The Gwoka, the expression of the Guadaloupean identity
Hello to you dear hummingbird!
In the last articles, we have been very focused on Martinique and one of its essential cultural elements: the bèlè.
Guadeloupe being the “sister island” of Martinique, it is no surprise that we will find there the cousin of the bèlè: the Gwoka (or Gwo Ka).
What is Gwoka?
Gwoka (or gwo ka) is a musical genre of Guadeloupe that can qualify singing, music, and dance.
It is mainly played with drums called “ka”. The different sizes of the drums establish the basis. The biggest: the boula plays the central rhythm and the smallest: the marker (or makè) marks the melody and interacts with the dancers, the solo singer (chantè) and the choirs (lé répondè). The participants and the audience form a circle (lawonn) in which the dancers and the soloist take turns, facing the drums. The audience claps and sings the chorus imposed by the soloist. The other instruments are the chacha (a kind of maraca).
Originally practiced mainly by the descendants of enslaved African deportees, the traditional gwoka has now spread to all social and economic strata, all ethnic and religious groups of Guadaloupean society. Gwoka is performed on stage at neighborhood parties, in outdoor festivals, and in concert halls. It is also present in funeral rites, especially in funeral vigils and the “vénérés” ones (the last day of the novena of prayers following the funeral).
The gwoka accompanies Catholic religious ceremonies as well as camping at Easter and Pentecost.
The origins of Gwoka
It is necessary to go back to the 17th century (in the slave system) to find traces of the constituent elements of today’s gwoka. These practices were those of Africans deported and enslaved in Guadeloupe. By coming together despite the prohibitions of the Code Noir to play drums, sing, and dance, they have made it a space of resistance to dehumanization and acculturation, thus ensuring its viability. Since then, gwoka has been passed down from generation to generation.
The etymology of the word would be the Creole deformation “gros quart” or fat-quarter, the usual countenance of the barrels from which the slaves made their instruments.
The Gwoka: instruments, rhythms and expression
The ka is a drum composed of a cabri skin (goat) and a barrel, all assembled by a rope system. The ka’s soundbox is a wooden barrel. A salvage material at the time of slavery, it was used to condition salted meat or wine. Its original acoustic characteristics made it ready to use as a percussion instrument.
The makè translates into sound sequences the gestures, steps, and attitudes of the dancer. One, two, often three boulas emit the rhythmic ostinato on the basis of which the dancer develops his improvisations. The chacha (rattle made of a hollowed-out gourd and then filled with hard grains) is shaken to emit its own sequences that complement those of the boula, while the tibwa unrolls an ostinato distinct from the boula.
There are seven basic gwoka rhythms and multiple variations of each:
- Kaladja: 2-stroke rhythm, slow.
- Menndé: 4-stroke pace,
- Lewoz: 2-stroke pace, marked by 1 repriz
- Padjanbèl (not to be confused with Granjanbèl who has another rhythm) or Gwadjanbel: rhythm in 3/4. It expresses joy and freedom.
- Woulé: 3-stroke rhythm.
- Graj: 4-stroke rhythm,
- Toumblak: 2-stroke pace, fast.
There are three other rhythms:
- Sobo: 2-stroke rhythm almost forgotten (perhaps the only African rhythm)
- Takout or Takouta: rhythm invented by the band Takouta: 4-stroke rhythms developed by 3 ka drums (a bass, a rhythm, and a solo)
- Mayole (Kalenda in Haiti): It is a duel with sticks in the form of a dance punctuated by the sound of drums, currently little practiced. It symbolizes resistance.
Gwoka is a form of free expression in which the soloist excels in the transmission of emotion (lokans), the dancer (always alone in space) expresses his creativity while talking with the solo drum (makè), which reciprocally enhances his or her steps while developing his own creativity.
Léwoz is the gwoka’s preferred area of expression. This event obeys its own standards of temporality, spatiality, and conviviality. It brings together the main actors at night, in one round, where relations of power and recognition dominate. The public is also an actor, invites himself individually and in turn in the dance that takes place in front of the drums. The open space is free and free of charge.
The gwoka today
The tradition of “swaré léwoz” can be traced back to the early days of Afro-Guadeloupean culture. These musical evenings were organized mainly by and for agricultural workers in the sugar fields. They would meet on Saturday nights to sing, play and dance drum music. The disappearance of these farming communities is linked to the dislocation of sugar fields in the 1970s. The popular recognition of gwoka music dates back to the late 1970s thanks to the ideas of nationalist movements on Guadeloupean culture and their dissemination to the population.
Today, several thousand people assiduously practice gwoka every week in schools and associations of gwoka, the léwoz, the Koud Tanbou (informal performances in the city as in the countryside), day or night. It accompanies the highlights of daily life as well as festive, cultural, and secular events. It also accompanies movements of social and political demands. It reinforces identity and provides a sense of collective appreciation and individual pride, bearing values of conviviality, resistance, and dignity.
Gwoka integrated the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This inscription has sometimes been criticized. Thus, for Jean-Claude Nelson, singer of the group Soley Nwè: “Gwoka is an expression of identity that cannot at the same time be that of the slave and that of the master.”
Festivals are dedicated to the practice, in addition to Guadeloupe (the one in Sainte-Anne celebrated its 33rd birthday, in July 2020), there are also in Paris, or in Montauban (in the South of France).
The sound of the Ka also resonated at La Villette in Paris for the last day of the Jazz Festival on Sunday, September 13, 2020. It’s not surprising when you consider that Jazz and Gwo Ka have in common improvisation and their African origins.
As usual, I leave you with a little video that I hope will make you move.