In 2011, our producer Marlon Bishop took a trip to the Transamazoniennes festival in French Guiana, and came back with loads of stories (and bootleg CDs) to share. The festival is located in a remote Amazonian town on the Surinamese border, and featured some of the most unique and surprising music we’ve ever heard. Be sure to check out his program “Getting Down in the Guyanas.”
That’s the single word written in white lettering on the standard-issue blue European Union road sign on the banks of the Maroni River, on the border with Suriname. Not “French Guiana” or “Guyane,” just “France.”
Yet a quick look around confirms that we are not, in fact, in any kind of France I’d ever conceived of before. Squirrelly thickets of standard-issue Amazonian green stretch out in all directions, as far as the eye can see, and motorized canoes buzz gently up and down the river, carrying barrels of fuel and supplies to bank-side villages.
However, this is indeed France–an “overseas department” if you will. French Guiana, once a penal colony, is now a full member of its former owner, with senators in the French Senate and everything. The very fact that I am here in the first place is proof of this. I’ve landed in this often forgotten swath of European jungle to visit the Transamazoniennes music festival, a full-blown event with international artists and press and a big stage and shiny lights, all dropped in the middle in the remote town of Saint Laurent-du-Maroni. It’s the kind of thing that only Europeans can get away with (i.e: pay for.)
Not that they just hand over the money without a fight. Transamazoniennes has happened for the last 15 years due to the tireless hustling of Michaël Cristophe, a very tall, Creole-looking man who wears dreadlocks and an easy disposition. As the story goes, Cristophe returned years ago from Europe to his native French Guiana disgusted with the ugly and brutish nature of humanity, and went into the bush to live alone in nature (read: like a massive hippie). He eventually came to the Maroni River on the Surinamese border, and became enamored with the lifestyles of its inhabitants, the Bushi-Negue, known in English as maroons. They are the descendents of enslaved Africans who, centuries ago, fled to the safety of the region’s infinite forests, forming several distinct tribes. Cristophe was amazed that this culture was intact and thriving, and decided that the world needed a music festival to draw attention to the very existence of the Bushi-Negue, not to mention the many issues affecting the community.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. What are the Guyanas, and why should we “get down” in them?
The Guyanas are basically a big chunk of the planet located at the Northeastern tippy-top of South America, just below the Caribbean Sea. They are made up of the nations of Guyana (once a British colony) and Suriname (once a Dutch colony), as well as the territory of French Guiana. Neighboring bits of Venezuela and Brazil are considered to be part of the Guyanas as well (once known as Spanish and Portuguese Guyana, respectively).
If we rarely hear news about these places, it’s mainly because very few people live there, a consequence of poor soils that make large-scale farming impossible. Suriname has just 500,000 residents; French Guiana only about 200,000. The great majority of people live along the coast, and the vast jungles within are basically untouched.
The people that do live in the Guyanas are a mix from all over the world. Hindustani, Javanese, Chinese, Hmong, Creole, European ex-pats, Jews–you name it, they have it. In Paramaribo, the Surinamese capital, Dutch-style wooden houses, Hindu shrines, and bumping nightclubs stand side-by-side. In the interior, there are Amerindians, maroons, and Brazilian migrants who come to eke gold dust out of the forest. An insane variety of languages and creoles are used, and people switch back and forth between them effortlessly. One woman I met in Saint Laurent-du-Maroni spoke seven of them. No big deal.
All of this cultural deliciousness means that local music consumption is wildly diverse. One evening, I visited a cinder-block nightclub in French Guiana (which, for some inexplicable reason, charged a €15 cover), and I couldn’t believe how many different genres I was hearing: Antillean zouk, Angolan kuduro, Dutch house, American rap and r&b, merengue, soca and dancehall… the entire catalog of pan-Atlantic black music styles was echoing off the cement walls.
Of course I heard the homegrown stuff as well–kaseko, kawina, aleke, and bigi pokoe. Kaseko is probably the biggest genre in Suriname and French Guiana (after the omnipresent sound of roots reggae). I fell in love with the sound the first time I heard it. It combines bouncy snare drums, fast tempos, interlocking guitar parts, ripping horn and synth lines, and fast-flying lyrics in the bizarre sounding Sranan Togo language, which mixes Portuguese, Dutch and African elements. The rhythms often seem off-kilter and disorienting to the uninitiated, and I’m always impressed when a groove is so deep and polyrhythmic that it loses me completely.
The Bushi-Negue have their own music styles as well. Aleke is a genre played on big drums and harmonized vocals, long the principal party sound in the villages that line the rivers. But my favorite stuff is called bigi pokoe. The term is an old word used in both French Guiana and Suriname for a calypso-sounding music of yesteryear, but the Bushi-Negue use it to mean any kind of dance band music in general. Groups like the Viety Guys make music that sounds like it could be West African guitar-band music from the ‘70s with a touch of Caribbean flavor. No matter you want to describe it, it simply sounds like nothing else in the Western Hemisphere.
Digging the music wasn’t too hard, but getting there in the first place was another story. There is very little infrastructure in the region–few paved roads outside of the big cities, and no bridges to connect one country to the other across their river boundaries. We bounced into Saint-Laurent via four hours on a dirt road, followed by a canoe ride in the pouring rain.
The town we arrived in was the second largest city in French Guiana, but really a small town by anybody’s standards. Despite the tropical languor, the French influence was palpable: Cafés with plastic chairs lined the streets, and smelly cheeses were available in the supermarket next to the yams and plantains. But there were other, not-so-Frenchy things too. Vietnamese farmers rolling around in SUVs, a seemingly endless number of white-and-dreadlocked aid workers from other places, and crews of Brazilians that would set up tables full of cakes and caipirinhas to sell on street corners on weekend nights.
The festival itself took place in the courtyard of a large prison complex that once held French criminals and dissidents. Now it holds an impossibly large tree and, apparently, a lot of music fans.
By some metrics, this year was a disaster for Transamazoniennes. The local government refused to pony up the money until the very last minute, leading to all sorts of snafus. International performers showed up missing bandmates who were trapped in faraway airports, stuck in visa purgatory. Other performers didn’t make it at all. Rumors circulated that organizer Mickael Kristroff had to mortgage his home in order to get headliner Julian Marley to the gig. Further rumors circulated that this would be the last Transamazoniennes, at least for a little while, in Saint-Laurent-Du-Maroni.
But on the other hand, the performances were tight, the nights were cool, and the vibes were just right. For three nights, artists like Prince Koloni, Nomadic Massive, the Viety Guys, and Chris Combette got a diverse crowd up and dancing. Here in this peaceful and verdant hinterland, it’s easy to feel a million miles from the world at large, plucked off the map. Yet we weren’t so far away after all. Here we were–journalists and artists and doctors and fishermen from right next door and all over the globe, getting down in the Amazon.