Tag Archives: Caribbean

The Moving Blog


A guest post for the Moving Blog by DJ John Armstrong, who selected the tunes for our Moving Conversation 2 after-party on January 12th. John has recently put together a 4-CD box set of essential zouk both traditional and contemporary, spanning the years from the late 70s to today. You can find it here, amongst other internet places:
Simply Zouk. If you’re still one of the intrepid few who prefer to buy their music in a physical shop, you’ll also find it at HMV and similar retailers. Thank you, John, for the music, your knowledge, and the post!’

A while back, I was invited to start work on a music compilation of traditional French Antillean music: gwoka, bele, chouval bwa, biguine, jing-ping, and so forth. I needed some quotable contemporary material from current traditional musicians, and found to my surprise that those approached would only participate if the interviews were conducted in kreyol.

For commercial reasons the compilation wasn’t completed. But the illuminating conversation between Prof Carolyn Cooper and Jocelyne Beroard at January’s Moving Conversation, as well as the wonderful performance by Zil’oKa, a dance group whose average age can’t be more than the early 20s, reminded me that it was in the fields of language and dance just as much as of music that Jocelyne’s band, Kassav’, helped effect a revolution.

Francophone songwriters have been composing in kreyol for more than half a century, true, but it wasn’t until the late 70s and early 80s that there was general commercial recognition of the fact. Suddenly, LPs from the French Antilles and Haiti started appearing in record-shop racks with pull-out lyric sheets in (to many eyes) an almost-indecipherable script. Kassav’s members, and the composers with whom they collaborated, regarded it as a mark not of nationalistic honour, but of cultural necessity that written lyrics accurately reproduced sung lyrics.

In this, Kassav’ were very much of their time as regards contemporaneous writers in fields other than music. The Negritude writers of the 30s- Aime Cesaire and others- had already extended the scope of the linguistic studies of the Haitian anthropologist Antenor Firmin beyond specialist circles and into wider cultural usage. But it wasn’t until the 70s and 80s, and the appearance of Martinican authors, poets and movie scriptwriters such as Raphael Confiant, Daniel Maximin, Jean Bernabe and Patrick Chamoiseau that kreyol — as a signifier — became almost an everyday necessity rather than an academic nicety, even though such writers were not confining themselves purely to kreyol in all their work.

The same thing’s happening today in Jamaica, although admittedly, reggae has had a much wider world stage for a much longer time than Franco-Caribbean music. Prof Cooper played a track from the recent album by perhaps the most exciting ‘new’ reggae voice in a decade — Chronnix. Just 22 years old, Chronnix is part of a new generation of Jamaican artists that don’t recognise the constraints and conventions of commercial reggae and dancehall. Accordingly, you’ll find lovers’ rock, dub, ragga, dancehall, roots, Rastafari, nyabinghi and everything in between in a Chronnix set, all of it composed in a contemplative and poetic patois, with thematic preoccupations that owe more to Bobs Dylan and Marley than to current dancehall.

What’s more, written Jamaican patois is appearing more often now than a decade ago: for example, in the extraordinary novels of Marlon James, such as A Short History Of Seven Killings, a 700-page, patois-Pynchon-esque mix of fact and fiction about the events and characters surrounding the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1977. And here’s the thing: after fifty or so pages, even a white, middle-class English guy like me finds himself internally vocalising and appreciating the flow, beauty and humour of Jamaican patois, and understanding every word.

Here’s a good podcast of current “Reggae Revival” as the ‘new’ Chronnix sound is being tagged.

What’s just as exciting is the way in which Kassav’s ‘kreyol-and-proud’ legacy, as well as the tempos of modern r & b and dancehall, has influenced nouvel’ scene Franco-Caribbean music, as Guadeloupe’s foremost practitioner of back-to-roots modernity, Admiral T, demonstrates below:

Admiral T says to the kids at the beginning: “Mis ti krik!’. They reply ‘Mis ti krak!’ .‘I’m going to tell you a story!’ ‘ Yes, we’re listening!’

Or the beautiful Lycinais Jean, in this adaptation of a Jocelyne Berouard classic:



There’s been much discussion among ‘old-school’ Antillean zouk fans about ‘modern’ international zouk (ie post- 1995 or thereabouts). Many believe the current style for the relentless 88-ish b.p.m. tempo is a travesty of original zouk –- party and carnival music which often hit 140-150 b.p.m. in its late-80s heyday. It doesn’t really trouble me either way: after all, much of zouk’s early impetus came from Dominican cadence-lypso and Haitian konpa direct, neither of which styles were unusually frantic.

Nevertheless, I can sort of see why first-generation zoukeurs feel that ‘their’ music has been hijacked by the requirements of the dance teacher! But ultimately, all popular music tends to change in line with the recording techniques and technical advances of the day, and with the blueprint of commercial ‘chart’ music generally. For example, what the music industry calls ‘r & b’ today would be unrecognisable to the r & b artists of the late 40s, like Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris -– but it’s still r & b, for all that.

To reiterate a cliché: there are just two kinds of music, good music and bad music. I think the same applies to zouk, whenever it was recorded.


Speaking of ‘international’ zouk, I believe that there’s a misconception among some that today’s zouk sound developed solely from Antilllean zouk, and that everything else is mere emulation. The fact is, though, that the Luso-African community had a much larger input into zouk’s beginnings in Paris than they’re often given credit for. There’s something about Luso African melody that makes it perfect for zouk, especially its fado-inflected melancholy.

I recently put together a 4-CD box set of essential zouk both traditional and contemporary, spanning the years from the late 70s to today. You can find it here.

I recall seeing many posters for Cape Verdean parties and club-nights in 80s Paris record shops. More importantly, arrangers and composers such as Emmanuel ‘Manou’ Lima and Tito Paris were providing the blueprints for the then-new sound of zouk-love. Many of the great Afro-zouk classics recordings by Oliver N’Goma, Monique Seka, and others bore the unmistakeable print of Manou Lima’s keyboard arrangements, while the Paris and Abidjan dance club soundtracks of the time included many tunes by Luso-African stars — Bonga, Paulo Flores, Tropical Band, Carlos Burity, Eduardo Paim, Juju Delgado, Cabo Verde Show — in the mix among the more instantly recogniseable Kassav’, Kanda Bongo Man, etc.

Which brings us neatly to the much-anticipated Modern Moves conversation between Paulo Flores, the undisputed king and foremost international populariser of Angolan semba and kizomba and Professor Marissa Moorman, whose book Intonations is the essential primer for any Angolan music lover or musicologist. With that in mind, I thought I’d leave you with a couple of YouTube videos that demonstrate beyond doubt the mutual indebtedness of the Antillean and Luso African musical diasporas.

The first is a duet between Kassav’s Jacob Desvarieux and the great Eduardo ‘General Kambuengo’ Paim.

The second between Jacob, once again, and one of the lesser-known stars of kizomba, Nilo Carvalho.

The third link, of course,, shows Paulo Flores singing one of the keynote songs of semba, with a superb band.

So, till then: We ou nan pati la! E ve-lo na festa!


Feature image: Zil’oKA dancers performing to ‘Zouk la si sel medikaman nou ni’ in the presence of Jocelyne Beroard and Carolyn Cooper, King’s College London, 12th January 2015. Photo courtesy of Fareda Khan.

The Moving Blog

A Voyage Through Katherine Dunham’s Archive

Over the past few months I have been busy with all sorts and kinds of research, from attending vogue balls in Paris and Berlin to going on a special research visit to the Katherine Dunham Archives held at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois — a place not too far from East Saint Louis, Illinois, where black performance talent like Katherine Dunham, Josephine Baker and Tina Turner once held court.

For anyone interested in Katherine Dunham the archive presents a real treat: you’ll find materials ranging from original scores to Dunham’s own passport, and from costume drawings to Western Union telegrams (!). In addition, when leaving the archive I was told that 100 more boxes had just arrived, a research delight!

One of the most memorable things I found in the archive was a 1945 New York Times article about how Katherine Dunham had purchased a $200,000 house at 14 East 71st Street on the Upper East Side, an extremely wealthy area of New York City, to live in and to act as a headquarters for her school. This was big news given that her neighbors were the Fricks, the Lehmans and the Guggenheims, as stated in the press release, which Dunham used to drop the news.

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Press release for the purchase of 14 East 71st Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

The interesting thing about the article was that the tone was very much about how a black woman was able to purchase such an expensive home, particularly during a time in the US when African Americans still did not have property rights and indeed could not purchase their own homes in certain areas (and would not be able to for at least another 20 more years). Of course, the article never spelled any of this out directly, but the date it was published along with the fact that the paper talked to Dunham’s neighbors to get their take on what they felt about having an unknown black woman buy such an expensive house lets us infer the punch line of the article. “I’ve never heard of her,” one neighbor commented — the shade of it all. Indeed, the house was actually not purchased by Dunham herself but by lawyers, which drives this point home even further.

When I tell you that the archive holds deep financial records of Dunham’s company it sounds pretty boring, I’m sure. But these financial secrets tell a colorful story of their own about the labor that goes into making a performance happen. You’ll find box office statements showing how well a performance did in a given place, contracts stipulating what rights Katherine Dunham has and what rights the hosting venue does not have – for instance changing the performance at the last minute was not an option. There were even details on how much a single performance cost. We even know how much her dancers made. For a February 11th performance in 1944 at the Shubert Theater in New Haven, Connecticut, just a stone’s throw away from Yale University, Dale Wasserman, the highest paid dancer for that show, made $125.00. Ora Leak, one of the lowest paid, earned $45.00.

But it’s not just all ledgers and receipts. Fans sent letters professor their love and the great black American opera singer Marian Anderson wrote her a letter requesting a donation for charity. Some of the juicy stuff — the real tea — included letters from fans who were desperate to be a part of the Company as well as audition headshots from prospective dancers that included their professional resume at the back. On July 25, 1955 Miss Mary Irene Wemberly of Chicago auditioned for the Company. Her “Chief Ambition,” as it said on her resume, was to “become a member of The Katherine Dunham Dance Group.”

Something tells me that Dunham was a bit of a diva, not unlike most celebrities of her stature – and she was a celebrity. On November 15th, Dorothy Gray, an assistant to Katherine Dunham, informed the Locust Theater in Philadelphia that their choice of hotel would simply not do. “In Philadelphia Miss Dunham does not want to stay at Walton Hotel,” the Telegram read. “I suggest Bellevue Stratford-Ritz.” Built by George C. Boldt, the name behind the famous Waldorf-Astoria luxury hotel in New York, the Bellevue Stratford-Ritz was a luxury hotel built at the turn of the century that was meant to compete with its New York counterpart. For me, this really solidified that Dunham absolutely penetrated the laps of luxury, which during this period was almost certainly a majority white world (pre-desegregation).

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Carnival queerness in the Dunham archive.

In my work I am always on the hunt for queerness, as I am interested in how people make space for themselves outside of a dominant hetero-patriarchal gender binary. I knew that there had to be some type of queerness when looking through Dunham’s archive, and I was pleased to find at least two images that satisfied my thirst. One of them shows a dancer in what must be a carnival or Mardi Gras costume, a beaded headdress, drum beating, and you can tell he is moving a great deal because one of his feathers has fallen on the floor from his headpiece.

The Caribbean has a great history of homophobia, but it always seems like Mardi Gras and carnival are two events that are malleable in the way those types of parties allows participants to break out of the normative roles of the everyday. This would, of course, tap right into Mikhail Bahktin’s theory of the carnival as providing just that type of experience.

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Drag, in 1944

The other queer image is a totally static one, meaning there is no movement. It shows a male performer in a type of drag. His face is painted, the lips white and the line of the eyes stretched out and up, and he wears a long half wig with a cropped headpiece on top. I liked this image because, in 1944, we see that there were specific types of queerness that were possible through performance.

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Posing shine.

The last connection I noticed, one that is extremely powerful in bridging the gap between the legacies of Katherine Dunham’s dance and the movement of pop culture is an image of two dancers. One of them is shiny, very shiny, as he stands there in an athletic pose. There is already some The image shows a male dancer, relatively sweat-covered, holding a stretched out pose in a dance studio. The leg is curled back and up in the shape of an “L,” the arms cocked back as if attached to springs.

Grace Jones Island Life

Taken together, these two images appear to be inspiration for, or at the very least diasporically connected to, Grace Jones’ 1985 album Island Life. In that famous image, shot by Jean-Paul Goude, Jones’ shiny Caribbean body poses in a similar fashion: leg curled up and back in the shape of an “L,” arms stretched out. While the poses might not be exactly the same, they do appear to come from a similar movement archive and indeed the sheen that appears across both images is an unmistakable trope of blackness.