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Thread: A really nice find on Gwada Big on Zouk

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    Qualified Mixologist Maruka is offline
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    Jan 2008
    Brooklyn , Ny

    Post A really nice find on Gwada Big on Zouk

    The convoluted make-up of Guadeloupe means that it has four 'mothers': Europe, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, but as Richard Newton found, it has one unifying sound

    'WHEN you are from everywhere, who are you?" asks Corinne Thimodent-Dracon, the 26-year-old law student serving as my translator for the duration of my stay on Guadeloupe. "One of my grandparents is Congolese, the others are Breton, Mauritanian and French. My half-sister has a Vietnamese mother. The whole world meets in my family."

    The question of identity can be convoluted in Guadeloupe. Most of the islanders have similarly chaotic family trees. "By nationality we are officially French," Corinne continues, "but this island has four mothers: Europe, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Until the 1970s we had no unifying identity. Then we found it in music, in Zouk."

    Zouk is the pulse of Guadeloupe. Its infectious beat is everywhere; a shimmering concoction of vocals, guitars and synthesisers set to a rapid, primal beat. It drifts from open windows, thumps in passing cars and shakes the foundations of the many nightclubs. Here in Carénage, a suburb of Pointe-à-Pitre, a stripped-down version of it can be heard emanating from a lock-up garage.

    "Let's find out who's playing," Corinne suggests. We advance towards the metal door and knock loudly. The beat inside stops and a gaunt man peers out, warily introducing himself as Pierre Narouman. He says he is teaching, but we can come in if we like.

    The interior doesn't look much like a garage. There are posters on the walls, a video-recorder in the far corner and wooden drums of various sizes scattered about the place. Four of them are clamped between the knees of a quartet of young students.

    "I'm teaching gwo ka - traditional drumming," Pierre says. "These boys will attend weekly lessons for two years before they master it."

    Prompted by Pierre, the boys resume their rhythmic clatter. The sound reverberates off the walls and judders my fillings. It also stirs an unsettling sense of recognition: I last heard this sort of music in a village in West Africa.

    When they stop, I break the sudden silence with a question: "Did your parents make you take lessons or was it your choice?"

    "We chose," the boys answer in unison. "My father plays gwo ka," Djyofé chips in. "I want to follow him."

    "Djyofé's story is typical," Pierre interjects. "By passing the tradition from father to son, gwo ka has been preserved since the time of slavery. Guadeloupe is unique among the islands because we have kept seven different African rhythms. We use them all in gwo ka."

    In the garage opposite Pierre's, the members of Les Vikings (pronounced Vee-kings), an institution in these parts, are convening for a rehearsal. Corinne and I go over to join them. We are met by Fred Aucagos, who formed the band in 1966. After a 20-year hiatus, this is the group's second incarnation; some of the current members weren't even born the first time around.

    Fred is the only one who looks anything like a pop star, with his greying sideburns, shades and black leather hat. He invested the royalties from past hits in this complex of garages - utilised by an unlikely combination of builders and musicians - and lives in the neighbouring house. Learning that I'm from England, he dashes home and returns with a prized vinyl copy of the Beatles' Please Please Me. His colleagues have never heard of it.

    After the usual tuning of instruments, answering of cellphones and general faffing about that precedes a rehearsal, Les Vikings eventually break into a song. Their jangling guitars and call-and-response vocals transport me back to West Africa. "Your music reminds me of Ghanaian highlife," I say later.

    "Impossible," retorts Jean-Claude, the bassist. "We never listen to Afropop."

    "No, J-C, he's right," declares Fred. And he tells us a remarkable story.

    Back in 1958, he relates, a group called Ry-co Jazz left their native Congo for a tour of Africa. Wherever they went (including Ghana), they influenced the local music. After 10 years on the road they reached Senegal. Not wanting to turn back, they crossed the Atlantic to Martinique and, ultimately, Guadeloupe. Here they broke up, and each member formed his own band with local musicians.

    "As a result," Fred concludes, "Ry-co Jazz altered the course of our music. Before that, we mainly imitated Haitian and Latin American styles. Ry-co Jazz started the revolution, and this man," he points at Pierre-Edouard Décimus, who has just entered the garage, "completed it by creating Zouk."

    Pierre-Edouard has been my guide for the past couple of days. It's like being shown around Liverpool by Paul McCartney.

    We have driven all over the island together, usually with Corinne translating from the back seat. Guadeloupe is essentially two islands linked by a swampy isthmus. This curious geography has given rise to the popular moniker "the butterfly island".

    Our rovings take us from the ugly sprawl of the industrial estates, through the narrow, balcony-shaded streets of Pointe-à-Pitre, and into the countryside, where tin-roofed wooden homesteads sit amid tropical greenery. This wild hinterland nurtured gwo ka over the centuries; a music of the hills that came to town for the carnival only.

    "For many years we preferred to listen to foreign music and neglected our own traditions," Pierre-Edouard tells me. "With Zouk, I decided to take these outside influences and combine them with the rhythms of gwo ka. The result is a dance music that is uniquely Antillean."

    "It was genius," says Marie-Line Ampigny, a local journalist who has followed Zouk since its beginnings in 1979. "Pierre-Edouard recognised that what unites us is our diversity. The moment his group, Kassav, began to blend different styles of music into a single sound, they defined who we were. Suddenly we found our cultural identity."

    This newly acquired unity embraces all four of the Creole-speaking Caribbean islands: Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique and St Lucia. "The music gives us pride," Marie-Line continues. "Now, when we go abroad, if we hear Zouk we can say: 'that's who we are'."

    In 1984, Zouk exploded on to the world stage with the release of Kassav's biggest hit, Zouk-la Sé Sèl Médikaman Nou Ni (Zouk is the Only Medicine We Have). The record sold 100,000 copies in France alone and was successful throughout Europe, the Caribbean and Africa.

    Pierre-Edouard shrugs modestly. "It really took off. We toured the world, even to the Congo, where one of the members of Ry-co Jazz came to see us. That was a good moment. It was coming full circle, I suppose.

    "But Zouk never stands still. It's always developing. That's why it's important for me to come back home, because this is my reference point. Wherever I travel, the spirit of Guadeloupe goes with me."

    Driving through the village of Le Gosier, we pull off the road abruptly. "Perfect!" Pierre-Edouard says, jumping out. He jogs across to a couple standing in their garden beside a felled tree. They greet him enthusiastically. After a short conversation, he returns to the vehicle, dragging a huge log. "It's wood from a breadfruit tree. I know a carver who can make some great trophies out of it for the Creole Blues Festival I'm organising in May."

    We resume our journey, reaching the Crazy Sound Studio, a state-of-the-art recording facility that hopes to attract international stars to the island. "It's good that we have such a place here, though I tend to record in Paris. That's where I produced Kassav's records. I left the group in 1990 so that I could experiment with other kinds of music, like Creole Blues, which is a more acoustic sound. Zouk is hi-tech. Most of it is developed in the studio."

    Within the plush inner sanctum at Crazy Sound, a young group are mixing one of their tracks. In contrast to Kassav, who employed a seven-man gwo ka section, this band have programmed the defining rhythms on a synthesiser. "Their style is called Zouk-Love," Corinne whispers. "It's very popular at the moment. We also have other new styles called R & B and Zouk Rap. All of them were made possible by P-E."

    The man himself is listening intently to the playback. I watch his clicking fingers expertly pick out the complex beat and notice that there is red soil and breadfruit bark beneath his fingernails.
    Last edited by Maruka; 11-06-2011 at 02:29 PM.

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