Interview: Brenda Berrian on Music and Culture in the French Caribbean- PART 2
Professor Brenda Berrian of the University of Pittsburgh first grooved to French Caribbean music while a graduate student doing research in France in the early 1970s, and hasn’t shaken the addiction since. In fact, she has become a foremost scholar of the music of the French Antilles, exploring its roots, social context, and lyrical messages in numerous academic publications, including her book Awakening Spaces: French Caribbean Popular Songs, Music and Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2000). Over the years, she has had the benefit of long personal interviews with many of the French Antilles’ great musicians, often in their homes in Guadeloupe, Martinique or France. Afropop Worldwide’s Siddhartha Mitter interviewed Berrian in late March 2009. This is part two of that interview. The following transcript was edited for length and clarity.
S.M: Well let’s talk about Kassav’ then, and how they began.
B.B: Malavoi was strictly Martinican musicians. Whereas Kassav’ decided, ‘we are not going to be just a Guadeloupean group. We are part of the Caribbean, we are part of the metropole, we are part of the larger world. So we are going to deliberately pull together a band of fifteen members coming from Africa, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Corsica and mainland France.’ That was a very deliberate decision upon their part because they said we are a composite of all these parts. And that’s falling into the Edouard Glissant idea of Antillanité and being hybrids and that’s the position that Kassav’ took.
It started with the Decimus brothers, Jean Pierre Decimus who played the bass for Les Vikings de Guadeloupe, which was a very popular group in the 1960’s and early 70’s in Guadeloupe. Jean Pierre and his brother Georges, who’s the guitarist, decided in their little apartment in downtown Pointe-à-Pitre that they wanted to come up with a different kind of music. Because when you thought about Malavoi you thought about it being for the highly educated group – even though Malavoi is popular also among people who are not as educated – but they wanted to approach across the base. And so they consciously said the foundation of this music has to be the gwo ka, the drum, whereas in Malavoi it’s the violin. And remember you had to be well to do to be a violinist in the French Caribbean, it cost a lot of money and you had to take private lessons. So the average person could not send their children for violin lessons. Whereas with Kassav’ we’re talking about people coming from different classes.
So you went across the class structure, you went across the color, because color is always there in the Caribbean. And when you looked at the formation of the early Malavoi they were always light skinned mulatto looking people, whereas now you have more of a mixture in Malavoi, but not initially. Whereas with Kassav’ there were all colors. So that was a conscious decision too, to show that we are a mixture of people. They invited white French musicians as well, because they needed a horn section — Kassav’ you’re talking about drum and percussions, you’re talking about horns and percussions and a hard rock guitar in Jacob Desvarrieux — they chose Jacob Desvarrieux because he had grown up in Senegal, he was Guadeloupean, and he was a studio musician, a guitarist who played a range of music. He could go from Jimmy Hendrix, hard core rock, to funk, he could play Motown, biguine, a very gifted guitarist. So those were the three founders, with Freddy Marshall who I mentioned was a very influential producer.
S.M: But at the beginning we’re still in Guadeloupe, still in Pointe-à-Pitre…
B.B: We’re still in Pointe-à-Pitre. It originally started with four Guadeloupeans, and then a decision was made to expand the group, to go from just being a gwo ka based band where they’re promoting the drum. And the decision was made to say, ‘let’s expand this music, and to move from Guadeloupe to France. Because we do not want to be working full-time and then playing music part-time like Malavoi and other bands. We want to be a full-time professional band earning money strictly from our music and nothing else.’ And to do that they had to move to France.
The other decision was because they wanted to have the latest technical support; because mixing zouk is not easy, having sat in those studios I can tell you, it’s not easy trying to figure out how to fuse all those different musical genres into the sound called zouk. Because zouk is a mixture of African music, Caribbean music, American music, Jamaican music, Brazilian music, and they blend it all to make this sound called zouk, which is very pulsating music, very loud.
So they went to France and they said for the first time they were going to hire a woman full-time to be their singer: Jocelyne Béroard, from Martinique. She was not only going to sing with them, she was going to compose a lot of their songs, the first time ever in the history of French Caribbean music to do that with a woman.
Usually a woman just was invited to sing with a band. But she was to be a full-fledged member of the band and a very active member of the band. And that was not without some difficulties, because she had to quit and then fight them to come back on her own terms. But she’s a very strong-willed woman although in public she comes across as a very sweet person, but she has a will of iron, I can tell you. But that was just historic, to bring in a woman.
Then they said we need horns, and since they’re in a time period when not too many French Caribbean people knew how to play trombones and saxophones they had to go to musicians from France and Corsica to be their horn players. And then they picked a Camerounian to be their percussionist. It was a nice mixture and they wanted to show that ‘we are a blend of people, we are hybrids and we are Creole as well: we’re only going to sing in Creole.’
The French recording studios wanted them to sing in French, and they said “absolutely no, we are going to sing in Creole,” and that lost them a lot of contracts initially. They started with Herni Debs but when they moved to France they signed with Sony. But they had a hard time getting that contract because a lot of the studios wanted them to sing in French. They wanted to know what they were singing. They said “that’s none of your business, you have to learn Creole! We had to learn French, you have to learn Creole.”
And this is the band that exploded, this is the band that won gold records – you can go and see 50,000 people or more sitting to hear them in cities all over the world – they just have never made it big in this country [the United States], unfortunately. But they are big in Africa, in Asia, in the Caribbean of course, France, I have been in many concerts where it is just packed with people. And their songs have become more and more political. Especially the new album that came out this past year, oh my goodness, they’re becoming more and more blatant talking about slavery.
S.M: So can we say that Kassav’ invented zouk?
B.B: Yes they did. They invented the music zouk and they said they wanted to invent a music that would capture not just the Caribbean, but the entire world. They wanted to reach out to the entire world, that to them was very important. They said, we’re from little islands and we’re not going to be narrowed into saying it’s a Guadeloupean band or a Martinican band. We’re going to cover both the islands and Africa, as well as the mainland, because that’s our history.
S.M: But despite this global outlook they insisted on singing in Creole.
B.B: Right. Because they’re saying the foundation is an Antillean band. So when they sing in Creole, which is very interesting too, they sing in Guadeloupean and Martinican Creole, and sometimes they’ll mix the two Creoles in the same song. Now they’re putting a little English in their songs. And around 1999-2000 they did a salsa version of some of their songs. They went to Cuba and recorded some of their old favorites in Spanish. Then they did an English version in Trinidad, but it didn’t go over that well. People wanted to hear them sing in Creole rather than English or Spanish.
S.M: Now when a lot of people think of zouk they think of a very sleek, sexy music.
B.B: That’s called zouk love. You have the zouk beton, which is that fast, fast pulsating music that you hear. Then you have zouk love, so that when you hear Jocelyne Beroard for example singing “Pa bisouin pale,” “no need to speak,” it’s very slow, very romantic, or when you hear Jean Phillipe Marthely singing “Bel kréati,” “beautiful creature,” that’s very slow as well, or Patrick St-Eloi singing “Ki jan ka fé,” “what am I doing,” they’re very romantic songs.
So Kassav’ floats between writing the very romantic songs, which is the zouk love, which is more popular now — people in the Caribbean seem to prefer the zouk love — and the hard zouk that is really pulsating, with “Sye bwa” and their first hit, “Zouk la se sel medicaman nou ni,” “zouk is the only medicine we have.” That was their number one hit when they won their first gold record.
Something else that Kassav’ has done too: they perform as a group and then each member makes his or her own album, so you have the Kassav’ songs then the Jocelyne Béroard songs, the Jacob Desvarrieux songs, etc. And I find it intriguing that they will take songs from the individual albums and then perform them with the whole group, letting you know: we are still members of the group Kassav’ even though we are making our own individual albums.
S.M: And they perform each other’s songs together.
B.B: Exactly, and Jocelyne usually does all of the backup singing for them, for practically everybody, she’s constantly being their backup singer. That happens and as well as Jean Jean-Philippe Marthély and Patrick St. Eloi, he does a lot of the backups as well, but as I said Patrick St. Eloi has left the group, he sings as a solo artist now, but he says without Kassav’ he would not be where he is today. You also have Jean-Claude Naimro who is the arranger and the fellow who plays the synthesizer, he writes a lot of songs for Kassav’ in his one gold records for Kassav’ as well and he has his own individual albums.
S.M: So what are some of your favorite Kassav’ songs?
B.B: Oh my gosh there’s so many, there’s just so many of them; its really hard to pick and they’re so different. I like ‘Pa bisouin palé’ which one of Jocelyne Béroard’s number one hits, which means ‘no need to speak,’ came out in the early 80’s it was a major hit especially with the women, because for the first time a Caribbean woman openly says in a song ‘close the door’ but she doesn’t say close the door like Teddy Pendergrass said in his song ‘close the door’ many years ago, she says it softly, she says ‘close the door’. And for the Caribbean, where the women are usually passive aggressive, for a woman to actually tell a man ‘close the door,’ even though she does it gently, was a shock to the community, they couldn’t believe it, and that’s why Jocelyne had to do it nicely saying, ‘Fèmen lapòt-la,’ nicely, done like that. In other words she was the initiator, she’s saying we need to talk, things are not going well, we need to be enclosed in this intimate space, and you’re not leaving the room until we talk about what’s happening with our relationship. That’s it.
She’s talking about communication that for a relationship to be sound, man and woman must communicate, on a physical level, psychological level, verbal level for it to be a very firm, firm relationship. And in the Caribbean, not enough of that occurs, because there are more women than men, and the men are very promiscuous, and she was aware of that when she made that song. So I’m telling you when you go to a Kassav’ concert and the minute you start hearing the familiar music of ‘Pa bisouin palé’, the women jump up and start screaming, looking at the men and shaking their fingers and ‘Pa Bizwen Palé.’ It’s very interesting.
As well as song she made called ‘Siwo,’ Which is very interesting because when you talk to a French Caribbean man he says ‘oh I have a siwo,’ meaning he has a passive aggressive sweet little woman who jumps when he says jump, whereas Jocelyne Béroard made her song about how she wants a siwo. But what she says is, ‘I want a man who is strong, I want a man who is good, and I want a man who is from the West Indies, but he has to meet certain requirements for him to be my siwo.’ So her siwo is not supposed to be a compliant, sweet, passive aggressive man, but yet he’s a loving man who shares with her, and most of all he has to be a Caribbean man. So that was an extremely popular song that I like as well from Jocelyne Béroard, and she made a later song in 1995 called ‘Ké Sa Lévé,’ which means ‘I will rebound’. I thought about the song made by Gloria Gaynor, ‘I Will Survive,’ so a few years ago in Miami Florida I gave a speech comparing ‘I Will Survive’ with Gloria Gaynor with Jocelyne Béroard ‘Ké Sa Lévé,’ where ‘I Will Survive’ which is actually written by a man and a woman sings the song, she is just screaming about how she is going to survive, and she’s all powerful, and opinionated and aggressive, whereas in the French Caribbean, the woman are aggressive but they do it in a sweet kind of way, as opposed to the open way American women approach things.
So in her song, she keeps singing, ‘lévé lévé lévé,’ meaning ‘I’m going to rise, I’m going to rise,’ I’m going to rebound from this marriage, or this affair that is not going right. So no matter what I’m going to survive the outcome of this situation. But she doesn’t do it in a very strident, aggressive way, she just keeps building up the song with the music in the background going ‘lévé lévé lévé’ and that is an extremely popular song as well. And you see the women jumping out their seats and screaming ‘lévé lévé’ with her when she’s singing the song about I’m rising up, I’m rising up, I’m rebounding from this unfortunate situation that I happen to be in. But again, done in a nice way.
S.M: But surely she wasn’t the first major woman singer…
B.B: You had the earlier women singers that I mentioned, like Leona Gabriel, Moune de Revel, Manuel Lapioche, Madame Mavunze coming from Guadeloupe and Martinique, who usually sang songs that had been composed by men and the men’s version of gender relations. Some of them wrote some songs, Leona Gabriel did write some songs, but mainly these were men’s songs. But thanks to Jocelyne Béroard, she has really helped open the door for French Caribbean women singers, whether they’re coming from French Guiana, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and let the women know that it’s okay to write their own songs, their own lyrics, and to sing them. And now you are just saturated with women singers, you have Tanya St-Val from Guadeloupe who’s a zouk singer, you have Joelle Z, who was very popular, she performed at Eurovision, she disappeared for a while and now she’s back on the scene. You had Zouk Machine, a trio of women singing very saucy kind of lyrics but they were primarily written by the men from Experience Encet from Guadeloupe.
Now you have all these women coming from Guadeloupe and Martinique primarily zouk singers, singing songs about love, singing about their hopes, and their dreams, their aspirations, primarily zouk music, but they’re talking about how gender relations are going to change, where they’re not going to be just the passive woman waiting for the man to come home from his mistress, how he has to be responsible. All of this is thanks to Jocelyne Béroard who opened the door, who’s called the ‘Zouk Diva’ through Kassav’. And most of them when you talk to them say without Jocelyne Béroard, we would not be able to have a career.
And you have contests held now in Guadeloupe and Martinique, judging who are the best women singers; they’re singing more in the Carnaval, everywhere you look now, its impossible now not to see a woman. Even in a lot of the male groups now, they make sure they have at least one or two women singing in their groups, because otherwise they’re going to be chastised ‘what is this, all male, where is the woman, where is she?’ That has opened the doors; I would say zouk has been responsible for that since most of them are zouk singers.
S.M: What were some of the changes that the success of Kassav’ brought about?
B.B: Well it was the first time that a group was making so much money, and there were all these young aspiring musicians and singers who wanted to follow into Kassav’s footsteps. They thought money was just going to fall into their hands immediately. They were so naïve, so they would get on their computers and try to come up with their own music on their home computers, and that’s how you had the raggamuffin and the reggae influenced kind of music, and the rap music; because they thought they were going to be an instant success and were going to be able to make videos, because Kassav’ also was making videos, which is now popular in the Caribbean. Videos of all their songs, this was something unusual back in that time period in the 1980’s. This was something new. So Kassav’ kept on opening up all these new doors with the technology and the videos and doing lots of interviews, again something that had occurred but not at the level that Kassav’ was doing.
S.M: And I remember hearing zouk in West Africa back in the early 1990s. It was extremely popular.
B.B: Well what happened is that if you were to go to Ivory Coast, there is a singer called Monique Seka, who sings afro-zouk, there’s a group called Meiway, in Cote d’Ivoire, again heavily influenced by Kassav’, you had other singers like TK who’s now deceased from the Congo who did afro-zouk. If you go to Senegal there is a Cape Verdean called Philippe Monteiro who lives in Dakar who sings in Wolof as well as in Portuguese, and he sings Cape Verdean zouk based on Kassav’ kind of music. You go to Tanzania with a group called Kilimanjaro and they’d take the Kassav’ songs, they didn’t know what they were singing in Creole — and tried to phonetically imitate the Creole and then try to write the Swahili version of the Kassav’ songs. So traveling throughout the countries across the African continent people have said, when I said I had been to Martinique, ‘oh do you know this group? Do you know Kassav’? We’re trying to imitate this music and we’re making money from imitating this music.
S.M: And it’s increased the visibility of Guadeloupe and Martinique.
B.B: Right and because Kassav’ is constantly touring in Africa, constantly going back and forth back and forth into Africa to sing, this has helped to globalize their music and to get people to become more interested in their music and finding out, ‘well where is this Martinique and Guadeloupe, where are they located? And they’re beginning to read now about Guadeloupe and Martinique. Well, in French Africa people are more aware of who they are. But in English speaking Africa, especially in Tanzania, the group was telling me how they were trying to find everything they could on the islands and they were trying to learn more about the French islands saying ‘We didn’t even know they existed, we only knew about Jamaica and Trinidad’ because Tanzania is English speaking and Swahili speaking. It’s the same thing in Kenya too; when I was in Kenya they were interested in zouk music. So I have been in some of the oddest places and heard the music. I was in South Africa and Cape Town, in a very exclusive restaurant, and what comes over the music system was first Malavoi and then Kassav’. And I said ‘here I am in Cape Town.’
S.M: So that’s the global impact. But has Kassav’ helped change the social climate back in the Antilles?
B.B: I would say so, because the singers are not just singers; they are very active in Paris as well as back in their islands. In fact what I neglected to mention was that now the Kassav’ members are spending about half their time in their islands and half the time in Paris. Before it was practically 80% of the time in Paris. They’re getting older and really missing the warmth of their islands especially during the winter season. They’d like to go back since it’s a group that is involved in raising money for poor children, a group that is very close to some of the local Caribbean politicians, very close to Patrick Chamoiseau, the first Martinican to win the Prix Goncourt in France for literature, and he promoted the Creole language. So it’s not a group that just sings, it’s involved in political organizations and charities, they run concerts where they’re trying to promote new artists; they’re constantly inviting upcoming musicians and singers to guest with Kassav’ or tour with Kassav’ for maybe a couple of months. You’re constantly seeing for example Jocelyne singing with Youssou N’Dour from Senegal, singing gwo ka with a Guadeloupean band, singing with Tabou Combo from Haiti.
S.M: But while Kassav’ was getting big, there was another dimension to the revival of roots music in the French Antilles, with Eugène Mona. Tell us about him and his significance.
B.B: Eugène Mona was a man before his times, he really, really was. What he did in the 80’s that was considered to be unacceptable is now acceptable today. Because basically the French Caribbean was a very closed, conservative place, especially in the 70’s and the 80’s and Eugène Mona didn’t like that pretentious behavior, where the Martinicans they say would be more French than the French, you know, have the little pinky finger when they’re drinking their little tea and he says ‘oh this is ridiculous, lets get to the roots here. We’re people, we’re coming from peasant stock, we’re coming from slaves, let’s get real here.’
So Eugène Mona would walk through Fort- de-France, which is the capital of Martinique, in bare feet. And the Martinicans spend a lot of time on their bodies, you know, looking just right. Now here comes this man walking down the street with his bare feet. Which back in the 80’s was just highly inappropriate in the urban city of Fort-de-France. He also played the bamboo flute, which he made himself since he was a carpenter, again an instrument that was to be heard in the countryside but not in the city. He loved to eat mangos, so he carried a sack on his back full of mangos, and when I first saw him, to this day I don’t know how he did it, he put the whole mango in his mouth and then the seed came out. And I went ‘What happened to the skin and what happened to the rest of the fruit? All I see is the seed.’ And he didn’t swallow the seed, I don’t know how he ate the mango to be honest, but all these seeds would just come out of his mouth, it sounds ridiculous but this is the God’s honest truth. And he would just spit the seeds out and walk and come in the house I was visiting, he was a friend of a friend of mine, and he would come in with the bare feet with these mangos, and he said, ‘I’m sick of this pretentious behavior. We are grass-root people, we need to quit trying to be French, the French will never accept us. So lets quit being French lets be Martinicans.’
And he promoted drumming, the drum, here we go again with the Bélé drum, and the bamboo flute, he in his music and he said, ‘I’m going to talk about what black people share.’ So in his song called ‘Bwa brilé’ which means ‘burnt wood’ or ‘the dark man’ he talks about Otis Redding, Martin Luther King, Louis Armstrong, he sings in the afro-blues style. And he talks about the suffering that the black man has gone through living on plantations now there’s supposed to be a département d’outre-mer, an overseas department he says we’re still being treated as stepchildren. And he says ‘but yet I will tie that cord around my waist and be ready for the day.’ In other words, ‘despite it all, I’m still proud of being a black man.’
And then the ‘Tambour Serrier,’ which is about the drum, one of the most serious Bélé drummers at the time was called Ernest Vava Dovan (sp?) and he was considered to be the father of Bélé drumming back in the 1970’s and early 80’s in Martinique up in the Marigot area. And Eugène Mona just admired him deeply, and it was through him that he learned how to play the drum; and he asked Vava, would he be a member of his band and Vava said ‘yes’ — it was like a priest was saying ‘yes my son I’ll play for you.’
And so Vava played with Eugène Mona’s band until his death. Mona was so upset that he disappeared; he would not perform, he went into an enclosed space for a while, he became very spiritual because it was like he had lost his father, not just a member of his band, but his father. And so his eulogy to Vava is the song, ‘Tambour Serrier,’ it is a beautiful song and a testimony for his love to this man, and his love for the drum, and the power of the drum. Mona believed that with his bare feet he was constantly communicating with the ancestors that were buried beneath the ground, and that through their spirits coming through his feet up through his body he was also becoming part of the drum because the drum is made out of wood, a tree and a belief that the spirits souls are buried underneath the tree, which is very African centered.
So he sings this song, pretending that he is the old man that becomes the drum and that old man of course is Vava. And he talks about how he is the drum and the power of the drum and how the ancestors flow through his blood, through his body, thanks to the drum and how you are one with the drum, and it’s a very long, long song where he actually thinks that he as a man becomes the drum itself. And that’s what that song is about.
S.M: What was his energy like, what was he like to meet in person?
B.B: Well when I met him that brief time years ago, I had just heard that he was a singer. I unfortunately never heard him sing, I just met him in the privacy of a house with his bare feet with these mangos and these seeds flying all over the place, because when he took the seeds out he just spit them out on the floor. And the hostess was very annoyed; she said ‘you don’t spit these seeds on the floor, what is wrong with you?’ So she’s picking up the seeds and chastising him about messing up her living room. That’s the Mona I met, so unfortunately I never saw him perform. But when I went to Marigot where he lived and where his best friend Felix Fleur, he was also his manager, runs a restaurant called, listen to this, Le Ghetto. While I was talking to Felix about Mona he was playing Mona’s music in the background and a huge picture of Mona was at the bar. And I just fell under the spell. As I wrote my chapter about Mona I played the music and I actually thought that I was communicating with him; it’s very strange to say this, but when he talks about becoming the drum I thought I was beginning to know Mona through this spiritual-ness of listening to his music. Because it touches a core in you and you cannot listen to Mona’s music, especially ‘Tambour Serrier,’ without being deeply, deeply moved and stirred, and to start thinking about slavery, thinking about colonization, thinking about the current problems that exist in Martinique and Guadeloupe it’s hard not to go on a tangent and just listen to the music. It’s like he’s stirring something in you and making you reflect on what’s been happening to colonized people across the world, especially in the French Antilles.
And when you talk to people about Eugène Mona, they commemorate the anniversary of his death now in Martinique, people who have never even seen him start crying. I just could not believe how many people would just take their hands and place their hand over their heart, and just start crying. And they’ll say ‘oh Mona, we’ve lost Mona, oh Mona, Mona, Mona.’ And I would say ‘well did you know him?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well but why are you crying?’ ‘Because his music touches us, touches something in us, his music speaks to us.’ It’s very spiritual. I would say I’ve never heard about any other musician who has touched people this way, as Eugène Mona, and even more so after his death.
S.M: Among the musicians that Mona influenced, one who stands out is Kali…
B.B: A little bit but he’s really more Rasta, he’s a Rastafarian so he looks more towards Jamaica and Bob Marley. He’s heavily influenced by Bob Marley but I would say that he has been influenced by Mona, even though he talks more about you know, Bob Marley and the Rastafarian religion and about how upset he is that his country now is becoming a French Riviera, a playground of the French and how they’re trying to destroy all the greenery and put up concrete buildings and skyscrapers. He was very upset about that, and he’s an ecologist so his preoccupation is about how to preserve land, how to stop the skyscrapers and the highways that are so choked with cars, he’s very concerned about pollution, he’s on that range in terms of his music.
S.M: But the revival of roots music is taking place at the same time as all the over-development?
B.B: What’s happening now is since the passage of the Taubira law in 2001 when France had to say that slavery is a crime against humanity, you now have a resurfaced look at slavery, and in the past two years now, lots and lots of songs, even French Caribbean movies are being made about slavery. Where as you are talking about the Neg’marrons, the maroons who fled into the hills and led rebellions, they’re going back trying to find out about their history which had been sealed; you could not teach it in Martinique and Guadeloupe, it was prohibited, but now you can. So they’re finding out who were the resistant leaders, women and men that they never knew about, they knew about Joan of Arc, and Napoleon, but they didn’t know who were the leaders in their own countries. They didn’t know about Louis Delgrès from Guadeloupe, they didn’t know who rose up. They heard about Toussaint L’Ouverture and Haiti, but they didn’t know they actually had their own rebellious people in Guadeloupe and Martinique. So now there’s a slew of songs coming out about these former heroes, women and men, heroes and heroines, thanks to this new law that was passed in 2001. That tends to be what they’re looking at right now, talking about that. Like Laurianne TK from Martinique who has made the song called “Lumina Sophie” she won the SACEM prize, in 2008 for her song. Lea Galva did a version of it too, but “Lumina Sophie” is constantly on TV and the dancing reveals that whole rebellious spirit and they dress in the white, they had the Bélé drumming, they had the candles, they had the seamstress on a old plantation, sugarcane plantation, and then in Martinique in Riviere Pilote.
You now have jazz, more jazz, out of Guadeloupe. You have based in New York Jacques Schwartz-Bard, whose father was a Swiss novelist, his mother was a Guadeloupean novelist. He plays the saxophone, and he plays a lot of jazz, French Caribbean jazz and he tours all over promoting Guadeloupean music even though he’s based in New York. You have a new group called Soft doing a fusion of kind of Afro-American soul with the biguine, and a little bit of zouk in it. And then you have this man who’s really hit the charts called Kolo Barst. Jean Claude Kolo Barst, he is so popular and he is so militant in his thinking and what he writes about, he’s even written a song about ‘we are Creole people and we need to only speak Creole.’ He’s written a song about ‘Févryé ‘74,’ which is about the strike in Basse-Pointe in Martinique where he’s from, and where a young student was killed because the agricultural workers were being so poorly paid and peacefully walked down the streets in protest against the Béké owners saying ‘we want more money,’ and yet this poor young man was killed as a result. He looks for all these historical moments where there have been rebellions and strikes and he’s making songs about them. And he’s a psychiatrist by training. He is a psychiatrist. But he is now singing, and building up quite a group.
So here’s this psychiatrist singing, a very popular song writer now, singing very politically conscious songs about important events across his island and to talk about how you must up-rise and fight against colonization, because even though he says we’re being treated as stepchildren by France, we are being poorly paid, we’re not paid right, we’re suffering from pain, all these taxes and other sneaky other costs they put onto our food –because when you go to the Caribbean, the price of the food will shock you. We think food is expensive, you have not seen what food costs in the Caribbean. And what you pay for electricity and water is exorbitant, gas is exorbitant, and people slept in their cars during the strikes to make sure they could get gas, because the gas stations were closing down. So these are the kind of things that he’s singing about in his songs and he’s 48, he’s not a young man, but he’s really capturing a huge audience, not just in Martinique but across the French Caribbean and in France as well.
S.M: So what’s the aspect of gwo ka and bélé revival in all this new music?
B.B: Oh, that’s what I meant to say, that what’s happening in both Guadeloupe and Martinique is that these new singers are promoting bélé in their songs. So when we talk about Kolo Barst, you’re hearing the bélé in the background. He’s foregrounding the bélé music, just like what Kassav’ did when they started out with zouk, the gwo ka music. So most of the new singers now are making sure that you hear, if they’re from Guadeloupe, you’re going to hear the gwo ka music, and in Martinique you’re going to hear the bélé now.
So the Bélé is no longer relegated to the rural areas, it is definitely now rural and urban, on concert stages, not just in carnaval, but everywhere now. In the theaters when they have a play, you can go down the streets now and hear people playing the drums, which was unusual during the early 80’s in Guadeloupe, now it’s the norm. So in the recent strikes, that was one of the things that was mentioned in Guadeloupe and Martinique, we want to recognize our drums, we want to recognize our Creole. We want Creole taught everywhere. We want it to be acknowledged as our first language, not French. So this has come up, the whole notion of the drum, in the recent strikes.
S.M: Over the thirty-five years that you’ve been following French Caribbean music, and witnessing its changes, how has it helped you understand the region and its culture?
B.B: Well, it’s helped me when I’m trying to teach my French Caribbean literature classes, and I’m trying to explain the complexities how it’s not black or white, it’s very complex when you talk about the French Caribbean and the relationship that it has with France. So studying the music, getting to talk to the musicians, has given me a deeper understanding of how this society functions; I don’t think I would have gotten a clearer picture without really studying the music and talking to the musicians. It’s really also caused me to respect musicians even more, to just respect their craft and their imaginations and the way they can come up with these themes to their songs and the kind of music, I have a deep respect for the Martinican and Guadeloupean people. And whenever I go back into the islands it’s like I’m seeing it at another level now, I’m more aware of what’s happening as opposed to just being the tourist. Well, I’ve never really been a tourist when I go to those islands anyway; but you know as a tourist you just see the superficial, and now I’m aware of what’s going on underneath, besides just the superficial beauty of the islands. And that’s thanks to looking at the songs and talking to the musicians and historians and journalists, disc jockeys and radio people, record shop owners, while going in and out of Martinique and Guadeloupe. And thanks to close friends as well.
S.M: And the musical revival has played a role in how the society thinks of itself…
B.B: I really think it’s become more empowered because these differences are there but I don’t think they’re as pronounced as they used to be, as you’re beginning to see people across different statuses, you know meeting and exchanging and intermarrying now where before it used to be very rigid. So there’s more openness now and the admittance that we are hybrid people, a mixture of different ethnic groups, not just one ethnic group, and I think this has a lot to do with the music as well, since it addresses those issues in several songs.
And not only just the songs but because you had the videos, and people are so visual now, that you can visually look at the representation of the songs, even though they may not necessarily follow the songs. But the fact there is a video and sometimes it definitely follows what’s being said in the song, that recreates and reinforces the notion that you are a hybrid group of people as opposed to just Afro-Caribbean, Indo-Caribbean, what is in your background and a lot of the singers talk about ‘I’m part white, and I’m part this, I’m part this, and I’m part that,’ you know, they are saying “I’m a composite of all this” now. “I’m a fusion of all this,” and they’d laugh, and say, “just like zouk.” It’s a fusion of all types of music, but we are a fusion too. And you didn’t used to hear that before, but now people are laughing about it and openly talking about it and attributing to zouk music.
S.M: Are you optimistic for Guadeloupe and Martinique?
B.B: Well, the economic situation is so horrible, I wish I could be more optimistic about what’s going to happen economically, because the countries are worse off than where they were at the beginning. They are so dependent on French subsidies and if France were to pull out, they would be in deep, deep trouble. Because a large portion of people are on, what is it in English, they’re like the American welfare system. They’re living on those allocations familiales [welfare], they’re living in HLMs [housing projects], a large portion of them, especially in Guadeloupe are living in HLMs, so they’re dependent on those checks coming in, unfortunately, and the sugar cane is almost obsolete now. You have hardly any sugar cane factories now, producing the rum in Martinique and Guadeloupe; they’re dependent upon tourism, and that’s a terrible way to have to earn a living and to be dependent upon the whims of tourists. But this is not just the French Caribbean, this is the condition of most of the Caribbean unfortunately. And so economically they’re destroyed, they’re just totally destroyed. And more dependent than they used to be, even right after the end of slavery. I admire their tenacity and their fierceness of spirit but I worry about what’s going to happen economically in the countries and how they’re going to survive it.