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Zip Zap Wabap: bèlè, key element of Martinican culture

Hello, you little hummingbird!

As you must have understood, this “blog” aims to make you travel from your living room (or your office, or your bus seat…). Each article will be an opportunity for you to learn, or relearn maybe, small bits of the Caribbean culture. Today, focus on my native island, Martinique (heart emoji), to discover one of the key elements of its culture: bèlè.

What is bèlè?

The bèlè, or “bel air” (beautiful melody), is a musical genre in which a singer leads the music with a powerful voice, while dancers and the tambouyé (drum player) communicate. The structure of the exchange is always as follows:

  • the singer (or singer) starts singing, and from the first notes, makes each hair of your skin bristle
  • the répondè (responders) follow him. Normally, your body is already starting to swing
  • the ti-bwatè (ti-bwa player) gives rhythm and the drum player follows
  • finally the dancers show off their skills

It all seems simple at first, but actually everyone has a crucial role in order to maintain harmony. The répondè must always sing the right sentence, the right intonations, and the right rhythm to avoid disturbing the singer, and therefore the dancers.

Where does the bèlè come from?

Various civilizations have populated the island, and it has therefore benefited from a wide variety of cultural contributions. In 1635, the first settlers settled in Martinique, and in 1638 began the first slave trade, which would last until 1848, when slavery was abolished. The slaves came from different parts of Black Africa and belonged to different peoples of different languages and traditions.

From this transplant of black culture, European influence, and the constraints of the slave system, African musical traditions were altered and their modification gave rise to new musical expressions. The bèlè is one of them.

It is not the addition of cultures, but a cross-cultural process in which it is difficult to determine the origin of each element. The music is made with musical traits from different cultures, transformed for generations.

The bèlè, an art of its own

The bèle is an art of its own that requires a certain level of expertise, even for the making of instruments. The ti-bwa, for example, is made from woodsticks cut from tree branches (guavas, coffee trees) and dried in the sun. The iconic “tak-pi-tak-pi-tak” sound is obtained when the ti-bwatè taps them on the back of the tambou.

There are four types of bèlè:

  • bèlè for labour
  • entertainment bèlè
  • bèlè for funeral vigils
  • the “la lin’ klè” (the clear moon)

One occasion, one bèlè!

Back in the time, the bèlè allowed the slaves, who were spread over different fields far from each other, to communicate, to give themselves a little courage to labour the soils, to keep the rhythm by letting themselves be carried by the sound of the conch of lambi. The different songs told the story of the island, of the community. They were also a discreet way, since they were sung in Creole, to make fun of settlers or foremen.

At the end of the day, they danced the ladja, a combat dance accompanied by drum, ti-bwa and songs. The name Ladja comes from the name “ag’ya”, which is a term of Congolese and Senegalese origin. It was banned by the Catholic Church because of the use of the drum (Africans used the drum to communicate with their deities). The practitioners of Ladja were people who were initiated. There was a whole way to be able to become a high-level practitioner. There is a whole philosophy that goes with it, regarding the relationship to nature – the moon, the river, the sea – how to prepare, the type of food to have, etc.

Since images are better than words, I’ll leave you with a little video showing it all.

Would you like to try it? Plume Evasion takes care of everything 😉 What if you could mix tradition and fitness? Stay connected



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