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The power of zouk

Visitors to Martinique are sure to encounter the infectious drum beat of the French Caribbean island’s signature dance, invented in the early 1980s. Now the genre is changing and evolving for a 21st-century audience

The power of zouk

Text by Paige Darrah Photos⁄Christopher Lane

Martiniquans have perfected the art of the outdoor concert. They can, as they would say, faire la fête just about anywhere – on a string of boats moored together at one of the island’s many secluded coves; in La Savane, the hilly capital’s cosmopolitan park where giant iguana sightings are commonplace. Or even, as on one balmy evening this spring, among the ceramicists’ shops of Le Village de la Poterie, near the touristy resort area of Trois-Îlets.

There, gaggles of young, smiling islanders arrive in their dancing flip-flops to hear Jean-Philippe Marthély, aka Pipo, sing from his classic repertoire. Accompanied by a strong bass guitar and red-and-blue strobes, the grandfather of the 35-year-old Zouk music genre works the crowd, crooning songs about love affairs with happy endings. At one point he turns to the audience and implores them in French to join in, a request they enthusiastically oblige, hollering back familiar lyrics with passion.

After half an hour, there’s a roar from the crowd, as Pipo pulls another man up onto the stage. It’s his nephew Douks, a fresh favourite in Martinique’s amicably crowded music scene. As the pair sing duets, a trio of ladies who could pass for Michael Jackson’s back-up dancers in his heyday, perform moves that are part twerk, part salsa in perfect unison. 

When Douks and Pipo sing their hit song How Many Pipo (a popular hit from Martinique’s carnival earlier this year), the crowd sashays forwards and backwards, joining in, word and beat perfect. There’s a magnetic, giggly happiness in the air. 

It’s a typical night out on Martinique, where Zouk, a French Caribbean music style full of slow dancing, sexy costumes, and well-paced rum cocktails, has been the centre of social life for over 30 years. Its contagious beat, pounded out on snares, conga drums and marimba (a deep-toned xylophone), is everywhere; its deep rhythms and upbeat, flirty melodies stream from barbershops, boats and beaches.

Pioneered on the island in the early 1980s by a group called Kassav’, the music was heavily influenced by Haitian “compas”, brought to the French Antilles by visiting artists in the ’70s and ’80s. It was named for the intense shimmy it inspires in listeners: the Creole word zouke is a rough translation of the French secouer, to shake rapidly. Thanks to the popularity of the dance, the word Zouk is now used to mean simply “party”. 

Sung in the native tongue, the first Zouk songs had a somewhat political edge, linked to a frustration with levels of French bureaucracy on the island. After  independence in 1946, when Martinique was promoted from being a colony to one of France’s départements, its political dependency had resulted in a sort of malaise. This stimulated a desire among islanders to reassert their Creole identity. The music harked back to the indigenous bélé, a folk dance also characterised by a strong drum beat, sexual undertones and a call-and-response singing style.

Pipo is idolised on the island, having made his name with Kassav’ during the boom of the early 1990s, when – somewhat ironically, given the music’s roots in anti-French feeling – it gained a huge following on the mainland. Groups like Kassav’ and Zouk Machine (a girl group from Guadeloupe) were as much in demand in the clubs of Paris as the beachside shacks of Fort-de-France. In 1990, Zouk Machine’s single La Musique dans Ma Peau sold over one million copies in metropolitan France. 

Pipo spent much of the ’90s jetting from city to city and club to club. “I love the stage, I was born for it. I love my public,” says the singer, who still gives as much energy to his music as he did back in the early ’80s. “I love it when people come to see my performances to have fun, for the smile, this joie de vivre. They leave everything outside at the entryway – all their problems.”

Nowadays, he’s proud that the Kassav’ legacy is being brought into the 21st century by a new generation of artists. Thanks to Martinique’s close-knit familial culture, many are young relatives of the Zouk old guard, including his nephew, 33-year-old Douks. 

The latter became a regional celebrity when his song La Choré du Sud went to number one in France, garnering 3.6 million views on YouTube for its video – a mix of booty-jiggling Zouk moves, picture-perfect Caribbean backdrop and dancers in high-vis, construction-worker vests. 

Douks considers himself more of a showman than a singer – his concerts are interactive, mixing satire in with the call-and-response vocal stylings indicative of the older generation’s Zouk. “I tell old stories, but a bit comically. Like a comic who sings. That makes a little flow, you see?”

There’s another big change from the early days, too. Douks, like the other newer Zouk artists, sings not in Creole, but in French. While this might seem surprising, given the music’s roots in anti-French feeling, in fact it reflects the more equal relationship islanders feel to the mainland these days. 

The post-colonial power grip has faded and there’s more movement between the island and mainland. Many young people go to Paris for school or university, making them more comfortable with mainstream French culture. 

Over at the offices of Chabine Productions, we meet Claude Cabit, one of those who’s seeing the evolution of the genre first hand, and one of his artists, Christiane Vallejo, a Zouk singer for 15 years, who’s working on her seventh album, out later this year. 

“Zouk has evolved and grown a lot, particularly over the last 10 years,” says Cabit. “If you listen to Kassav’, it’s more Caribbean and African; whereas the new generation of Zouk musicians are more French, less soulful. The youths are listening to more French pop melodies, and there are more artists, especially the younger generation, who were born in Paris, so it’s easier to communicate the song’s message in French now.”  

Vallejo’s latest album is a case in point – only one song on it will be sung in Creole. For her the language of Zouk is irrelevant though: what matters is its influence – it’s a powerful social force on the island. 

“It’s what brings the Martiniquan public together,” she says. “We love to dance too much; we love to have the fête. The younger generation might listen to R&B, that doesn’t prevent them from loving Zouk.” 

To find out more about the enduring appeal of the genre, we seek out Mickael Leton, who Pipo describes as “one of the young people who’s trying to do things differently at the organisational level in Martinique’s music scene”. 

A man with many Zouk-related hats, Leton is a DJ, costume-party organiser and producer of a new wave of concerts, including, on 4 June, Le Plus Grand Zouk du Monde at the Stade Pierre-Aliker (the largest football ground on the island), which is expected to welcome 7,000 people. 

We find him one sunny Saturday, enjoying himself on his little white-and-blue speedboat, complete with a Neisson rum and fish pizza-stocked ice chest. Leton’s moored to 10 other boats, dotting the white sand “pool” between L’Île aux Iguanes (an iguana reservation) and the mainland. 

“Look,” Leton says, pointing to a nearby party boat filled with couples dancing collé-serré (that’s French for “glued tight”). “That’s Zouk!” 

This couple’s dancing is different from the live Zouk we’ve seen performed so far, but it’s a major part of the scene, both here and internationally. In Brazil, the music has even inspired a spin-off dance form similar to the Lambada, called Brazilian-Zouk or Zouk-bada, which is becoming popular in Latin dance circles. 

For Leton, this aspect is key. “At the base of it, Zouk helps a man court a woman. There’s a slow acceleration, which reassures your partner and lends magic to the moment,” he says. Unlike American R&B music, Zouk is a dance for couples. Essentially, “there’s sex in all Zouk songs,” he says. “Even though we are Caribbean, we are French, and the French adore to talk about le sexe.” 

This, he says, explains the continuing popularity of Zouk in Paris, Toulouse and the other French cities where he organises regular events. “When I’m in Paris, I go to this Antillean club called La Pointe des Antilles. Le Divan du Monde has Zouk concerts as well.”

More importantly for islanders, he’s also a key figure at carnival, the major event in the Martiniquan music cycle. “The Martiniquans are born dancing; we learn to walk by dancing, and carnival is our most important stage,” he says. 

Over two weeks of costumed festivities in Lent, between 20,000 and 30,000 people enjoy live performances and choreographed dances. On the final day, a giant, papier-maché Vaval (“villain”) is paraded around in the bed of a truck, then burned in effigy to the punchy, almost primal soundtrack of “hard” Zouk (which has a faster tempo than normal Zouk and is played as loudly as possible). For those who witness the vanquishing of the island’s enemies to the sound of the beat, it’s more proof, as if it were needed, of the enduring power of Zouk in this corner of the French Antilles. 

Norwegian flies to Martinique from New York, Boston and Baltimore/Washington from November to May. Book flights, a hotel and a rental car at norwegian.com


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