French Kiss: World Creole Music Festival in Dominica

October 29, 2011

Words by Erin MacLeod

As you read this, the World Creole Music Festival is happening in Roseau, Dominica. This is the fifteenth annual staging of the event, which has drawn artists from across the Caribbean and around the world. This year, there’s three days of music featuring creole music superstars alongside African music and even reggae and soca. This year, the festival plays host to artists like Kassav’s Joycelyne Berouard and Jean-Philippe Marthely, Carimi, WCK, Harmonik and Fanny J, among others.

LargeUp spoke to Sobers Esprit, one of the founders of the fest. He explained not only the origins and development of the WCMF, but also the development of the Creole music that has made the festival possible. Unless you happen to be part of the French-speaking world, creole music is often drowned out by the anglo strains of reggae, dancehall, calypso and soca, so perhaps it’s time for a refresher course.

“The genesis began in 1995-96 when the tourist board decided to have a major event to complement other events in the Caribbean,” Esprit begins, also explaining how, in Dominica, an island of 75,000, tourism is a relatively small and new—yet growing—industry. “But when we thought about what the event might be it became clear that Dominica had a strong case to showcase its music,” he says.

Jamaica might have Sumfest–and Trinidad, its Carnival–as events to show off their respective musics, but don’t count out Dominica. “After all,” Esprit boasts, “we developed Cadence-lypso back in the 1970s.” If you don’t know cadence-lypso, it’s a fusion of rhythms, influenced by calypso, but also music from the Francophone Caribbean and R&B, soul and funk from the US. Exile One, led by Gordon Henderson (from Dominica, but based in Guadeloupe) exemplifies the style. Their early albums are a bit of a treasure trove of Caribbean-tinged groove.

Exile One, “Ilyne”

Exile One, “Instant Fun”k

“One of the key features of the music,” explains Esprit, “is the lyrical content. They used the Creole language, and it was in 1973 and 1974, which was a period of decolonization”—Dominica gained its independence in 1978—“there was movement of Black Power, Black consciousness at that time. So if you listen back to the songs, you hear lyrics about the period of slavery, about the need for working together and unity and building a new society”.

To give an idea, here’s an example of an Exile One tune in English, where they make their points quite clear.

Exile One, “Misery”

Yes, there were also cadence-lypso songs about love and romance, but protest songs were very much a part of the call for consciousness at the time. “The music spread like wildfire. Dominican bands sprung up all over the place, using the genre to identify with at the time. There was a lot of production of music at that time, most of it on the French islands, Guadeloupe and Martinique. Through the years, this music has influenced new musical forms in the French Caribbean as well as existing rhythms, like konpa and the creation of zouk, which evolved in the late 1970s and early 1980s. So without Exile One, you would have no Kassav’!”

Martinique’s Kassav’, one of the most popular French Caribbean bands in the world—with fans in Canada, France, and across West Africa—does indeed owe its existence to a country of 75,000 in the Lesser Antilles. Zouk is more about partying and love than revolution, but it’s got that R&B and funk influence.

So creole music is cadence-lypso, zouk, zouk love, and konpa—but wait, there’s more.

“In the late 80s and early 90s, there was a new form: Bouyon music. Like cadence-lypso, it was influenced by different kinds of rhythms, except the difference is that it was heavily influenced by traditional indigenous Dominican music. It’s a new form, using traditional music. We have a music called jing ping. It’s French influenced with the accordion. In a lot of the early forms of bouyon you hear the accordion.”

To get a sense of this, here’s some jing ping:

Capuchin Cultural Group

And here’s the major exponent of bouyon, World Caribbean Kulture, aka WCK—and they’re at the fest this weekend too. They had a major hit just last year—you can see that the sound has evolved (but with a touch of the accordion still):

WCK, “Hold Dem”

All of these different types of music are featured at the WCMF. “But that is too narrow,” says Esprit, “so we decided to showcase young, upcoming music and local music at an international standard and creole music from all over the world. For the first edition, most of the groups were from the French Caribbean, Haiti, St Lucia. It was pure creole music. In 1998, we had some African music.” African musicians have been a big part of the WCMF, with artists from Ivory Coast and Senegal, among others. This year Ivorian Dobet Gnahoré makes an appearance.

Esprit describes the amazing popularity of Dominican and creole music on the continent of Africa: “Interestingly, creole music is not just popular in French West Africa, but also in Portuguese Africa. Guinea-Bissau, Seychelles, Angola, Mozambique. People from those countries do covers of Dominican songs. Sometimes they don’t even know that they are Dominican songs! There are lots of Africans who have come to perform at the festival. And we enjoy soukous and highlife here. So there is a lot of connection.”

“We have also had zydeco groups from Louisiana and groups from Venezuela and Belize,” lists Esprit. And even though the festival always has a focus on the creole, they do celebrate “of course, reggae, dancehall, soca and calypso.”

So, alongside a swath of Creole music legends, the WCMF will also play host to Faye Ann Lyons, Ali Campbell, Bunji Garlin, Gyptian and Third World. Not bad for one of the smallest countries in the world.