And from Kassav’ was born the Zouk!


IMAGE/The New York Times

Forty years ago, three friends founded a group that would change the face of Caribbean culture and create a new musical genre, the only one invented in France since the post-war period: the zouk. This was in 1979, a time when the affirmation of Creole identity was not self-evident.

At the end of the 1970s, in the French West Indies: as elsewhere in the Caribbean, the music scene is in turmoil. Influenced by the traditions inherited from the descendants of African slaves, but also by jazz and then by black American funk, great orchestras scour the local scenes, starting with those popular balls that Martiniquais and then Guadeloupe dubbed “zouk”. These big bands are the pride of the West Indies: the Aiglons, the Leopards of Saint-Pierre, Expérience 7, the Grammacks, Malavoi or the Perfecta, which released in 1979 an unforgettable title: “La Divinité”.

But this is not zouk. It’s compass (or kompa), fashionable music from Haiti, with its flagship group Tabou Combo, cadence, jazz, biguine, Latin-Cuban rhythms like salsa, American disco that is hitting the world, sometimes reggae or Jamaican ska.

“The term zouk, which means dance party, ball, or surprise party, has been used in Martinique since the 1960s, before arriving in Guadeloupe via the musicians who played on both islands,” recalls the singer from Kassav’, Jocelyne Béroard (1). A zouk, that’s where we’ll dance, have fun on weekend evenings, forget the status of women and men living in a dominated and colonized land.

But the “root music”, that of Creolity, is the Guadeloupian gwoka (and the Martinican bèlè), punctuated by the drum (a ka) and emblem of the carnival, heritage of the African and then African-American resistance. The cultural boiling-up accompanies another, political one: independence movements and parties also speak of the rebirth of creolity and antillanity. It is in this cultural broth that a certain Pierre-Édouard Decimus, with his friend Jacob Desvarieux, met in Paris, has a brilliant idea: to renew the gwoka, and adapt the sound to the technological revolution that then affects music production on a global scale – the arrival of synthesizers and drum machines. And above all, to awaken the West Indian identity: “In the midst of independence and identity movements, it was a real intellectual and political process,” Jacob Desvarieux (2) states, with hindsight. Decimus has been a member of the Vikings of Guadeloupe since 1974, who travel throughout the Caribbean and sometimes the metropolis, where the Caribbean diaspora is growing in number.

Since 1963, there have been the famous Bumidom years, the Office for the Development of Migration in the Overseas Departments, responsible for organising the labour emigration of inhabitants to the metropolis. Many are employed in public services, the Post Office, RATP or factories, and experience discrimination and contempt for the Caribbean identity.

In 1979, Decimus and Desvarieux, accompanied by singer Freddy Marshall, founded the group, recruited bassist Georges Decimus, Pierre-Édouard’s brother, and released a first album of four songs, whose name sounded like a manifesto: “Love and Ka Danse”. Love and dance under the sign of ka, with this English-Creole mix that symbolizes American influence: love, the emblem of disco, which will give the United States another music whose name comes from the place where it is danced: in the house, also black and political music. In the West Indies and Chicago, we are witnessing the emergence of a “music that draws on socio-cultural factors and sublimates the popular styles of the time,” writes Hugo Mendez, DJ and director of the London label Sofrito, specialized in Afro-Caribbean music (3).

It was the beginning of a great adventure that would not only upset the West Indies but also spread to the four corners of the globe, a musical, cultural and political movement of global scope, the Zouk, with its flagship group: Kassav’. For, this is how its founders, soon joined by singers Jocelyne Béroard, Patrick Saint-Eloi and Jean-Philippe Marthély, as well as keyboardist Jean-Claude Naimro and drummer Claude Vamur, decided to name themselves. During his years with the Vikings, Pierre-Édouard Decimus had heard this remark more often than in his turn: why is it that a Guadeloupian group does not perform under a Guadeloupian name but borrows from abroad and from the colonial language? “Decimus realizes that these remarks reveal a problem of identity,” writes ethnomusicologist Jocelyne Guilbaut (4), and adds a requirement: that Caribbean music be more precise and technically modern, to appeal to everyone.

As for the name, it will be Kassav’, which in Creole means a manioc cake. Why cassava? “First, because it is a vegetable consumed by half a billion men living in the countryside of Africa, America, Asia, the West Indies… On the other hand, because of the symbolism: to be eaten, cassava must be purified. For Pierre-Édouard, removing what poisoned our music and prevented it from being exportable was the first thought. The cassava, cassava in English, was very much in line with the group’s idea. “(1) For Jocelyne Guilbaut, “Kassav’ poses the whole problem: by which music and which value system is defined in the West Indies” (4). And especially towards the metropolis, which looks down on this “exotic” music with condescension.

Because, in 1979 and for decades, the French authorities have been very reluctant to accept any attempt at political and cultural emancipation, starting with the teaching of Creole in schools – which is simply prohibited – or its use on the radio. Moreover, at the time, there was only one radio station: RFO (under the aegis of the Société de radiodiffusion et de télévision française pour l’outre-mer, RFO was created in 1982). There is little local music played there. The arrival of free radio stations will change the cultural landscape: Tropic FM, Radio Latina or Radio Caraïbes.

Creole cultural bubbling also included many other fields: art, literature, politics. Pierre-Édouard Decimus never hid from it: he was strongly influenced by Édouard Glissant’s speeches and writings on antillanity.

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