Biguine under the volcano: Stephen Spark Reviews “Creole Music of the French West Indies”


Stephen Spark reviews Creole Music of the French West Indies: a discography, 1900 1959, a collection of essays compiled by Alain Boulanger, John Cowley, and Marc Monneraye [see previous post New Book: “Creole Music of the French West Indies: A Discography, 1900‑1959” ]. Previously scheduled for 2014, the book was released in January 2015. Spark praises the book most enthusiastically, in particular, John Cowley’s historical essay “Mascarade, biguine and the bal nègre.” Here are excerpts with a link to the full review below:

Back in the 1980s, a young researcher started to compile a discography of music from the French West Indies. The years passed, music and fashions changed, heroes were raised and thrown down, new species discovered as others became extinct, dynasties rose and fell. The world moved on, but the burning of midnight oil, the burrowing in archives, the cross-checking of facts, the puzzling over anomalies and discrepancies continued, and all of it unpaid. Finally, on 23rd January, John Cowley’s book was revealed to the world.

A labour of love hardly seems enough to cover the dedication and commitment that has gone into the making of Creole Music of the French West Indies: a discography, 1900 1959. Single-minded obsession might be a more appropriate description. The effort has paid off for the reader – even if not financially for the author for this is a major work, the first of its kind, and one that should act as a beacon to others.

The launch was held at the University of London’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICS) [. . .]. Cowley, a senior research fellow at the ICS, is probably best known for his equally thorough Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso, an essential reference for anyone seriously interested in the roots of mas and music in Trinidad. The production quality of the new book is far higher, however, and it is a handsome volume, attractively laid out with numerous historic views of Martinique and evocative reproductions of old record labels, posters, flyers and newspaper cuttings. The text is in English and French.

Discographies are normally found at the back of a book, often in tiny type, but here it takes centre stage. It’s a slightly strange arrangement because, save for diehard record-collectors, the names and titles will mean little before you have read Cowley’s essay, ‘Mascarade, biguine and the bal nègre’, which starts on page 201. For most readers, the essay will be the core of the book, explaining the development of the music, primarily Martinican biguine, and its spread to France and beyond.

It’s a fascinating story, shot through with triumph and tragedy. Looming over the whole narrative is Mont Pelée, the volcano that erupted on 8th May 1902, utterly destroying Saint-Pierre. Just two men and a young girl survived out of the population of 30,000. The town had been the cultural heart of the island, known for its elaborate carnival, so its destruction was psychologically traumatic as well as physically devastating.

The silver lining in Mont Pelée’s ash cloud was that Martinicans who left their island took biguine with them, chiefly to Paris. The music flourished in the late 1920s, and clubs such as Bal Nègre attracted not just the expatriate Antillean community but also intellectuals, artists and tourists. The regulars grumbled that their hangouts were being invaded and diluted by these (white) incomers, but the biguine scene undoubtedly added to the City of Light’s mystique of ‘exoticism’ and sophistication. Forty years later, Notting Hill acquired a similar ‘racy’ reputation, for rather similar reasons.

There are fascinating descriptions of early carnivals and also of the two-way trade of music between Martinique and Trinidad. As Anglia Ruskin University music lecturer Sue Miller said, “This book is a beautiful, rich resource.” It is, she added, “A starting-point for more research.” [. . .]

For full review, see

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