Creolized Aurality: Guadeloupean Gwoka and Postcolonial Politics

Creolized Aurality: Guadeloupean Gwoka and Postcolonial Politics

by Jérôme Camal

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In the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, the complex interplay between anticolonial resistance and accommodation resounds in its music. Guadeloupean gwoka music—a secular, drum-based tradition—captures the entangled histories of French colonization, movements against it, and the uneasy process of the island’s decolonization as an overseas territory of France. In Creolized Aurality, Jérôme Camal demonstrates that musical sounds and practices express the multiple—and often seemingly contradictory—cultural belongings and political longings that characterize postcoloniality. While gwoka has been associated with anti-colonial activism since the 1960s, in more recent years it has provided a platform for a cohort of younger musicians to express pan-Caribbean and diasporic solidarities. This generation of musicians even worked through the French state to gain UNESCO heritage status for their art. These gwoka practices, Camal argues, are “creolized auralities”—expressions of a culture both of and against French coloniality and postcoloniality.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226631806
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/04/2019
Series: Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Jérôme Camal is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

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The Poetics of Colonial Aurality

The Drum of the Maroon?

Rèpriz. "Because of its creation, gwoka has always been political," remarked Lénablou. In Guadeloupe, gwoka is often described has having emerged in resistance to, if not outside of, the plantation. For example, Joslen Gabaly, in the first monograph on the Guadeloupean drum, writes that "it is the 'nègmawon' [sic; maroon slave], that is to say those slaves who succeeded in escaping to conquer their freedom at the price of untold suffering, who, first, elaborated our music." A monument on the main entrance into Sainte-Anne depicts a maroon breaking free from a structure that resembles the base of a windmill. Instruments of his freedom are cast around him: a broken chain, a hoe, a conch shell, and a ka (see figure 1.1). Already in 1970, when the Association générale des étudiants guadeloupéens (AGEG; see chapter 2) proposed its cultural platform, it likewise had linked the gwoka and the nèg mawon. A few years later, in 1978, Gérard Lockel — a leading musical voice of Guadeloupean cultural nationalism (see chapter 2) — published an article in the separatist newspaper Ja Ka Ta in which he proposed that Guadeloupean music could be stratified into three categories: French, colonial, and Guadeloupean. Gwoka, for him, was the only genuine musical expression of a Guadeloupean culture because the drum alone had escaped the corrupting influence of French imperialism. And in many staged gwoka performances today, the drum serves as the common thread running through a history of resistance to colonialism. For example, a show by the politically-minded traditional group Indestwas Ka during the 2017 Festival Gwoka in Sainte-Anne started with a tableau about slavery and marronnage, which was then connected to the 1802 battles against the reinstatement of slavery (complete with a defiant mulâtresse Solitude), the events of May 1967 (when French troops opened fire on Guadeloupean protesters), and the Liyannaj kont pwofitasyon. In each tableau, the rhythm of the gwoka helped convey a particular affect: for example, a woulé captured the sorrow of slavery, and a léwòz expressed the anger of May 1967. Within Guadeloupe's (post)colonial aurality, this historical narrative — reproduced with minor variations in many a gwoka ballet — can be told only through the drum. Conversely, the drum can tell only this kind of history. We can hear Blou's statement quite literally, then: in contemporary Guadeloupe, the drum is imagined as standing outside and in opposition to the colonial sphere.

And yet, given the conditions of its emergence, the ka was always already integral to the colonial aurality: drumming was immanent to colonial society, not external to it. Gwoka cannot be reduced to a music of resistance. From its beginning, drumming sounded the poetics of colonialism, the ambivalence and negotiation inherent to colonial conviviality. Since the seventeenth-century emergence of plantation societies in the French Antilles, plantation owners, overseers, colonial administrators, petits blancs, African slaves, and, later, indentured workers have partaken in complex relationships of desire, borrowing, assimilation, and resistance. Music and sounds participated in these colonial poetics. Exploring colonial auralities reveals how power and agency were enacted through the sonic. Within colonial auralities, music was both a terrain of control and a space of contestations. Creole musics — African-derived drumming practices or European-derived quadrilles — enabled those who were enslaved to affirm their humanity; but in black musics, white witnesses also heard evidence to support their ideology of racial abjection.

I insist that, when writing about the poetics of colonialism, I do not mean to aestheticize or romanticize colonial rule and its effects. More than by Glissant, for whom the poetics of Relation remain connected to poetry, I am inspired here by Michael Herzfeld's concept of social poetics. "Social poetics," writes Herzfeld, "is about the play through which people try to turn transient advantage into a permanent condition. ... It links the little poetics of everyday interactions with the grand dramas of official pomp and historiography to break down illusions of scale." Poetics, then, speaks to social and semiotic fluidity and ambiguity, even in the face of hegemonic forces.

In this chapter, I show how the sounds of Creole musics and their attendant significance have been reshaped as Guadeloupe evolved from a plantation colony to a "Republican" colony and finally to a (post)colonial, nonsovereign overseas department. In doing so, this chapter explores the social, political, and audible entanglements of the French Empire from a Guadeloupean perspective. At the center of this argument is the idea that colonialism always-already contained the potential for subaltern practices of disruption and détournement and for the emergence of what Barnor Hesse calls the "creolization of the political." Listening for the poetics of colonial aurality, then, helps us understand colonialism's duress and make sense of the postwar campaign to decolonize France's "old" colonies by seeking their political integration into the French state. It also clarifies the later anticolonial backlash that fueled the revitalization of gwoka.

Drumming, Agency and Subjection on the Plantation (1635–1848)

In Guadeloupe, drumming resonates with the long history that has enmeshed sound politics into colonial structures. Which imperial entanglements produced the contemporary Guadeloupean drum — the drum that has gained international recognition as the gwoka? What has been the place and role of drumming in Guadeloupe's plantation society? When asking these questions, I do not seek to establish a Herskovitsian genealogy of retention. With poor and faulty documentation of the actual ethnic origin of Guadeloupean slaves, the task is rather futile. Neither do I seek to celebrate the creative and resistant ingenuity of enslaved Africans. Both of these modes of inquiry have already produced valuable contributions to the study of African American musics, but, as David Scott argues, these models have been shaped by specific ideological attachments to narratives of continuity from putative stable points of origin, whether in Africa or on the plantation (see chapter 4). Instead, my interest is in the conflicted place of drumming on the plantation. On the one hand, dances facilitated the emergence of new institutions and forms of solidarities among those who were enslaved. Dances also participated in the transmission of knowledge, helping preserve traces of African aesthetics and technologies. Conversely, apologists for slavery pointed to slaves' "innate" musical abilities as evidence of their happiness: for those involved in the slave trade, the sights and sounds of slaves' dances proved simultaneously that black bodies were devoid of any rational ability (and thus less than fully human) and that slavery was a benign institution. In addition, for those enslaved, music and dance served a cathartic role, making the plantation system more bearable but thus indirectly helping sustain it, something that many planters understood well. This contested and ambivalent legacy forms the basis from which contemporary gwoka emerged as a historically and socially constituted object and practice.

The Slave Trade and Plantation Colonialism in Guadeloupe

Before diving further into the emergence and politics of drumming practices in early colonial Guadeloupe, it will be helpful to clarify the social structure from which those practices developed and that they, along with other musical forms, contributed to shaping. French colonization of Guadeloupe started in 1635, when France claimed the archipelago from Spain. To populate the new French Caribbean colonies, landowners relied on the services of poor white contract laborers (engagés), who were hired to work for thirty-six months on cotton and tobacco plantations. Unable to rival the North American colonies in the production of these crops, French colonists quickly turned to the production of cane sugar, which promised much higher profits. Cultivating and processing sugarcane required a larger workforce than the engagés could provide, and planters turned to the massive importation of African slaves. Within roughly thirty years, Martinique and Guadeloupe experienced a dramatic demographic shift. In Guadeloupe, Europeans made up 80 percent of the total population in 1654, two-thirds of which were contract laborers. By 1664, that ratio dropped to only half of the overall population; twenty years later, it was down to 39 percent. Meanwhile, Europeans made up 67 percent of the servile population of Guadeloupe in 1654. The rise of African slave labor pushed that percentage down to 13 percent by 1671.

Over the course of the colonial period, some 291,000 African slaves were imported to Guadeloupe from an area that stretches from contemporary Senegal to Angola. The ethnic origin of these slaves remains a point of debate. The historian Frédéric Régent has established that, around the time of the French Revolution, most slaves in Guadeloupe came from the Bay of Biafra (present-day Gulf of Bonny, Nigeria), followed by groups coming from an area ranging from Senegambia, through the Gulf of Benin, and all the way to what is now northern Angola. Nicole Vanony-Frisch proposes that most Guadeloupean slaves were Igbo, with Kongo constituting the second-largest group. However, the Afrocentric linguist Marie-Josée Cérol (Ama Mazama) argues that, in the nineteenth century, Kongo actually represented the largest ethnicity, followed by the Bantu, who were among the last contract laborers brought from Africa. Adding to the confusion, in all these descriptions, the term Congo or Kongo is rather imprecise. Vanony-Frisch and Régent agree that it was used broadly to designate slaves from an area that extended from what is now Cameroon to northern Angola. However, Cérol seems to restrict the term to the Kongo (i.e., Bakongo) ethnicity, an approach that needs to be tempered to acknowledge that ethnic categories are and have always been fluid historical constructs that have served various political interests, European colonialism foremost among them. Yet Cérol's approach seems consistent with what I have observed to be a tendency to highlight the Kongo heritage of Guadeloupean culture.

As with the rest of the circum-Caribbean, the slave trade produced a fairly rigid social hierarchy. It is common to paint Caribbean societies in broad strokes as a three-tiered socioracial order with whites on top, free people of color (mulattos and freed slaves) in the middle, and black slaves at the bottom, as Lucien Abenon does in the case of Guadeloupe. Dominique Cyrille proposes a slightly more complicated model of eighteenth-century French Antillean colonial society. Reminding us that the Code Noir considered slaves as disposable goods and therefore excluded them from the colonial social order, Cyrille explains: "Officially, and from the Europeans' point of view, there were three classes in the colony. At the top of the social ladder were the planters, rich merchants, and high administrators. The second social class comprised artisans, clerks, soldiers, and clergy people of European origin. All the free people of color — freeborn mulattos as well as newly freed blacks — were placed together at the bottom of the social ladder. They had to show deference to all whites at all times as a general rule."

In addition to this official hierarchy, within the enslaved population, important social distinctions were found between newly arrived and Creole (American-born) slaves as well as between field hands, nègres à talent (skilled slaves), and house slaves. To further complicate matters, freeborn mulattos were often wealthier and better educated than lower-class whites and therefore saw themselves as closer to the plantocracy than to newly freed slaves. Within this social structure, music — like the selective use of French or Creole — contributed a contested colonial aurality. The socio-racial order circumscribed musical practices: it sought to impose who could perform and dance to what music and when. It shaped how the various musics found around the plantation were heard. Undoubtedly, slaves and their overseers did not hear the sounds of the violin or a drum in the same way. Conversely, music and dance facilitated social solidarity and captured the social aspirations of colonial actors at nearly every social level. A close examination of the role of drumming as well as European-derived social dances on the plantation will illustrate these points.

The Colonial Listening Regime

Guadeloupe has not produced slave narratives such as those that have informed African American studies. The only written records available consists of various books written by European travelers to the Caribbean whose testimonies were shaped by their particular imperial positions. In Black Soundscapes, White Stages, Edwin C. Hill builds on Mary Louise Pratt's concept of imperial eyes to question the ways in which European encounter with colonial sounds "produced" but also challenged "an imperial order for the valuable and meaningful mapping of the New World." Whereas imperial eyes were able to produce a "type of scientific knowledge that, in Aimé Césaire's words, 'enumerates, measures, classifies, and kills,'" imperial ears met sounds that defied colonial desires to control through the production of taxonomies and cartographies, foremost among them the din of enslaved black bodies: their speech, music, and, most of all, screams. These sounds escaped colonial rationality and remained opaque to colonial listeners. They inspired extreme affective responses, from fascination and awe to fear. From the seventeenth century in the writings of Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre and César de Rochefort to the oft-quoted eighteenth-century chronicles of Jean-Baptiste Labat to the unabashedly racist descriptions found in Granier de Cassagnac's nineteenth-century vitriol, African-derived musics in the French Caribbean colonies were variously, but unsurprisingly, described as "barbarous," "horrible," "scary," and "hideous." If European chroniclers' writings produced what Radano called a "sonically absent history," they nonetheless reveal Europeans' collective prejudice and ambivalence toward the presence of black bodies in the colonies. They also make it clear that black music and dancing played an important role in the overall life of the plantation, including the work songs that helped coordinate labor in cane fields, the songs of wakes and funerals, and, of course, those of the calenda or bamboula, the two terms commonly used by European writers to describe black drumming.

Black sounds exposed colonial hearing as "impaired, unreliable, or faulty," a condition that Hill — channeling Barrett — describes as "hearing double." Hearing double implies two things. First, it acknowledges that colonial listening was marked by mishearing and misrecognition. Second, it highlights that colonial listening was informed by previous listening habits, by the myths, desires, and projections that circulated through European travel writings, with each new text echoing those that came before (sometimes literally, as with Rochefort's 1665 reproduction of Du Tertre's earlier writings).

Even if European chroniclers offer only tantalizing glimpses of the actual sounds of the colony, their texts do reveal a great deal about the importance of the sonic in the exercise of power on the plantation. They can help us elucidate colonial listening regimes, what I propose as an aural equivalent to "the gaze," a socially constructed way of hearing that structures and is structured by power relations. For one, as Hill explains, colonial soundscapes — the term here encompasses both "natural" and human-made sounds — made audible the ratés, or "sonic breakdowns," of the plantation: "a failure in time, a sonic symbol of slippage, excess, waste in the colonial machine." These sonic breakdowns were symptomatic of the fissures in the colonial regime, the epistemological incommensurability that marked the distance between the rational discourse on which colonialism was built and the sensorial experience of its logic of racial abjection within a structure of imposed and strained conviviality. Simply put, the argument that slavery was a benevolent enterprise could hardly be reconciled with the screams, the cracking of whips, the barking of dogs, or the firing of guns that made audible the violence of the plantation.


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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
List of Online Resources
  Introduction / Listening for (Post)colonial Entanglements
One / The Poetics of Colonial Aurality
Two / Building an Anticolonial Aurality: Gwoka modènn as Counterpoetics
Three / Discrepant Creolizations: Music and the Limits of Hospitality
Four / Diasporic or Creole Aurality? Aesthetics and Politics across the Abyss
Five / Postnational Aurality: Institutional Detour and the Creolization of Sovereignty
Coda / Bigidi
Basic Gwoka Rhythms

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