Martinique and Guadeloupe are the largest of the many islands that make up the Caribbean archipelago formally known as the Lesser Antilles. Officially recognized as individual overseas departments of France, the two islands are commonly referred to as French Antilles or, alternately, the French West Indies. Although they are linked historically and politically, each island has made its distinct contribution to the cultural fabric of the region.
Originally inhabited by Arawaks, who were then conquered by the Caribs, both Martinique (Matinino) and Guadeloupe (Karukera) were colonized by French settlers in 1635 and annexed to France in 1674. Slaves were imported from West Africa to support a plantation system based primarily on sugar, rum and coffee production, which continued until slavery was abolished in 1848. Throughout the colonial era, popular European social dances such as mazurka, quadrille, contradanse and waltz became the foundation on which locally based musical styles began to take root. Meanwhile, many Africans were able to escape to the interior of the islands, mixing in with the remaining indigenous population, where their legacy continues in the musical traditions of chouval bwa (Martinique) and gwo ka (Guadeloupe), both of which are still performed at carnival times. Today the popular music of the French Antilles, known broadly as zouk, is a reflection of this blend of cultures throughout the region's history.
Zouk (a French Creole word meaning "party") has become one of the most important contemporary pop innovations, achieving international popularity since its emergence in the 1980s. Borrowing from local genres such as cadence (also kadans), biguine, quadrille and the roots traditions of the islands, zouk began as the creative expression of Jacob Desvarieux and Pierre Eduard Decimus, two extraordinary musicians from Guadeloupe who had settled in Paris and founded the seminal band Kassav', featuring the dynamic singer Jocelyn Beroard. Their music was equally informed by influences from European, American, Caribbean and African pop stylesheavy-metal guitar, funk and soul, Congolese soukous and a variety of Latin rhythmsas well as the electronic studio-engineering techniques of the period.
Previous to that, beginning in the 1960s and continuing through the '70sthe heyday of the independence era throughout the Caribbean and other formerly European coloniesthe prevalent music of the French-speaking islands was kadans, sharing popularity in both Haiti and the French Antilles. Notable in these years were the Creole swing-dance bands of Guadeloupe, such as Les Aiglons and La Perfecta, along with the great bandleaders Henri Guédon and Eddy Louiss, who introduced the big-band Latin-jazz sound to the popular rhythms of the French Caribbean. In this period and through the 1980s, touring Haitian orchestras came to dominate the local music industry, including radio airplay, record sales and in dance clubs. But while Haitian-style kadans evolved into present-day compas (or konpa), the Antillean kadans bands utilized the same musical vocabulary to create a their own dialect, which ultimately became zouk.
Since the 1990s, inspired by an international singer-songwriter movement and resurgent interest in folk traditions, zouk itself has continued to take new forms as wellshifting from a fast-paced, high-tech party sound to the gentle "zouk-love" songs of Patrick Saint Eloi or Edith Lefelalongside the roots revivals of artists such as Kali and Marcé et Tumpak, from Martinique, and the biguine, mazurka and waltz restylings of key groups like the Vikings of Guadeloupe and Malavoi. Today we can hear the influence of zouk in dance rhythms around the world, from Brazilian lambada to Caribbean styles as diverse as merengue and soca; from Cameroonian makossa, Congolese soukous and Cape Verdian funana to zouglou from Ivory Coast and even zouk-mbalax from Senegal. Neva Wartell