Various Artists: Tumbélé!: Biguine, Afro & Latin Sounds from the French Caribbean, 1963-74

Various Artists
Tumbélé!: Biguine, Afro & Latin Sounds from the French Caribbean, 1963-74

Tumbélé! is another inspiring release from the UK-based Soundway label, which has been busy populating the world music marketplace with compilations of obscure gems from Ghana, Nigeria, Colombia, and Panama. This album focuses on the Francophone Caribbean, specifically the Antillean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. This area would become well known in the 1980s for the highly popular zouk music, which brought together Haitian compas, Martinican biguine, Guadeloupian go-kwa, European music, and Anglo-American pop. Tumbélé! captures the formation of this hybrid style in the pre-zouk years, when Latin American, European, and African styles were combined to produce dance music of an equally infectious quality.

The bulk of the recordings come from the archives of Martinican Hit Parade label and the Guadeloupian Disque Debs and Aux Ondes labels. These labels allowed for the recording and dissemination of a great wealth of local music, making this a golden period for the recording of Antillean music. The booklet accompanying Tumbélé! is a joy, containing informative notes by Hugo Mendez alongside photos, posters, and, best of all, reproductions of the original record sleeves. These faded time capsules are miniature masterpieces of tropical design, providing iconic invitations to another, impossibly exotic time and place.

Barel Coppet and Mister Lof, stars of the greatest (or kitschiest — take your pick) record sleeve of the collection, get the history lesson underway with “Jeunesse Vauclin”, a gloriously catchy example of biguine from 1972. The 88-year-old Coppet, Mendez informs us, “has more or less retired from the music business, though he plays occasionally in Martinique and still teaches clarinet.” Unfortunately, Coppet has since died; his passing in late October 2009 was noted in the Caribbean and French press, with honors coming from Frédéric Mitterand, among others. “Jeunesse Vauclin” serves as a fitting memorial and as an invitation to seek out more recordings by this wonderful musician.

In addition to the local talent represented here, there are also recordings by groups from elsewhere who were either resident in the islands or at least stopped off long enough to lay down some tracks. One example is Les Loups Noirs D’Haïti, a Haitian band who recorded in Martinique. Their self-titled 1972 album yielded the seriously out-there “biguinedelica” of “Jet Biguine”, which Mendez accurately describes as “a mixture of biguine drums, distorted guitar, crazed Haitain organ and crashing sound effects that build and build”. The sound effects are actually a simulation of the jet in the song’s title, but the gimmick is hardly necessary; the track has absolutely no problems taking off from its own musical propulsion.

Anzala, Dolor & Vélo provide one of the many highs of this compilation with their utterly compelling take on the gwo-ka rhythm, “Ti Fi La Ou Té Madam'”. Future zouk star Albert Nadeau leads the wonderful tumbélé group Les Léopards on their 1973 local hit single “D’Leau Coco”. It’s a masterclass of Guadeloupian rhythms overlaid with funky organ and swinging sax.

Nadeau was instrumental in bringing the Congolese band Le Ryco-Jazz to Martinique. During their four-year stay in Martinique and Guadeloupe, the band recorded a number of songs for local labels. They are represented here by “Dima Bolane”, a track written by the Congo-based Cameroonian saxophone legend Manu Dibango for Joseph “Grand Kalle” Kabasele. Le Ryco-Jazz infuse their version with tumbélé rhythm, also finding space for a fabulous percussion workout courtesy of Martinican Marie-Jo Prajet.

The collection closes with the otherworldly sounds of Robert Loison’s “Jean Fouillé, Pie Fouillé”, a skeletal traditional lyric interspersed with ghostly whistle and a light jazz accompaniment of horns and piano, all delivered over rustling gwo-ka percussion. The combination evokes a place of otherness, a magical space set aside for the purpose of ritual and trance. We could be in any number of places: Africa, the Caribbean, the swamps of Louisiana, the “old weird America” of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (especially the eerie piping of Henry Thomas’s closing track), or a misty, Pan-haunted mountain in the old weird Europe. There is a widely recognized liminality being hymned here, a recognition of music’s power in summoning sites of ritual.

Such observations speak to the varied routes of musical practices that allow for the coming and going of sounds between the Caribbean, Africa and Europe (what Paul Gilroy refers to as “the Black Atlantic”), but they shouldn’t blind us to the particularity of this music. This excellent compilation provides a passport to a unique time and place, providing a useful insight into a relatively unknown musical world.

RATING 8 / 10