Tuesday, December 29, 2009

In review--Sweet Caribbean Breeze

Reynoir Casimir dit Nègoce and Signature
The Quadrille of Guadeloupe
Buda Musique/ Universal France

Gilzene and The Blue Light Mento Band
Sweet Sweet Jamaica
World Village

Those of you living in the far northern hemisphere will appreciate these two sunny recordings hailing from the French Caribbean Island, Guadeloupe and the former British colony, Jamaica. When many people think of the Caribbean, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic come to mind—meringue, soñes,bomba and plena or the rhythms that make up salsa music. The mention of Jamaica brings to mind ska and reggae—the home of the late Bob Marley.

I discovered the music of Guadeloupe and the French Caribbean last spring when I researched music of the French Diaspora for a course I taught. The Quadrille of Guadeloupe comes with hefty liner notes explaining the origins of this old world European dance quadrille and its evolution in the New World as interpreted by former African slaves. Similar music is performed on the East African Island, La Reunion, and echoes of these old couple dances can be heard in traditional Cajun and Quebecois music too.

The Guadeloupe quadrille involves a caller who raps more than sings in a raspy voice. Accordion, a scraper, shakers, a small frame drum-tambourine, triangle and guitar accompany the caller. The callers on The Quadrille of Gaudeloupe, Floriane Fèverel and Denis Clovis dit Boniface recall rap and hip-hop, though their syncopation sounds more Afro-Caribbean than continental American. And there is so much going on with this disc musically, you almost need a masters in Ethnomusicology to review it.

Although track five, an instrumental beguine certainly gets feet tapping and the heart pumping with the raspy scraper, lilting accordion and tinkling of the triangle. And I am reminded of Rene Lacaille who also plays quadrilles, beguine, zouk and other old world types of music on his accordion.

When I was teaching my music of the French Diaspora course, I enjoyed bringing in the comparisons between the French Caribbean, Quebec, Louisiana and La Reunion and finding origins in the French provinces such as Normandy and Brittany as well as, Central France. But it will be years before I train my ears to discern the subtle differences and my feet don’t get away from me. When I listen to this music, the last thing I want to do is sit behind a computer screen typing a review. I prefer to dance.

However, I enjoy discovering new types of music to my ears. Gilzene and The Blue Light Mento Band perform a traditional music that predates ska and reggae, two popular music proponents hailing from Jamaica. On their debut disc (World Village), Sweet Sweet Jamaica, the traditional quartet performs a style of music called mento. You can actually hear the roots of reggae in the guitar rhythm, but the banjo, shakers and rhumba box quickly announces that this is not reggae.

Unlike other Caribbean musical traditions of former African slaves, you won’t find call and response vocals, but harmonies that fall on the flat side. The defining features are the cross rhythms played on the rhumba box, shakers and guitar with the banjo playing lead. And as mentioned earlier the singers provide vocal harmonies to uplifting songs, though some of the lyrics tackle social issues.

According to the liner notes, “Mento which was born from the marriage of European melodies with African rhythms brought an intermingling of cultures that defined the colonial period, can rightly be hailed as the first form of indigenous Jamaican popular music to ever be recorded.” The Jamaican music industry of the 1940s and 50s was founded on this genre. But though popular in Jamaica, it never caught on abroad in the same way that calypso from Trinidad did. Mento did pave the way for ska and reggae which did become music of households all over the world. Who hasn’t heard of Bob Marley and the Wailers?

Gungu Walk offers a gentle introduction to mento with its uplifting sunny feel and hearty vocals. I wonder if Marley and other reggae superstars cut their teeth on this music. Certainly it’s fun to imagine their musical roots coming from mento. And while mento did not take off internationally in the 2oth century perhaps it’s time has finally arrived. Sweet Sweet Jamaica certainly an aptly applied title takes a little adjusting to, but once your ears pick up on its grooves, the music grows infectious and delightful on this long play disc.

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