Gwo ka: Guadeloupe’s Drums of Discord

For 44 days in 2009, the overseas French administrative district of Guadeloupe was immobilised in an unprecedented general strike. The insurgents marched to the beat of the “gwo ka,” the name given to the drums that rang out during the entire movement and even ended up shaking the walls of the French presidential palace.

September 19, 2017

Jacky Richard is a bank clerk from Guadeloupe, located in the French Caribbean, and has been a rep for CGTG, a trade union affiliated with the Communist Party, for over 30 years. On December 15th, 2008, he went to bed early, looking for inspiration. Over the past few days, he had been searching for a war cry to rally participants at the very first demo organised by the LKP (Liyannaj Kont Pwofitasyon in Antillean Creole, or “Stand Up Against Exploitation”), a new local collective bringing together social, cultural and union-based organisations on the island – organisations like the CGTG. The demonstration was scheduled to take place the next day, but Richard couldn’t get any rest. He tossed and turned in his bed for ages before finally falling asleep. At around three in the morning, he suddenly awoke. Words and a melody had come to him in a dream. “It’s strange – it’s as if I had never invented a thing,” Richard says today. Happy with the result, he got up and grabbed hold of his phone, switched on the recorder and began to sing. Then he went back to sleep.

Jacky Richard - La Gwadloup Sé Tan Nou

“When I woke up the next morning, I’d forgotten the whole lot. The song, and the fact that I’d recorded it on my phone,” says Richard. The device no longer works, but the original version of “La Gwadloup sé tan nou," is still on there for posterity. Translated from Creole, the lyrics mean: “Guadeloupe is ours, Guadeloupe isn’t theirs, they won’t do what they want, what they want with our land.”

A few hours later, Richard submitted his chant to a fellow union comrade, who interrupted him before the end: “Jacky, that thing of yours is too long! You really think people are going to shout all that during a demo?” He fatalistically answered, “What can we do? That’s all I’ve got.” So, in front of 7,000 people, Jacky mustered up all his courage and went for it, his voice trembling and accompanied by drummers. “That song was like a bomb – it really tore through the streets, like an explosion,” exclaims Richard. “I saw the comrades I fought beside sing it and begin to shake, to cry; they were almost in a trance as they launched into the tune. I thought to myself, ‘What the fuck have you done!’”

On the mainland, your political slogans are like the stuff you hear in stadiums... It’s just pep talk. In Guadeloupe, we all sing in rhythm, straight from the heart, ready for war.

Jacky Richard

Yet it was all quite simple: Jacky Richard had just written the LKP anthem, one that would echo through the streets of Guadeloupe during a general strike lasting 44 days in January and February of 2009, paralysing all sectors of the overseas French administrative district, whether they belonged to the state or to private interests. These demos criticized “profitisation” and the “expensive life,” with demands such as the lowering of prices on basic products like fuel and foodstuffs, which were seen as extortionate, as well as overall wage increases. Richard and his friends burned CDs of the tune – they even shot a video – and the royalties went straight to the LKP, as well as to the son of Jacques Bino, an activist who was killed during the uprising. In front of the Palais de Mutualité in “Pwent” (Pointe-à-Pitre, the largest city of Guadeloupe), which had become the strike headquarters, the hit was played on a loop all day and all night, before, during and after negotiations between the LKP and the French state. Every evening, artists such as Wospo, Erick Cosaque and Max Kiavué were in charge of the music. Even Patrick Saint-Eloi, formerly of ’80s firebrands Kassav’, as well as dancehall/reggae star Admiral T, got up on stage to say a few words and bring their support to the movement. “On the mainland, your political slogans are like the stuff you hear in stadiums: ‘Altogether now… Altogether…,’” compares Richard. “It’s just pep talk. In Guadeloupe, we all sing in rhythm, straight from the heart, ready for war.” “La Gwadloup sé tan nou, la Gwadloup sé pa ta yo” and all the other lyrics were accompanied by drummers pounding out the rhythms of the gwo ka, the musical soul of Guadeloupean identity.

Piquet de grève en Guadeloupe

Gwo ka is an artistic movement, comprising lyrics, dance and music, which made it onto UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2014, but which was born in the 17th century. It is represented by the “ka” drum that slaves made from barrels destined for the transport of goods preserved in brine. More than just a simple instrument, the “ka” was also used to announce clandestine meetings or revolts against sugarcane plantation owners. Gwo ka was inevitably banned by the colonisers and criticised by the church, who denounced the “obscene” character of the dances and the excessive rum consumption associated with such events. There were also accusations that the tambouyés (tambourine players) were “spreading degeneracy among the Guadeloupean people.” Described as “old negro music” or “brown negro music” – “brown negroes” (nègres marrons) was the name given to slaves who managed to escape from the plantations – gwo ka was rarely celebrated on Guadeloupean soil. This music was exclusively played in rural areas, and was synonymous with the lowest social class. “Gwo ka is the blues of Guadeloupe,” says Richard.

It was only in the ’70s, when there was a push for independence, that gwo ka was finally granted a sliver of cultural recognition, with artists such as Germain Callixte, Kristèn Aigle and Serius Geoffroy bringing it back from oblivion. Vélo, a member of the band Akiyo – and founding member of the LKP some forty years later – modernised the Guadeloupean carnival with his group. The local carnival was always considered a form of catharsis and complaint against normal societal institutions, but Akiyo replaced the costumes made from satin, glitter and plastic jugs with traditional masks and gwo ka drums; they even wore khaki-coloured military helmets, traditionally symbols of colonial oppression. Another performer, Robert Loyson, a sugarcane planter, sang in a bathrobe when he spoke out about the troubles of his oppressed countrymen. Resentment towards gwo ka persisted, however. At the time, the ka master Gérard Pomer, who discovered the drum via his great uncle, a sugarcane cutter, was just a teenager. As soon as he began to play drums at the village market with his friends, “the police would turn up within five minutes and break the instruments we had made ourselves, right in front of our eyes.” Guy Conquet would go on to experience this, too. In 1971, this legend of gwo ka, nicknamed the “Bob Marley of Guadeloupe,” was arrested by the police for “acts of subversion” because he was singing during a strike organised on the sugarcane plantations of Baie-Mahault. One of his most famous songs, “Gwadloup malad’o,” was banned from the airwaves of official radio stations.

Guy Conquet - La gwadloup malad

“For the first time, a gwo ka song [“Gwadloup malad’o”] mentioned the artificial split of Guadeloupe into two regions, criticised institutions and explicitly questioned the export prices for cane sugar… These social questions grounded in everyday life are still applicable today,” explains Marie-Hélène Lamuno, a gwo ka historian who was also present at the very first LKP demo on December 16th, 2008. “All the journalists homed in on ‘La Gwadloup sé tan nou,’ but the very first song all the demonstrators sang in unison was an old tune by Guy Conquet.” It was called “An ka mandé la lajan pasé,” and the chorus already said it all: “I wonder where the money went… I’ve added it all up… done the subtraction… done the multiplication… Already performed the division.”

Jacky Richard encountered the same blacklist that greeted Guy Conquet – he claims that despite the nationwide popularity of “Gwadloup sé tan nou,” he was only invited to perform twice on TV and radio. That was it. “The song was censored as the advertisers had asked for it to be removed,” says Richard. At the same time, on the French mainland, Yves Calvi, presenter of the TV show C dans l’air on France 5, spoke of the presence of autonomous groups in the demos on the February 24th, 2009, saying they were “definitely in a minority.” He added that their “call to arms make us think the opposite. If Guadeloupe belongs to them, then it certainly does not belong to the others. The others have yet to be defined.” Bosses? The state? The white man? On the other side of the Atlantic, Richard could not believe his ears. “They were interpreting my song, analysing every word. Whereas I was just lying in bed, at home, the words just came to me in a dream… There’s no explanation to give. I thought: ‘These guys are insane!’ They were saying that we were racist. All that to kill off the movement.” But it was not nearly enough.

I’m afraid that one day our youth will turn this island into a bloodbath, that there will be a genuine social explosion, far more than in 2009.

Jacky Richard

On March 5th, 2009, a protocol suspending the conflict was signed in Pointe-à-Pitre. Iy was the same place where, a month and a half earlier, the LKP had presented the French Secretary for Overseas Relations, Yves Jégo, with a hefty list of grievances, most of which have since been addressed. In fact, the final agreement included an increase of 200 euros for the lowest monthly wages – subsequently dubbed the “Jacques Bino” agreement. The price of baguettes were frozen to stop inflation, and negotiations also commenced over the price of this staple food. The cost of fuel decreased, as did that of water. As for the rest, Jacky regrets that when it comes to “background, societal” issues such as education, vocational training and employment, measures have yet to be taken. “Our youth have no jobs, they are desperate. I’m afraid that one day, they will turn this island into a bloodbath, that there will be a genuine social explosion, far more than in 2009.”

As for Marie-Hélène Lamuno, she does not really believe in “these kids” making hip-hop or ragga tracks today, saying that the Guadeloupeans who make their island shine beyond its borders speak of “their ghetto” and perpetuate, in their own way, “the dissenting spirit of gwo ka.” It’s a spirit no one can ignore.

Yves Jégo had taken part in the final negotiations by telephone, and amidst the heat, noise and humidity, he had spoken to the LKP leader, Elie Domota, in a televised conversation. You can only hear one side: “Yes, we have turned over a new leaf,” agreed Domota. He paused to listen, then added, “Yes, we will need to rebuild the whole system.” Jacky Richard witnessed the conversation on television along with practically everyone else in Guadeloupe, but had inside knowledge of Jégo’s words on the other end of the line. “I was told that Jégo ended up admitting he couldn’t focus because of the drumming,” says Richard. “He allegedly said, ‘I must admit that the gwo ka really is something.”

Header image © Lewis Heriz

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