Creole Music of the French West Indies: A Discography 1900–1959, written by Alain Boulanger, John Cowley & Marc Monneraye

In: New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids
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  • 1 Smithsonian Institution

Alain Boulanger, John Cowley & Marc Monneraye, Creole Music of the French West Indies: A Discography 1900–1959. Holste-Oldendorf, Germany: Bear Family Records, 2014. 367 pp. (Cloth US$ 61.18)

This book is a rarity—a discography that dazzles: one part visual treat, one part meticulous scholarly document. Its publisher, known for lavish boxed sets of rereleased popular music of the past (mostly American and European), took its first major plunge into Caribbean music in 2006 with ten CD s of classic Trinidadian recordings from the late 1930s accompanied by a thick, beautifully illustrated book including chapters by several of the world’s leading calypso scholars.1 Though lacking companion CD s, the present book makes an equally noteworthy contribution. It began in 2008 as a less elaborate publication with limited distribution.2 The 2014 version, vastly improved, is the only extensive discographic treatment of French Antillean music to date. Drawing on the authors’ personal archives, the audiovisual department of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the British Library Sound Archive, and a number of other libraries and private collections, it lists what must be the great majority of commercial recordings of French Caribbean music released (on 78 rpm discs, LP s, and 45 rpm singles) during roughly the first half of the twentieth century. It also includes a handful of “ethnographic recordings” made by linguists, folklorists, and musicologists during this period.

The book’s two main components—the discography and historical essay—evidence years of painstaking research, and include, in addition to basic discographic information (names of singers/band leaders and/or orchestras, album and/or song titles, dates, recording locations, labels, and catalog numbers), many valuable details. For instance, the names of all (or most) participants in individual recording sessions, along with the vocal or instrumental role(s) played by each contributor, are often listed. Particularly valuable are identifications (when known) of the country of origin of every participating musician not originally from the French Antilles or French Guiana. This reveals just how cosmopolitan even the earliest French Caribbean recording artists were, mixing repeatedly with their confreres from across the region and beyond (many of them renowned in their own homelands or internationally) to produce music for various markets. For example, appearing along with Martiniquan or Guadeloupean stalwarts such as Alexandre Stellio (leader/clarinet), Gilles Sala (vocals), Ernest Léardée (leader/saxophone/clarinet/violin), Moune de Rivel (vocals), and Al Livrat (leader/trombone/guitar/vocals) are Jamaicans Bertie King (clarinet), Sam Walker (clarinet), and Yorke de Souza (piano); Trinidadians Russell Henderson (string bass), Boscoe Holder (piano), and Michel Wyatt (trumpet); Barbadian Hilton Wiles (banjo); Cubans Filiberto Rico (flute/clarinet), Fernando Collazo (vocals), and Oscar Calle (piano); Nigerian Danny Johnson (drums); and Cameroonian Fredy Jumbo (drums).

There are also details on the musical genres represented on each release, as gleaned from the record labels. The parenthetical stylistic descriptors typically printed on these labels, many of them hyphenated compound terms, are themselves a study in the dialectics of Caribbean (and perhaps broader Afro-American) cosmopolitanism, suggesting both local musical pride and the positive valuation placed on outward-looking musical experimentation. Consider the locations referenced within the following examples: haute taille and laghia (Martinique), samba and baiao (Brazil), “Voodoo worship song” (Haiti), biguine-calypso (Martinique/Guadeloupe/Trinidad), samba-guaracha and sambamambo (Brazil/Cuba), calypso mambo (Trinidad/Cuba), and gragé-valse (French Guiana/Europe). “Creole music” indeed!

John Cowley’s 65-page historical essay, “Mascarade, Biguine, and the Bal Nègre,” one of the most thorough syntheses of information on early French Antillean popular music from primary print sources to date, gives special attention to musical life (and particularly Carnival) in the cultural hub of Saint Pierre, Martinique, before it was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1902. It also includes a description of the original Surrealists’ discovery of, and infatuation with, the legendary biguine-saturated Parisian dance hall known as the Bal Nègre beginning in the mid-1920s, and a look at black internationalism in Paris during this era. Cowley’s discussion of these heady times in the French capital features cameos by international icons such as Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, and Claude McKay, and reminds us of the many intersecting paths connecting Antillean biguine and American jazz during the emergence of both as world-class popular dance genres.

The book’s major components are fully bilingual, which enlarges the volume’s visual offerings, by avoiding overlap in the illustrations (including reproductions of photographs, record labels and covers, postcards, and catalog extracts, many in color) used for the English and French sections. And the several well-designed indexes and checklists greatly increase the book’s navigability. Cowley concludes his essay by stating that the book’s compilers intended it as an “homage both to the under-appreciated French Antillean traditions of Carnival and biguine, and as a further contribution to the understanding of Pan-American/Pan-African cultural evolutions” (p. 266). They have succeeded commendably in both regards.


Classic Calypso Collective, West Indian Rhythm (2006).


Alain Boulanger, John Cowley & Marc Monneraye, La musique antillaise (2008).

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