Thursday, 3 May 2012

Gwoka Nation: Jocelyn Gabali and the Music of Guadeloupe

I came across Jocelyn Gabali's Diadyéé by accident last year, browsing in one of Paris's Harmattan bookshops. Aside from the fact that it was printed in Paris, bibliographical information is hard to come by. The British Library catalogue infers that the word "Gwoka" on the cover signifies the publisher, gives the place of publication as Guadeloupe, and estimates that the book came out in 1984. It was evidently reprinted in 2004, by Créapub, with a slightly different cover.


The author is described on the back of the second edition as a teacher of modern literature and regional languages and cultures, as well as a writer and musician. Strangely, neither edition is to be found in the Bibliothèque Nationale Française - a fact that might support the author's thesis, as we shall see. Nor does it seem to be currently available from Amazon or the usual second-hand outlets. Even the title is something of a mystery; written as one word on the cover and title-page, it is split into two at the end of the prefatory verses: "DIADIÉ, É". It is not included in either of the two dictionaries I consulted: H. Tourneux and M. Barbotin, Dictionnaire pratique du créole de Guadeloupe, Paris 1990 or R. Ludwig et al., Dictionnaire créole français, 2002: if any readers can inform me of its meaning, I'd be grateful.

Given the apparent scarcity of this work, and the lack of much readily-available and detailed information about gwoka in English, I thought a summary of Gabali's argument might be of interest. I've already mentioned gwoka here and there. It seems prejudicial to start this article with a simple definition of gwoka, since the development of this definition is one of the purposes of Gabali's book. So for now, let's just say that gwoka is a culture of percussive music, song and dance, practised in Guadeloupe.

Gwoka as Struggle

Diadyéé is partly a description of the elements of gwoka - the instruments, the protagonists, the rhythmic forms, the occasions on which it takes place. But beyond this it is principally a polemic. Gabali presents a history of gwoka as struggle, and places his work within this struggle. From the outset, he describes gwoka as a music with a purpose:
[This book] is written for my compatriots, male and female, who carry gwoka in their hearts and in their legs. The same people who are treated as "vyé nèg". Those whose names are illuminated nowhere, but who represent the school which I drew on for the contents of this book. It was conceived with the intent of helping our music achieve its mission, without diversion, in the same direction as the people's struggle [6].
The struggle is that of Guadeloupian identity. In Gabali's thesis, both the word and the phenomenon of gwoka derive originally from Africa, but its characteristics were melded in the crucible of Guadeloupe. In its original form, gwoka was practised by rebel slaves, those who "opened the path of liberty" for the black population. As such, it is a cultural expression which the colonial power, France, has tried to eradicate - firstly by prohibition, and then by assimilation. Gabali admits that the anti-gwoka contingent have been pretty successful. But despite the depredations it has suffered, gwoka clings on and bounces back, like a fighting cock come back from the dead (Zonbi kòk djenm). Its mission is to leave the abyss into which it has fallen and regain its rightful place at the centre of Guadeloupian culture.

Gwoka and Language

Gabali demands recognition for the essential separateness of Guadeloupe's culture, the distinction between it and that of its colonial masters. In his introduction, he addresses gwoka personified, and apologises to it for writing about it in French rather than Creole. He excuses himself by saying that the day of a purely Guadeloupian literature has not yet dawned, although he hopes it will not be far off. (It is noticeable that in the second edition of the work his name appears defrenchified, as Joslen rather than Jocelyn.)

This theme of language - of etymology, terminology, proverb and metaphor - is one of the central strands of Diadyéé. Creole, Gabali argues, is a separate language, not a dialect of French. Hence, the word "gwoka" does not come, as often stated, from "gros ka" or "gros quart" - a French term for the big drum - but from n'goka, a word of central African origin.

(A "ka". Source:

To build his case that gwoka is one of the - or rather, the essential and defining element of the culture of Guadeloupe, Gabali examines how terms drawn from gwoka have made their way into language in general. Creole is a highly imagistic language, and many common images and proverbs are drawn from the culture of gwoka. The "tanbou a de bonda" - a drum with skin covering each end - is a common metaphor for a person whose changeable attitudes mean that he cannot be trusted; the proverb "tanbou o lwen ni bon son" ("The drum heard from afar sounds good") means that absent people are generally well spoken of; "gwo bonda a pa tanbou" ("a big bum is not a drum") means that appearances can be deceptive.

Gabali takes a frankly nationalistic view of his subject matter. Guadeloupe is not the Antilles; books which present it in that light make misguided generalisations [182]. Other musical forms popular in Guadeloupe - quadrille or the more recently developed zouk - are foreign imports. Gwoka is the only truly Guadeloupian music. As such, it plays a unique role in Guadeloupe's destiny as well as its history. Gabali enumerates four principal aspects of gwoka which connect it to Guadeloupe's history and culture. It is a weapon, a means by which coded messages were transmitted by rebelling slaves, as well as a stimulus to assist them in combat; it accompanies labour; it accompanies important moments in the calendar such as Christmas, carnival, baptisms, marriages and deaths, "moments of joy and sadness"; and it encourages the expression, through musical dialogue, of a desire for liberty [98-101, 164-5].

Gwoka v. Télé

It should be no surprise, then, that the authorities made a concerted and to a large extent successful attempt to stamp out or at least neutralize the forces of gwoka. For a long time, elements of it were regarded as "indecent"; and in common with other more recent prohibitions of musical practices, the gathering together of its adherents was viewed as a threat. The prohibition of the kalennda, a dance which Gabali includes among the ancient rhythms of gwoka, was discussed by Jean-Baptiste Labat in his Nouveau voyage aux isles de l'Amérique (Vol. 2, The Hague: P. Husson, 1724, p.53):
Laws have been made in the islands to prevent kalenndas, not only because of the indecent and completely lascivious postures which are involved, but also in order to prevent overly large gatherings of blacks who, finding themselves uplifted in joy and most often intoxicated, turn to revolt, uprisings or thieving parties. But despite these laws and all our precautions, it is almost impossible to prevent them, because of all their activities it is the one which they enjoy the most.
(Page from Labat's 1724 account. Source: Gallicia digital library.)

There was a political utility to stifling these activities, and, as time went by, stifled they became. Gabali notes that once, léwòz gatherings - musical get-togethers marking the end of the working week - were held more or less every Saturday in numerous locations; they are now much rarer, replaced by the convenient passivity of television and the dislike of neighbourly noise which it fosters:
He who has the courage and the honesty to make a proper analysis of the situation in Guadeloupe will find nothing astonishing in this. He will understand perfectly well that the léwòz became rarer and rarer from the moment that the French government imposed on the people of Guadeloupe other forms of amusement, which not only distanced them from gwoka, but forced them into passivity, lulling to sleep their their creative spirit.

These other amusements are, firstly, the Saturday night dances, night clubs, zouk and "touféyenyen" which are based on foreign musical forms such as cadence rampa and disco; places where women are fundamentally disrespected and treated simply as objects of pleasure.

Secondly, there is television. The advertisements which instil in us the illusion of a totally superficial "well-being", and the spoon-fed mentality which has been taught to us by Assimilation, have turned us into teleguided beings, almost robots. Like robots, when the evening comes, instead of partaking in our Guadeloupian habits of visiting friends, getting together with family, telling stories and jokes under the moon and holding "léwòz", we settle down in front of our TVs in order to watch the goings-on of foreigners and events which often have nothing to do with our daily lives.

This dramatic fact not only results in us losing our personality but - much more seriously - it turns us against one another. For if, while watching a programme, some neighbours dare to affirm their Guadeloupian identity by making a bit of noise on their "ka" [drum], we quickly lay into them and demand that they shut up before we call the representatives of "order" [39-40].
The prevailing attitude to gwoka among those who ought to be practising it is therefore one of the problems:
In order not to betray the fundamental role of our music, each person must consider the léwòz as a means of cultural resistance, not just a fashionable means of release...[40]


After initial attempts at outright bans, the authorities changed their strategy to one of enfeebling gwoka through assimilation and commercialization. This, Gabali notes, has a parallel in the slave business more generally:
Because of the numerous revolts carried out by the Guadeloupian "Nèg mawon" [rebel slaves], the sugar economy found itself very seriously menaced. To make up for this, the colonisers and their allies were compelled to change the system: from the slave system, we passed to the salary system [91].
To illustrate the effect of this commercialization, Gabali turns to carnival, in a long denunciation which deserves to be quoted in full:
A high-level study of carnival in Guadeloupe could show us how, in this field also, the colonial authorities undertook a vast reprocessing effort, with the intention of suppressing the revolutionary content of this popular festival for the benefit of commercial enterprise.

The primary characteristic of carnival had always been the deep desire for total liberation. For our grandparents, slaves who daily suffered the atrocities of the overseer's whip and the work he imposed, it was an ideal opportunity for total release. Physical release, with various dances, multifarious gestures, repeated and extraordinary cries, jumps and dance steps accomplished balancing on a sort of pole carried in the air by porters, and finally the use of innumerable colours in the costumes. Spiritual release, characterised by the desire to prove themselves superior to the overseer - superior because they could imitate him, hence the use of the whip which could be turned against the overseer himself, and because they mocked him, hence the derisory chants and exhibition of his physical defects through masks and "bwabwa" [stilt men].

The revolutionary character of carnival was equally clear in the sudden and massive invasion of public spaces by the "Nèg mawon", sometimes armed. This provoked total panic. Hence the idea of the great fear experienced today at the sight of the dreaded "Mas a Kongo". This revolutionary aspect was further reinforced by the presence in all the streets of immense crowds which came to demonstrate, through entertainment, their profound desire to break the chains of all sorts by which they were bound in their everyday life.

This whole moving mass, composed of all categories of individuals (young, old, men, women and children) - for carnival is for everyone - this crazy mass could not but frighten, in the first place, the overseers, and later, the wealthy (for the former have merely changed their "masks" today). So, they decided to attack this popular festival in one way or another.

From that moment, the government had the idea of reprocessing carnival by organising it in its own manner. As a result, we witnessed the birth of carnival committees in almost all regions, and especially in towns, which imposed organization on this festival: an organization corresponding neither to the aspirations, nor the realities, nor the financial possibilities of the general population.

In this way, carnival became the "object" of a minority and simultaneously a commercial enterprise: its hallmarks became excessive expenditure on costumes which often portray foreign realities such as leopards, women of Alsace, cowboys, supermen etc., an inundation of branding and publicity for large companies, and the election of queens in which the body of the "woman-object" can cash in millions.

What, finally, was the most striking result of this reprocessing? A profound lack of interest on the part of the vast majority of people, who became not organizers, but spectators. They were well aware that carnival had lost all its initial natural characteristics [58-61].

Tradition and Evolution

In Gabali's assessment of the contemporary state of gwoka, the spectre of commercialization hovers prominently. Present-day gwoka, he writes, manifests itself in four aspects: "folklore", buskers, the new wave of "gwoka moden" and (the only aspect for which he has genuine admiration) the work of youth clubs which have tried to reignite the study of gwoka in its totality and according to its essential characteristics.

Folklore groups are particularly to be despised. They perform gwoka without any real knowledge of it; their performance is a stereotypical imitation, lacking the very freedom which - we will recall - is one of the essential hallmarks of gwoka. They perform in hotels and restaurants and at ceremonies which, in an ironic twist and contrary to gwoka's history of struggle and liberation, are now aimed at welcoming visiting politicians rather than expelling them. As a result they disseminate a false picture of life in Guadeloupe: "pretty girls with artificial smiles" who propagate the falsehood that Guadeloupe is "a happy and problem-free place". Folklore gwoka is a commercial proposition: "conceived with the aim of denaturing gwoka, and turning it into a seductive means of accruing significant financial benefits" [167].

Buskers, too, come in for some sharp criticism: not in themselves ("spontaneous gwoka in the streets is not necessarily a bad thing...") but because they do not respect the norms of gwoka performance. They play badly. They mix gwoka with music of other sorts. And they, too, have abandoned themselves to commerce. "It is truly deplorable to see the players coming around, hat in hand, at the end of each piece [169]."

In contrast to these degenerate forms of gwoka, the author has some grudging praise for the new wave of "gwoka moden". Modern gwoka introduces a flute, a guitar, or other instruments, while respecting gwoka's fundamentals. Music, Gabali agrees, should not remain frozen; it evolves, just as the country's economic and political situation evolves. But is it evolving in the right way, with the right aim? Guadeloupe's current malady, in which its culture is "ridiculed and buried for the benefit of French culture", demands urgent remedies. Guadeloupe needs actually to relearn what gwoka is, because currently it is surrounded by a miasma of false friends and true enemies. The problem, as Gabali perceives it, is that the creation of a "modern" gwoka presupposes that the original form becomes "traditional". And he resists the idea that gwoka is a tradition, or should be considered traditional. Instead, it is a living - if weakened - force:
It is the only music of our people, born out of moments of resistance against the slavers. It must therefore continue to play the same role, given that our country is living under a modern, camouflaged slavery, and is still in the midst of the fight for its political, economic and cultural freedom [167].
To portray gwoka as a tradition is to betray it:
Gwoka as described in this work has not yet escaped from the abyss which has consumed it. It has not yet even been capable of being practised by the majority of Guadeloupians, and yet we are already treating it as 'traditional'. ... A tradition is an element of culture which belongs to the past, which has been replaced by the new, the modern. ... Gwoka cannot be traditional before it has even been lived, before it has had the opportunity of being fully affirmed. It is not, and should not be, a tradition. It is as young as our nation [173-4].

Two useful links
Lameca's gwoka resources (in English)
Kamaniok's gwoka page (in French)