossroads in the search for a cultural identity. The choice of performance space, the selection of sonic material, the creation of new musical directions, music that is at once nationalistic (local) and transnational (global) : all these factors seem to indicate a profound preoccupation with the quest for an identity, a search for a musical space that would be simultaneously Martinican, Creole and contemporary.

To speak about music is to speak about those by whom and for whom music is made. It is also to speak about the moments, the circumstances, and the places that give birth and meaning to music. Whether traditional, popular or art music, the styles and modes of expression which these musics assume reflect the changes in tastes and values chosen by society, and in effect, translating a local group's history. Moreover, in much the way of a cultural vector, music often announces those changes which are as much on the political and social level as on a purely cultural one. Hence, it appears that musical practices must be looked at not only as a product and a process, but also and above all, as a social, political and musical issue.

Martinicans are continuously building up their specific cultural identity through these creative and dynamic musical processes, among others. With this in mind, thinking of music, together as a product, a process and an issue might well facilitate the understanding of the deeply imbedded reasons behind culture bearers' choices in the expression of their musical traditions.


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  • DANCE CADENCE, (Compiled by B MANDELSON), Ace Records Ltd,
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  • KALI (RACINES). Hibiscus Records HR 88020 CS 750, France and Switzerland. l988.
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  • MARIO CANONGE ( et le groupe KANN') RETOUR AUX SOURCES. S.N.A.150960, Distribution NATAL, France, l991.

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