various artists,
Caribbean Voyage -- Martinique:
Cane Fields and City Streets

(Rounder, 2001)

In 1962, Alan Lomax traveled to the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean Sea on a journey of musical research. His expedition was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Now, 39 years later, some of the fruits of his labor are available on CD. Caribbean Voyage -- Martinique: Cane Fields and City Streets presents music created from the merging of African and European cultures on the island.

The CD insert is quite thick and explains some of the cultural history and music styles of Martinique as well as some of Alan's difficulties in acquiring local music with the equipment of the day. I, for one, was rather surprised not to hear a lot of pops and hisses normally associated with old recordings. This CD is more crisp and clear, in general, than music I have from studio bands popular in the '80s! The only flaw I can hear with the sound quality is that the singers fade in and out as if they are getting a little closer or further away from the mic. This is perhaps because the singers often dance as they perform.

Out of 23 songs, I really do not care for the first 17 of them. These all follow a similar pattern. A main singer (Raoul Grivalliers, Augustin Gourpil or Malcousu Florius) leads a back-up group. The lead singer (or in a couple of cases, lead singers) sings a stanza or a single line before the group replies with a single word or phrase. They repeat the same word of phrase as their reply many, many, many, many, many times each song. As if the repetitiveness were not annoying enough, most songs are accompanied by either a chaotic clapping pattern or a random drum beat that may simply be too complex for my ears to catch.

On occasion, there will be a little variety. In "Makak Et Chyen," Malcousu tells a traditional story in a regular speaking voice. Every once in a while, the crowd responds with something. Sporadically, in this 7-plus minute story (one of two lengthy pieces on the CD), Malcousu and group will sing in the style similar to the other 16 songs of this type. On "Jean Mano Di 'Bouwo Dehye-Mwen Ale'," the group leads and Malcousu responds. After the first minute, he starts rapping almost. The group starts their random clapping. I had visions of little kids clapping each other's hands while singing a little nonsense tune -- "Miss Susie had a steam boat...." I enjoyed reading the translations of these songs much more than listening to them being performed. Some of the translations are quite amusing (but too long for me to get in to here).

As much as I dislike the first three-quarters of this recording, I like the last six songs. "Ti-Anne" and "Man Ti Sonson Averina" are accompanied with an accordion and a chacha (a single-cylinder metal rattle). The other four tunes include an orchestra with a clarinet, trombone, violin, guitar, bass and drums. These pieces have a very '20s or New Orleans jazz style that is a lot of fun to listen to. You can almost imagine yourself at a small Mardi-Gras or Carnival street party with "Bertina." "Homage a Ma Mere" is a waltzy instrumental. "Manze Marie" is a faster, mamba-type instrumental.

This CD is magical -- each song seems to last for 10 or 15 minutes at least. I have forced myself to listen to this CD several times and I cannot listen to it all in one sitting. The only way I could ever recommend a recording like this is if it had perhaps 10 songs that included the orchestra and perhaps two or three examples of a lead singer with a group shouting a single phrase to an atonal drum beat. That way, you could at least get the flavor of street music in Martinique, but you wouldn't be tortured by it. That being said, if you have been to Martinique or you simply like collecting local styles of music from around the globe, this might be the CD for you.

[ by Wil Owen ]

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