Martinique: Cane Fields and City Streets

Caribbean Voyage - Various Artists

Rounder 1730

Tracklist: Raoul Grivalliers and group: Abraham Soulagé Mwen; Bélia Manmay-La; Woulé Mako; O-Mérilo; Etienne; Léonar-O Plan-O; La Rivyé LézaAugustin Gourpil and group: Manman Ma Grèv Baré Mwen; Au Nouvoté Rivé; Lanso.  Raoul Grivalliers, Augustin Gourpil and group: Carmélite; Oh, MadianaMalcousu Florius and group: Conte Guadaloupéen; Makak et ChyenMalcousu Florius: Jean Mano di “Bouwo Dèhyè-Mwen Alé.” Bernard Karaman, Francius Laurence and Paulimy Laurence: Ti-Anne; Man Ti Sonson AverinaLoulou Boislaville and orchestra: Ti Paul.  Hurard Coppet and orchestra: Bertina; Hommage à Ma Mère; Manzé Marie.
Historically, it is the urban popular music of the French Antilles that has had modest exposure outside its native islands of Guadaloupe and Martinique.  The sinuous clarinet lines of the biguine orchestras were popular in Paris between the wars, with Stélio et Son Orchestre Antillais perhaps the most celebrated, and in more recent years the record industry’s search for product for the ‘world music’ market has given some exposure to the zouk of bands like Les Aiglons, Kassav and Malavoi.  The notes to this collection of 1962 recordings from Martinique make it clear that the biguine and mazouk traditions were displaced during the sixties and seventies by Haitian konpa and Dominican cadence (which seems to have a strong influence on zouk still.) As for the older, rural music, instrumentally dominated by percussion, and integrated with communal patterns of work, recreation and funerals, they disappeared as capital, mostly controlled by bèkès (whites), was switched out of agriculture into tourism, construction and banking, thus precipitating a mass migration of rural people to the cities and metropolitan France to find work.  Cover pictureThere has been a grassroots revival of folk music in Martinique since the early 1980s, and particularly of rural forms, but very few recordings of traditional music are available.  This, and the ready availability of biguine and mazouk on other CDs, explains why the present disc concentrates on rural styles, and includes only four titles (the last above) from Alan Lomax’s recordings of urban music from Fort-de-France.

Lomax’s time in Martinique was limited - four days, of which three were spent recording - but he had evidently prepared thoroughly before arriving, and knew where to head for.  The notes plausibly suggest that Loulou Boislaville, who sings the biguine Ti Paul, took Lomax to Sainte-Marie, and the home of Raoul Grivalliers (‘Ti Raoul’), for Boislaville was the organiser of Les Ballets Folkloriques Martiniquais, the leading presenters of folkloric entertainment for tourists, and Ti Raoul had been a member, off and on, since 1952.  Martinique is split by mountains running north-south, and this led to distinctively regional styles, which were still vigorous in 1962; Sainte-Marie, in the northeast, was an area where many freed slaves and sons of mixed race unions had owned small farms for many generations, and some families became specialists in music and dance.  The Grivalliers were among them, and Ti Raoul was a pre-eminent singer, ‘known for his distinctive voice (nasal and piercing), his impassioned delivery, his knowledge of tradition, and his lyrics.’ As well as the lead singer, there is call and response from a chorus, and when songs from Sainte-Marie are accompanied, it is by tanbou belè and ti bwa.  The former is a single headed barrel drum with a goatskin head, laid on the ground and straddled by the drummer, who uses his heel to change the pitch.  The ti bwa are a pair of sticks, used by a second percussionist to play patterns on the side of the drum.  Both the transverse-heel drumming and the stick accompaniment are of Central African derivation, and are found elsewhere in former French colonial territories.  (They also occur in Trelawney Parish, Jamaica, as can be heard on Benjamin Reid’s Percy Where Him Gone? on Caribbean Island Music [Nonesuch H-72047].)

Lomax’s first visit to Sainte-Marie was the occasion to record various rural dance musics, such as bèlè and lalin klé, which would be heard at a swaré bèlè (dance evening), and on all these, it’s evident both that Ti Raoul was an exceptional singer, and that his drummer, Florent Baratini, was a superb percussionist.  These statements are best supported when the musicians move on to danmyé, a combined dance and martial art, like the better known Brazilian capoeiraplay Sound ClipSince the moves in danmyé are not as predictable as those in more conventional dancing, the musicians are following the dancers, not the other way about, taking their cues for phrasing and accenting from the blows that are landed.  This extract is from early on in the five and a half minutes of Etienne. (sound clip)  (It should be said, I think, that Lomax wasn’t recording at a swaré bèlè; the musicians had been assembled to demonstrate their music for him, although by the end of the second evening the calling of dance figures that can be heard suggests that the evening had developed into a swaré proper.  The point that arises from this, however, is just how brilliantly all concerned, but particularly Florent Baratini, recreate the sound of a danmyé accompaniment, even in the absence of the fighters.)

On his return trip to Sainte-Marie, for the last day of recording, Alan Lomax was looking for wider repertoire than the drum dances, and was able to gather a number of old songs and improvisations.  These are sung unaccompanied except by the chorus, and as the notes observe, they include rural commentaries on urban life.  Maman La Grèv Baré Mwen is about a violent strike in Le François, while An Nouvoté Rivé describes a contemporary urban fad for wearing the marinière (overblouse).  Important documentation though they are, the absence of percussion on this sequence of songs seems to me to make for less compelling listening - the more so if one doesn’t understand Martinican sung French, which can be hard even for this French speaker to get his ears around.  Similar problems of cultural and linguistic distance attend some of the funeral songs, and particularly the long kont (story) about Makak et Chyen (Monkey and Dog), although it’s interesting that, unlike North America’s signifying monkey, Makak is a spectacularly incompetent trickster, and at the end of the tales about him he is always killed and eaten!  However, there is one remarkable moment in the wake story song Jean Mano di “Bouwo Dèhyè-Mwen Alé”, play Sound Clipwhen Malcousu Florius chants the narrative over mizik djel (mouth music).  This was recorded in 1962, remember, but it’s so like the later Jamaican ragga (itself usually said to be the origin of the Martinican ragga which became popular in the 1990s) that, at the very least, it prompts some puzzled head scratching. (sound clip)

play Sound ClipNo such problems of accessibility attend the drum-accompanied work songs; as this clip shows, they are extremely hot and exciting music, so much so, indeed, that they represent something of a puzzle. (sound clip)  The purpose of work songs, as is well known, is to synchronise effort, thus making the task easier, both in terms of the energy expended and by fostering a sense of group solidarity.  ‘As we pull, singing helps us, it makes us happy, we can go faster,’ as lead singer Augustin Gourpil explained.  But if what’s required for hauling logs and boats is ‘a long pull and a strong pull,’ the rhythm here is surely not being given to the workers by the frenetic sound of the tanbou bèlè and ti bwa.  I’m forced to conclude that the work rhythm is in the song - that it is, indeed, a work song - and that the drummers are supplying something else.  Is it entertainment for the labourers, or the invocation of spirits, or what?

All the music from Sainte-Marie is obviously strongly African in form and content, the French language aside.  The other music Lomax documented has more obvious European elements, although it is, of course, still distinctively Martinican music.  The haute taille (high waist) quadrilles of the mid-Atlantic region were considered prestigious because of their strong European influences, but at the same time they offered parodies of polite society; ‘for example, in one movement, partners stand close together but barely touch, gaze past each other disinterestedly [sic - uninterestedly is obviously meant], and tap their toes impatiently.’  Haute taille has not been revived in the 1990s, only one group being still active by the middle of the decade, perhaps because Eurocentricity no longer confers the same degree of prestige.  The accompaniment was provided by small bands of strings, accordion and percussion, although the band Lomax recorded consisted only of accordion, tanbou dibas (Basque or bass drum - nobody knows which for certain) and maracas.  There is figure calling by the drummer, obviously derived from Europe, like North American square dance calls, but interestingly, the drummer also uses his instrument to direct and energise the dancers, rather than playing a steady groove.  play Sound ClipThe groove is supplied by the accordion and maracas, and I think I can detect, even at this early date, some influence from Dominican cadence in the fast and flashy playing of the former instrument. (sound clip)  Ti-Anne, from which the clip comes, is the tune for L’été, one of five quadrille figures, danced either second or fourth, depending on whether the dancers are from north or south of the town of Le François.  The complete track lasts for over seven minutes, which makes one wonder at the stamina required to dance a full set.

Which leaves the urban popular music of Fort-de-France.  As already mentioned, the compilers have limited this element to four performances, because it is comparatively much better documented on disc already; but these are such splendid pieces that it would be a crime not to include them, and it would be good to hear more from this session, if Lomax cut more titles.  Apart from the intrinsic merits of the performances, they are valuable points of comparison with the biguines and mazouks recorded in Paris during the twenties and thirties.  Back home, the music is much more unbuttoned and energised; the clarinettist produces a taut, shawm-like tone in order to be heard over the trombonist without balancing microphones, and the harmony as a whole is pleasingly rougher, probably because the musicians are not accommodating their tunings to a piano.  Internal evidence indicates that Ti Paul dates from before 1946, when Martinique’s status changed from colony to département of France; its lyrics comment, both sarcastically and sympathetically, on the life of a Martinican woman in Paris, play Sound Clipand I include a clip because it’s the only track from this section of the disc with a vocal.  Loulou Boislaville’s smooth singing seems to parody the romantic seductiveness of French café chanson, while at the same time contrasting agreeably with the rumbustious fun being had by the members of Hurard Coppet’s band. (sound clip)

As I’ve indicated, there are one or two moments on this disc where the music is, for an outsider, more easily recognised as important than enjoyed as entertainment, but the great majority of it is very exciting listening, as well as valuable documentation of the variety of Martinique’s musical culture.  This is a very well selected overview, first by Alan Lomax, a man who really knew how to make efficient use of limited time and local knowledge and then, forty years later, by compilers Julian Gerstin and Dominique Cyrille, who have done a splendid job of selection and annotation.  Yet another landmark CD in the ‘Caribbean Journey’ sector of Rounder’s Lomax series.

Chris Smith - 27.3.01

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