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History of Zoukmusic

As the lambada music disappeared from clubs and parties, the lambada dancers had to find different music to dance to. The rhythm of Carribean zouk was very suitable for lambada dancing. (1) It is a fast tempo carnival style of music originating from the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. The word zouk is creole and originates in Martinique, where it was a common expression for 'Party'. The term was used more frequently when dance halls disappeared and were replaced by parties called zouk. (2)
To understand where the roots of the Caribbean zouk music lie, it is necessary to dig into the jungle of Caribbean music genres. It is somewhat remarkable that the Caribbean Islands with their long history of colonization and slavery have come to be one of the most vivid places in the world in terms of developments in music. Every island in the Caribbean shows various folk music genres derived from the diverse influences of the Caribbean's Amerindian, African and European heritage. The Amerindian influences are difficult to trace back since the population has been perished by the Spanish. African music is proposed as the origin of all musical creation in the Caribbean brought to the islands by African slaves. Europe's position of importance because of the colonization that brought European cultural heritage to the Caribbean. Some of the vitality of the music seems to derive from its importance and sheer amount of attention in the Caribbean society. Styles like Reggae and Cuban dance music achieve international popularity, through which Caribbean music has truly become world music, and world history as well. (3)

Zouk was developed and first reached popularity in the Antillean Islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Lucia and Dominica. Guadeloupe and Martinique are states of France whereas St. Lucia and Dominica are independent nations with greater legacy of English colonialism. All four Islands however, speak French-based creole languages that are mutually intelligible. The same with the music of the Antillean Islands, which has due to vivid exchange and cross-fertilization become a shared ground for cultural development of all four islands. (4) Zouk can be seen as a synthesis of many Caribbean music genres and several popular music styles from the United States. (5) The Flow Chart bellow shows the influences that led to zouk. (6)

Beginning from the base up the first three musical influences on zouk were calypso, biguine and jazz. Calypso is a dance genre that developed in Trinidad primarily by lower-class Afro-Trinidadians since the 1700. Calypso has always had its counterparts on other islands in the Caribbean but it is in Trinidad and Tobago that it has flourished the most. By the second half of the 19th century diverse genres of Trinidadian music came to be centred in Carnival. The slaves soon took over these festivities making the French and British folk retreating in fear. For that reason the government forbid the use of drums in 1880 which led to massive protest and eventually to a new development in the calypso. The more formalized mas bands (carnival bands) started to play in tents where they would practice their songs. These tents were soon beginning to attract visitors and as the songs grew more soloistic and refined they were called calypso. These new forms of calypso were text- oriented songs performed for a seated audience. The calypso continuously gained popularity during the 20th century with hits like 'Rum and Coca Cola' by Andrew's Sisters in 1940 that sold 5 million times in the United States. The modern Calypso has again developed due to Trinidad's achievement of independence 1962 and the new invention soca. soca was an invention of Lord Shorty who set out to improve calypso's accompanying patterns in 1977. Together with the arranger Ed Watson he came up with a composite pattern they called soca, which has been the norm in most calypso since. The terms soca and calypso are used interchangeably, but soca is used specifically to refer to dance music while calypso is more text oriented. (7)

The biguine is a significant origin for the rhythm of zouk. The biguine’s evolution can be traced in the following types of music: Haitian compas direct and cadence-rampa through the rhythmic pattern played on the cymbals, which is identical to the rhythm of the biguine; Dominican Cadence-lypso through the Rhythmic patterns played on the high hat; and zouk which is thought to be a synthesis of these different rhythms. Biguine comes from the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique and has been a very poplar music style among dance orchestras from the 1930's to the 50's. The musicians of these dance orchestras of that time mostly had their debut at the Pointe-à-Pitre Philharmonic Orchestra, created in 1903. When this orchestra split up in 1921 a new group, Minerve, was created. Other dance orchestras were formed following this example many of them during the late 50’s and early 60’s.  Dance orchestras performed in the same style as American big bands, seated behind music stands, playing a repertoire of tangos, Viennese waltzes, mambos and jazz. Only local music, like biguine, valse créole and mazurka were played by ear. With the up coming of the groups from Pointe-à-Pitre Guadeloupian music took new directions. Where the dance orchestras in the 40’s included up the 20 people the younger groups from the 60’s performed in a more intimate setting of around 7 musicians. In the 1960’s the group Les Vikings was created and later taken over by Guy Jacquet, Pierre-Éduard Décimus and Camille Hildevert became the leaders of the group. The were inspired by young American groups such as Kool Kool and the Gang and Blood Sweat and Tears and they started to incorporate the rhythms and compositional tools into their sound. When Les Vikings broke up, Décimus and Jacquet formed a new group named Caso Viking Guadeloupe Exploration. From this group the band Kassav’ emerged in the 80’s making the sound of zouk popular far beyond the border of the Caribbean islands. (8)

Jazz was a very influential music style developed in the early 20th century mostly by African-American communities of the southern United States. The roots of jazz lie in the combination of African-based music with European elements of harmony and form. The African influences can be noticed in the use of improvisation, polyrhythms, syncopation, blue notes, swung notes and the use of call and response singing. Jazz has had direct influence on calypso and biguine and is later returning as a source of inspiration for the soca and through Soul and Funk also for zouk. (9)

Following the musical influences we now look into the developments of the meregue in the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic, which together with Haiti forms the island Hispaniola. Santo Domingo as the Spanish half of the island Hispaniola was called was the first colony founded by Christopher Columbus in the late 15th century. The country was under the power of the Spanish until 1822 when the Haitian Government invaded Santo Domingo, to occupy the region until 1844. The independence after1844 failed to bring more stability as the country remained undeveloped. The U.S. marine managed to bring a certain balance from 1916 until 1924 but was then again disturbed by the dictatorship of Refael Trujillo. During colonization African slaves were also imported to Santo Domingo as the native population was decimated. These circumstances had an influence on the culture and have brought the Afro-Caribbean as well as the European Heritage to many Caribbean islands.  Although the history of Merengue is unclear it has been reconstructed that one strain of the genre has developed in the 19th century as a creole version of the syncopated couple dances called contredanse, contradanza, danza or merengue. This early ballroom like merengue with predominantly European origin was soon overshadowed by the folk version of merengue with its clear Afro-Caribbean flavour. The upper-class population saw these forms of folk merengue as vulgar and crude, similar to the effect lambada had on the elite in Brazil. During the dictatorship of Trujillo the cibao style meregue was very popular since Trujillo himself was very much in favour of the nationalistic fervor. The cibao-style meregue was turned into the national music and dance genre, which still is the most significant entity in the nation. As a new era of dictatorship began with Joaquín Balaguer dramatic changes took place through urbanisation and internationalization. These changes brought about the fall of the monopoly of the music genre meregue, as it had to compete with rock, pop ballads and salsa. It was only in the 1980's as more sophisticated recording studios had emerged that would produce music professional enough to stand their ground against foreign genres. The sound of the meregue changed combining the more formalized big band merengue, some of the intensity of meregue típico and the best influences of foreign competitors. One of the most influential musicians of this development was Johnny Ventura who, with his band, refashioned the meregue taking the best of the traditional and merging it with the modern influences of salsa and disco. Another important figure was Wilfrido Vargas who in the late 70's enriched the meregue with elements of zouk, rap, salsa and disco. By the 1980's the meregue took over first its homeland to then spread over the globe becoming a counterpoint to salsa and starting a new chapter in the history of Latin music. The dance that belongs to the modern meregue is a dance that somehow contrasts this fast tempo energetic music. The dance is laid back and restrained with simple steps, shifting the weight form one side to the other. The stepping pattern is much easier as the one of salsa or zouk and most meregue dancers choose to stick to the basic steps really putting the focus on the connection with the partner.  (10)

Compas Direct and cadance-rampa are both folk music genres from Haiti. Compas Direct, called konpa-Dirèk in creole, is a descendant of the Dominican meregue. Since the invasion of the Haitian military in the Dominican Republic forces in 1822, the origin of the merengue has been a subject of endless discussions. Intellectuals from both countries have written extensively on how the meregue originated in their homeland. Despite the disagreements on the origins of the merengue Haitian bands adopted the Dominican style to their bands. (11) During the meregue craze in 1955 the Saxophonist Nemours Jean-Baptiste introduced a new dance rhythm, derived from the meregue, the compas direct. The most visible competitor of Nemours was the talented saxophone player Webert Sicot who introduced the rhythm of Cadance-Rampa. Before 1955, Nemours and Sicot played together in the band Conjunto International but both left after a few month to start their own music groups. As Webert Sicot left the band and called his music cadence rampa to differentiate it from compas direct the rivalry between the two had started. However, either compas direct or cadence rampa is a modern merengue it is also said that cadence is merely the beat of the compas dirèk and the two names were often referred to as simply compas music, or konpa in creole. The two bandleaders managed to make konpa the typical national dance replacing the Haitian mereng, also called méringe. (12) 

Another style of konpa was the mini-djaz of Haiti that developed out of the yéyé, formations of Haitian teenagers performing rock-and-roll, twist and popular Jazz-influenced songs. On dance parties the yéyé bands were asked to play konpa music in addition to or instead of their rock-and-roll repertory. The resulting fusion made way for the new movement of mini-djaz. The small groups got their name from the big-band orchestras that were known in Haiti as djaz. The musicians who played in the mini-djaz groups were usually untrained musicians and many of them just learned their instrument after they had joined the band. Although it was purely recreational music making at first, with the success of the mini-djaz bands Shleu-Shleu, Les Dfficiles de Pétionville and Tabou Combo, playing in a mini-djaz band became an option for middle-class boys to gain prestige and make a living. Many of the major mini-djaz bands of the late 60's had a peculiar instrument combination. The Saxophone was used more extensive, with long solos and instrumental introductions. Haitian musicians served as models and teachers for the young generation of Guadeloupian and Martinican musicians, who embraced mini-djaz konpa under the rubric kadans, also called cadance in French. (13)

Kadans, also called cadence is the music genre that developed out of mini-djaz konpa with influences of both cadence-rampa and compas direct. Haitian musicians brought their music to the French Antilles, primarily to Guadeloupe and Martinique, and Dominica. The Trumpeter Raymond Sicot (Wéber Sicot's brother) travelled the island of Martinique in the late 50's and formed a group called Tropicana. Tropicana was engaged with introducing the Haitian rhythms to Martinique, especially the cadence-rampa. Nemours and Sicot's groups from Haiti toured the French Antilles on an almost annual basis and Haitian musicians started to work in music bands of Martinique, Guadeloupe and other islands of the French Antilles. The kadans that was played in the Antilles was often indistinguishable from Haitian konpa. Haitian musicians who worked in konpas bands in were often critical of the sound of the early kadans bands; especially they said that the rhythm sections were lacking a particular Haitian feeling. The interaction between Haitian musicians and those of the French Antilles and other Creole-speaking islands was crucial for the future development of dance music in the other islands. (14) Cadence music is characterized by a constant up-tempo rhythm, hence the name cadence. The percussive aspects come from the drums, cymbals and to a lesser extent the high hat plus a distinct beat of the cowbell and the conga drums beating a dash of meregue and cadence-rampa. (15)

In Dominica, where the konpa, cadence and mini-djaz have eventually also been heard, a new genre emerged. Cadence-Lypso is the immediate offspring of the marriage between cadence-rampa of Haiti and the Calypso from Trinidad with influences of the Dominican traditional music Jing-ping. Jing-ping is a Dominican term for folk music that accompanies the quadrille, mazouk and other European folk dances. In 1972, Exile One, a group with mainly Dominican musicians led by Gordon Henderson, emerged on the music scene. They began by creating a fusion of African, Afro-American and Caribbean rhythms, developing a styled called Afro-calypso. Since Exile One was based in Guadeloupe it's musical repertoire has also been influenced by the various musical styles of Guadeloupe and Haiti. The Haitian cadence-rampa was very popular at the time both in Guadeloupe and Martinique. They continued the experimental approach and began to merge the music of the francophone and anglophone Caribbean. This was reflected in the hit song 'Pappyson ka siyébwa-la', which included a basic calypso rhythm and creole lyrics. In 1973, Exile One cross-fertilized the cadence-rampa and the calypso and so cadence-lypso was born. While the genre shares many aspects of cadence-rampa, its more aggressive, up-tempo guitar beat, clearly derived form calypso. A strong emphasis was placed on social commentary with themes related to patriotism, hardships faced by musicians, identity, gender relations, love and sexuality. Cadence-lypso was not only powerful for its social content but also because of the use of the creole language. The majority of Dominican cadence-lypso musicians came from humble origins, having the experience of growing up under the difficult circumstances of Dominica's transition from colonial dependency to independence. Cadence-lypso also emerged on the heels of the black power movement when the consciousness of African identity and heritage were very much stressed. The message of cadence-lypso, along with its musical features served to make cadence a truly popular musical art form in Dominica and the neighbouring French départements. Cadence music also had some influence in the development of soca. This arose out of Lord shorty's tour of Dominica in 1976 where he put together a mix of the calypso rhythm played in the verses and the cadence-lypso in the chorus. Cadence-lypso even went beyond the confines of East Caribbean. It became popular in Nigaragua's Atlantic coast, where blacks of Jamaican heritage reside. Cadence also made a big impact in Paris, whit its large number of Antillean citizens, as well as in French and Portuguese West Africa. The pioneers of cadence music, Exile One, Gramacks and midnight groovers have all received awards for their contribution to Dominican music. (15)

Zouk is a synthesis of some attributes of all the musical styles mentioned above. Some styles have had direct influence on zouk whereas others have been ancestors influencing the development of Caribbean music and making way for zouk to arise. zouk is the creation of black, Creole-speaking Antillean musicians. Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Lucia and Dominica were the most influential islands in the development of zouk. All four islands share a similar colonial background since around 1650 but have taken different paths in the second half of the 19th century. The French Assembly declared Martinique, Guadeloupe and later French Guiana, French départements. Although the departmentalization was received quite positively at first, disillusionment soon set in, which lasts until the present day. Still today most strategic posts are occupied by whites from France, which leads to a imbalance of the distribution of power. Even though the citizens of the two islands have enjoyed average incomes and education much superior to any of their neighbouring islands, over time, the dependence of Guadeloupe and Martinique has led the islanders to question their cultural identity. This insecurity made them turn back to their folk traditions in order to develop forms of expression that could help retain their identity. In this cultural context, zouk, being sung in creole and created by black Antilleans has had an enormous importance in asserting Antilian identity locally and internationally. On the islands of Dominica and St. Lucia the story took significantly different turns. Dominicans and St. Lucians are confronted more with problems of economic resources than they are with questions of cultural identity. The achievement of independence bred a pride in being Dominican or St. Lucian and reinforced a sense of identification. Although zouk has a deep connection to these islands it is not conceived as means of asserting their identity. Because of a lack of money and infrastructure, zouk is not produced on the islands; consequently, it is perceived as a product from elsewhere, as music from the French speaking Antilles namely Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana and Haiti.

The group Kassav' has been the leading promoter of zouk with its founder Pierre-Éduard Décimus.  In the years before the founding of Kassav' Décimus was displeased by the dominance of foreign music and musicians in Guadeloupe. In the 50's and 60's Latin American music was very popular eventually musicians were giving their bands Spanish names and even sing in Spanish to be in vogue. As the popularity of the biguine faded away in the mid 60's the Antillean music scene was invaded by Haitian dance styles, cadence-rampa and compas direct and finally around 1974 by candence-lypso. Music groups of Guadeloupe and Martinique were incorporating the Haitian rhythms and the typical horn sounds of cadence lypso into their sound and achieved great success with it. Décimus figured that Antillean music did not correspond with the international norms and that the music had to emphasize their difference to other music to be recognized as Antillais. He also thought that Antillean music should focus more on technical sophistication and using up-to-date technology, which meant going to Paris where the finest recording studios were located. In 1979, with the help of his brother, bassist George Décimus and the guitarist/vocalist Jacob Desvarieux, he created a rhythmically complex, technically flawless sound that could be identified unquestionably with the Antilles. With the help of his first producer Freddy Marshall, the group decided to combine traditional music with contemporary elements. The first two albums, Love and Ka Dance 1979 and Lagué moi 1980 were historical landmarks and received the national pride that had been supressed by Europeans. It took Kassav' five years to find the characteristic sound that established it as a leading group with the album Banzawa in 1983. In 1984, the song 'zouk-la sé sèl médikaman nou ni' invaded the international market. Although not intended to have any political significance, the title of the song, literally translates as 'zouk is the only medicine we have' some prominent figures were insulted that their nations image was sullied by such a negative message. This made the group Kassav' become a object of political interest and they were dubbed by the press to be the 'Ambassadors of the Antilles'. The success of Kassav' came also from the remarkable line-up of the band. In the initial phase of its career Kassav' was a purely Guadeloupian group but soon musicians of many different islands were recruited, each with their own speciality. From the very beginning in 1982, two dancers have featured the shows on stage, Catherine Laupa from Martinique and Marie-Jo Gibon from Guadeloupe. Kassav' has established the sound of zouk and has made it popular far beyond its countries of origin. (16) One distinction that has to be mentioned, since it is a source of continuous confusion, is the difference between zouk béton and zouk love. zouk béton is referring to the up-tempo carnival style of Kassav' whereas zouk love is merely a name that is often associated with the French Antillean compas or cadence music which has a slower more sensual rhythm. (17) It can only be speculation whether zouk béton and zouk love, have simply been names given by musicians to very similar music genres or if there has really been a difference in sound. From my perspective the music that has been developed by Kassav' has itself also had very different nuances and has been, an up-tempo carnival style, referring to zouk béton, as well as a romantic music style, that would suggest the term zouk love. Décimus himself has described zouk as part of an experience, as a process of continuity and in that sense zouk has continued to grow until the present day.

After having introduced all the music genres that contributed to the development of the sound of Caribbean zouk and having explained the phenomena of zouk it is also important to put some attention on the changes that took place as the Brazilian lambada dancers took over the zouk music to dance lambada on it. The lambada dancers danced to Caribbean zouk solely because of their need of music suiting their dance since lambada was looked at as the forbidden dance. They also took over the name zouk only to get rid of the bad associations with the name lambada. Given the sense of cultural identity and pride of Caribbean people associated with the zouk music genre, conflict arises when a similar sense of national identity is associated with the term Zouk by the Brazilian Zouk dance culture. We, as Brazilian zouk dancers, should be aware that the Zouk music originates from the French Caribbean and that they also have their own dance that they call zouk. Therefore, to prevent conflicts, it is better to use the term “Brazilian zouk” or “Zouk-Lambada” rather than simply zouk when explaining people what dance we do. (18) Recently Patricia Rezende & Claudia de Vries, published a Brazilian zouk instruction book “LambaZouk - The Technique Book”, and they proposed “LambaZouk” as the official name for the Brazilian zouk. However, many people disagree with this term since it has been used a lot to refer to the more lambada associated zouk style from Porto-Seguro. (19)
Nowadays, Brazilian zouk is danced to remixes of popular pop, hip-hop and R'n'B music containing the zouk beat as well as Caribbean zouk music.
  1. Wikipedia Zouk-Lambada Dutch (http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zouk-Lambada)
  2. Averill G., Benoit E., Rabess G., Zouk World Music of the West Indies, p.15
  3. Manuel P. with Bilby K., Largey M., Caribbean Currents, Chapter 1
  4. Manuel P. with Bilby K., Largey M., Caribbean Currents, p. 173
  5. Averill G., Benoit E., Rabess G., Zouk World Music of the West Indies, Chapter 3
  6. Averill G., Benoit E., Rabess G., Zouk World Music of the West Indies, Fig. 2 from Bully A., Rabess G., modified by Francois L.
  7. Manuel P. with Bilby K., Largey M., Caribbean Currents, p. 227 - 235
  8. Averill G., Benoit E., Rabess G., Zouk World Music of the West Indies, p. 53 - 67
  9. Wikipedia Jazz (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jazz)
  10. Manuel P. with Bilby K., Largey M., Caribbean Currents, chapter5
  11. Manuel P. with Bilby K., Largey M., Caribbean Currents, p. 160 - 161
  12. Averill G., Benoit E., Rabess G., Zouk World Music of the West Indies, p.68 - 73
  13. Averill G., Benoit E., Rabess G., Zouk World Music of the West Indies, p. 80 - 83
  14. Averill G., Benoit E., Rabess G., Zouk World Music of the West Indies, p. 73 - 82
  15. Averill G., Benoit E., Rabess G., Zouk World Music of the West Indies, Chapter 6
  16. Averill G., Benoit E., Rabess G., Zouk World Music of the West Indies, Chapter 2
  17. Wikipedia Zouk/Zouk Béton (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zouk)
  18. Webpage Zouk New York (www.zouknewyork.com/?page_id=389)
  19. Wikipedia Zouk-Lambada English (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zouk-Lambada

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