An origin story by a European Dj. No mention of the makossa influence.

Red Bull Music Academy


Zouk: An Introduction
One of the minds behind Sofrito Sound offers a beginner’s guide to one of the Caribbean’s most indelible (and underrated) genres.
December 2, 2015
By Hugo Mendez
As the voice of Michael Jackson rang out from practically every radio station worldwide, Sly & Robbie were ensconced at Compass Point Studios. Meanwhile, the Caribbean diaspora in London was riding the crest of the lovers rock wave as new soca warriors were dethroning the long-reigning calypso monarchs of Trinidad. In the Eastern part of the United States, electro and hip hop were emerging, and a new generation in Chicago and Detroit were laying the foundations for house and techno.
Every one of these sounds and movements were unique to their time and place, parallel developments that benefited from access to new studio technology and reflected the desire of the artists to express their surroundings and social realities through music. But whereas the origin stories of reggae, hip hop and house have passed into pop culture folklore, the sinuous, instantly recognizable drum machine-driven grooves of zouk have always stood on the outside.


Dismissed as ’80s excess within Metropolitan France, it was too foreign for an Anglophone audience and not-foreign-enough for the “world music” cognoscenti. Put simply, zouk has slipped through the cracks. Look past the initial preconceptions, though, and an important musical movement is revealed – a movement that not only broke through social boundaries but put the sounds and rhythms of the Francophone diaspora on the map, extending its influence worldwide in the process.
It is a story with two starting points: the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, as well as Paris. The French capital and its suburbs have long been a global music capital, playing host to musicians from across the world. American-imported jazz, for instance, took hold in the city in the first half of the 20th century, strengthened by an eagerly-received exodus of American jazz musicians.
It wasn’t the same story, however, for the music and musicians coming from former French colonies in West Africa and the Dom-Toms such as Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guyana and Réunion in the Indian Ocean.
While there has long been a history of immigration between France and its colonies, the social background of the zouk explosion centres around the French government’s Bumidom initiative of the ’60s and ’70s and attendant wave of migration between France and the Dom-Toms. Bumidom encouraged people to move to France as workers to boost the economy, with many taking up positions with the RATP (the Paris Metro) as well as in factories, hospitals and as domestic workers.
A great deal of these workers settled in Paris and its suburbs, suffering the same discrimination experienced by the Caribbean diaspora in the UK in the process. But whereas the Jamaican diaspora could look to reggae as a self-defining sound that reflected their experiences, the Francophone Caribbean diaspora had yet to unify around a sound that represented the new situation.
Robert Loyson - Chatte Tété Rate
(An example of traditional Gwo Ka)
Ti-Emile - Chaud Chaud
(An example of traditional Bélé)
The disparate states contained a large array of competing styles, from the increasingly old-time sounds of the biguine to the politically-engaged sounds of Gwo Ka and Bélé – musical styles that fiercely guarded the culturally distinct patrimonies of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Elements of all of these traditions – amongst many others – would be incorporated into a new style, one that was a reflection of and reaction to the situation that many found themselves in, and a way of defining it on their own terms and in a rapidly evolving setting.

The large movement of people under the aegis of Bumidom also engendered a shift in where and how music was heard, moving the setting to a starkly urban environment far from the Caribbean. Musical spaces in the Caribbean were traditionally outdoor clubs and parties. In Paris, the action centred around large events in town halls (most notably in the 14th Arrondissement), clubs such as the Cabane a Rythmes in Pigalle, La Créole in Montparnasse, Le Soleil d’Or near Etienne Marcel and Gerard Laviny’s legendary Canne à Sucre, as well numerous clubs and community centres in outlying suburbs such as Aubervilliers, Evry-sur-Seine, St Denis and Aulnay-sous-bois.
Prior to the growth of DJ-led venues in the early ’80s these parties were mainly soundtracked by live bands. Paris-based groups such as Galaxy, Les Diplomates and Max Loubli’s El Nuevo Combo would run the gamut of the popular styles of the day, each style and its original proponents subsequently laying claim to be the hotly-contested point zero of zouk.
So controversial are the roots of the style that even the origins of the word zouk are contested. It could come from the “Mazouk” rhythm (an adaptation of the European Mazurka), part of the traditional repertoire of Caribbean dance bands of a previous generation alongside the Biguine and the Valse. Equally it could come from the French word sécouer (literally meaning to shake) – also nominally the origins of Congolese Soukous.
Its musical origins are equally as hazy, more the result of many sounds coming together than a product of a single source. Haitian musicians claim zouk as an offspring of the Compas sound that ruled the dancefloors and airwaves of the Caribbean throughout the ’70s – the commercial high point of which was Tabou Combo’s crossover 1974 hit “New York City” that spawned a legion of imitators.

Midnight Groovers - Oti Yo
(An example of the Dominican sound of Cadence-lypso)
The Dominican sound of Cadence-lypso – led by Gordon Henderson and Exile One along with the Grammacks and the Midnight Groovers – briefly dominated the dancehalls at the tail end of the ’70s, bringing the cowbell to the front and lyrics in Créole closer to that of Guadeloupe. Many of these bands – including other stars such as Les Vikings de Guadeloupe, Experience 7 (later to become Zouk Machine), Les Aiglons and Martinican stars La Perfecta – toured extensively, both in the Caribbean and for the diaspora in France throughout the ’70s.
All the while Puerto Rican salsa and Dominican merengue were present alongside American soul, R&B and disco, as well as Congolese rumba/soukous carving its own path through the dancehalls of the metropole and – to a much lesser extent – through the Caribbean.
Zouk is – broadly – a product of these surroundings and of all of the styles played at parties and in clubs – parties that, in créole, were themselves known as zouks. To “zouk” was (and is) to party – “On zouk ou ce soir?” “ça Zouk bien!” As such, you can draw parallels between the development of zouk and the birth of house music in the US. House took its name from the late ’70s Warehouse club in Chicago, where resident DJ Frankie Knuckles combined various styles to create a unique blend that came under the catch-all term of house music.