Take off: Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris. Destination: Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe. This musical journey into the Tropics goes counter to the French Republican tradition of the ‘one and indivisible’ Republic. Officially, all part of what constitutes the French Republic(metropolitan and the Dom-Tom, or overseas territories) is one and the same. In practice, that means sending a post card from Marseilles to Paris costs the same as from Paris to Pointe-à-Pitre and even school exams are supposed to be identical (which social media has rendered problematic). The reality, however, is altogether different. Guadeloupe is situated not in Europe, but in the Caribbean and is surrounded by English, Spanish and French speakers from neighbouring islands such as Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, St. Kitts, Martinique and the Dominican Republic, who are former colonies of European and North American nations. Linguistically, French is the official language, but Creole patois is the everyday vernacular which has a lyrical lit and incorporates French with Caribbean and African influences, just like the cuisine and cultural mores (women carrying a basket full of produce on their head for example).
Musically, the islands are a vibrant hotch-potch of inter-weaving influences (what the French term a métissage) and that is what gives Guadeloupe’s music scene at once a wonderful cosmopolitan and at the same time deliciously rustic touch in the sense of a respectful tradition. Ask a metropolitan Frenchman or woman what they know about the music of Guadeloupe and you will most like receive a non-plussed Gallic shrug. Ask them, though, if they like Henri Salvador, and they might well smile and evoke his crooner image mixed with the exotic instrumentation. The fact of the matter is that the rich musical tradition of Guadeloupe is virtually unheard of in France outside of the French Caribbean community, largely resident in parts of Paris, and this is why this new and, to these ears, first anthology by a British record label is so important; it sheds vital light on a part of the world that France has chosen to ignore.
Strut has contacted one of the key labels on the island, Disque Debs, which was founded at the end of the 1950s by the late Henri Debs, who operated from a shop in the capital, Pointe-à-Pitre. This is in fact intended as the first of three volumes and focuses on the period between 1960 and 1972. The names are as mood evoking as the music itself and, interestingly includes the label owner who also doubled up as a musician with both a quintet and sextet plus singer. French and Spanish names are interchangeable on the stunning beautiful tones of the duet of Georges Tinedor and Manuela Pioche, with ‘Collié Et Zanno’. It is the storytelling and down to earth quality of many of the songs that is so endearing to this writer, but Cyril Diaz et son Orchestre leave us in no doubt with ‘Feeling Happy’, and why not when the grooves are this compelling. Folkloric African roots predominate on ‘You You Matayango’, by Sydney Lérémon Et Ses Amis Du Calvaire Baie-Mahault, with a group name that opens up a Pandora’s box of possible meanings. Several numbers have a strong Cuban underpinning, whether that be the use of Afro-Cuban percussion, or just a stunning piano vamp. A Cuban guajiro is conjured up on ‘Lan Misè’ by Geno Exilie, but the sudden change of tempo is a delight to behold, while it is the sound of the trumpet that soars on ‘A Mon Ami Lucien Jolibois’ by the inventive voice of Raymond Cicault et son Orchestre Volcan, and her the Calypsonian influence makes its presence subtly felt. Elsewhere, the merengue of the Dominican Republic exerts its influence on the distinctly echo chamber sound of ‘Travail Z’enfants! Chantez Après!’, and more obviously on Rémy Mondey’s ‘Merengue Mondey’. As far as leader Henri Guédon is concerned he clearly was a devotee of Latin jazz, with George Shearing and Cal Tjader likely influences and that is reflected on the vibes plus Latin rhythm section present on the Afro-Cuban flavoured ‘Van Van’. No less than two personal contributions are made by owner Henri Debs’ own participation, including the vocals of Paul Blamar on ‘Moin ÇÉ on Maléré’, which is a gem of a tune and a linguists delight for discovering how French Creole functions. Twenty-one carefully selected numbers in total, and all beautifully concise.
Extensive liner notes rightly place the music in its historical and socio-political context. With another two volumes still to come in due course, this is an exciting time to be discovering the musical roots of Guadeloupe. One of the year’s most enjoyable discoveries and likely to see even an old cynic into a hedonistic tropical mode.