Popular Music and Martinican-Creole Identity

Article excerpt

In Martinique during the mid-1950s, a young light-skinned mulatto of bourgeois origins startled the population of Fort-de-France with a series of provocative musical creations. During the Carnival of 1956, Frantz Denis "Francisco" Charles took a conical drum to the streets of Fort-de-France and joined the masqueraders. Until that time, the bele drum was played exclusively in rural Martinique. (1) Later that same year, Francisco created a band featuring this drum as its core instrument. At first, his mix of traditional rural and urban repertoires with a Latin-American tinge was truly upsetting to the Martinican audience; drumming was not an acceptable hobby for a mulatto. However, by the end of the next decade, another musician whose creations were also rooted in the local drummed traditions emerged onto the Martinican stage. The newcomer, Eugene Mona, received an enthusiastic welcome from the audience. Yet he sang politically conscious lyrics accompanied by a band primarily composed of local percussion instruments.

Today, the scandal caused by Francisco's first attempts at merging bele drumming with urban genres has vanished, and it is hard to imagine the time when rural music was banned from urban areas. Many Martinicans now playing the bele drum with a sense of pride have linked the reversal of attitudes toward this instrument to the double influences of Francisco and Mona, whose musical creations are still popular in modern Martinique, even though Francisco has now retired and Mona passed away in 1991. This article focuses on their fundamental contributions to the local repertoire of Creole popular music. Francisco and Mona each illustrate a mental attitude, a response to the identity dilemma with which Martinicans were, and still are, confronted.

Mona and Francisco emerged on the local scene at two different moments in the Martinicans' quest for identity, and their musical innovations intersected in different ways with the people's awareness of a Martinican-Creole identity. I argue that as a mulatto who was "forced to live in the interface between two realities," Francisco was a hybrid, according to Grossberg's (1992, 92) definition. Francisco's musical expression of identity offered to Martinicans the first real chance to face and accept their partial African ancestry. Mona on the other hand was aware of the broader ethnic diversity of the Martinicans. He created a music to "explore the kaleidoscopic conditions" (Bernabe, Chamoiseau, and Confiant 1989, 28) of Martinicanness. He thus proposed his vision of a recomposed identity to which a large majority of Martinicans adhered enthusiastically. Despite their differing social backgrounds, both musicians went beyond the socio-racial division inherited from the colonial era to share through music their ideal of metissage (a term commonly used by many Martinicans in reference to their mixed ethnic and cultural background; my use is based on the popular meaning). As a result, their overlapping musical creations are perceived today as having contributed significantly to shaping the composite Martinican-Creole identity.

This article is primarily based on conversations and interviews that I had with Francisco and other local musicians between 1995 and 2000. In order to show how popular music relates to local specificity, I first briefly discuss the social use of music on the island from colonial times to the mid-twentieth century. I then introduce some important aspects of Francisco's and Mona's musical expression that allowed the Martinican audiences to identify with these musicians' messages. The situations and characters described in this article, although specifically Martinican, show how popular music can become a locus of power relations in a people's struggle for cultural identity. I therefore provide this case study as an illustration of a specific people's negotiation of difference through musical performance.

As a result of the history of Martinique, music has always been a factor of socio-racial differentiation on the island. …

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