Throwback Thursdays: Kassav’s “Zouk la Sé Sél Médikaman Nou Ni”

April 12, 2012

Words by Scott Brown

A sacred set of Caribbean songs have made it into the canon of Miami party music. Songs like “Get Involved,” from the Bahamas’ Dr. Off, and an assortment of dancehall hits, like Red Rat’s “Tight Up Skirt,” get locals dancing regardless of heritage. “Zouk la Sé Sél Médikaman Nou Ni” is another must-have for any Miami DJ’s collection. While the zouk sound please the kompa-loving Haitian massive, the infectious rhythm of the song has remarkable cross cultural appeal.

Kassav’ declared that “zouk is the only medicine we have” in 1984, and the song quickly became an international hit. Despite large amounts of piracy in the Caribbean and Africa, it sold 100,000 copies and was certified Gold in France. Although Kassav’ was based in Paris, “Zouk la Sé Sél Médikaman Nou Ni” spoke directly to the artists’ homeland of Guadeloupe. To Kassav’, zouk was the medicine to cure rampant violence in the area.

In many ways, Kassav’ were reflective of the Caribbean as a whole. Despite the poor quality of this video (which I hope you can forgive for a foreign clip from the 80s), you can see a combination of instruments ranging from steel drums and electric guitars on stage during the shoot. Even their name has a pan-Caribbean flavor, referring to the delicious cassava (also known as yuca or manioc) root, a popular food throughout the region. Guadeloupean Pierre Edouard Decimus was inspired to find a distinctively Antillean music identity because most of the bands from his island were playing European styles. He managed to merge many popular genres from across the Caribbean, as well as Africa and the States, to develop Kassav’s zouk sound.

In Miami, “Zouk la Sé Sél Médikaman Nou Ni” is closely associated with the Haitian community because of its similarities to kompa, Haiti’s dominant sound. Assimilation into Miami has been difficult for Haitian immigrants: Long maligned by every major ethnic group in South Florida, it took a generation for Haitians to earn respect. The term “zoe” was once a derisive term used to mock Haitians, but by 2009 Black Dada had people of every ethnicity in the city singing along with “Imma Zoe“.

DJ Chipman, the Miami DJ behind the memefamous “Peanut Butter & Jelly Time,” even made his own version of “Zouk la Sé Sél Médikaman Nou Ni,” called “Zoe Dance.”  “Zouk,” by Carol City’s C-Ride and North Miami’s Jimmy Dade, also emphasizes the song’s influence in the area, with the local standouts dropping rap verses over the original music. The general embracing of “Zouk la Sé Sél Médikaman Nou Ni” at house parties and street festivals offers a degree of unity in an area that is often divided. Maybe music is the only medicine we have.

Read more of Scott Brown’s musings on Miami music at his site, Black Beans.