The tambou bèlè: instrument, rhythms and dances
Hey little hummingbird,
Today, we’ll stay in the same theme and learn about the key element of this practice: the tambou (drum) Bèlè.
The Tambou Bèlè: from the barrel to the instrument
Originally, there were attempts to make drums directly from trunks, ‘bwa fouyé’ (dug wood), but it did not develop. So it was the coopers (someone who makes and repairs barrels and caskets) who made the drums. The mastery of the cooperage was very important at the time, especially for the shipment of rum barrels. Some coopers were experts in barrel shaping and, naturally, they started making drums. It was easier than digging through the wood, especially knowing that the slaves had no tools.
The drum is covered with sheepskin. Indeed, its sound is close to the earth, a little dulled. To tighten the drum, they used what they had under the mail: an iron circle on which were adapted different plant materials (banana straw, ropes…), and which was tightened very hard. But without integrating the tightening system to the drum itself, unlike what is found in Guadeloupe for the gwoka drum, for example, whose tension of the skin can be adjusted with a set of strings.
How is the Bèlè drum played?
The tambou is played lying down, the opening covered with skin being slightly raised. The technique of the drum player made up for the movement of the foot, the heel, to change the sound. It is a rubbed, struck (and not vertical, direct, as on vertically held drums). The main move is made by the right hand. And the player uses the first and second phalanxes of the fingers to hit on the edge of the drum. The dexterity of the tambouyé creates several techniques and variations in the sound. You have to make the counterpart to the main strike of the right hand and then adapt it to the rhythm that you play. It is interesting to note that in Martinique many musicians played the Guadeloupean gwoka before the movement of recognition of the bèlè tradition.
The rhythms and dances of the Bèlè
The bèlè consists of different rhythms, 2-stroke, 3-stroke or 4-stroke rhythms
- The ‘bèlè rapid’, ‘bèlè douce’, and ‘bèlè pityé’ are played on 2- or 4-stroke rhythms.
- The ‘gran’ bèlè’, the ‘belya’, and the ‘marim bèlè’ are 3-stroke dances.
In the bèlè, one dances bent, knees bent, unlike for example the ‘danmié’, which is a combat dance. In his wrestling moves, the ‘danmié’ dancer must be able to bounce, throw his feet and arms. There is something suspended in the rhythm, with syncopations accompanying the movements and ‘waiting shots’ that allow the dancer to reposition himself. The kalenda, another 4-stroke rhythm, is the only dance in Martinique that dances alone.”
The main dances of the bèlè are danced in a square structure, such as the quadrille or the gran bèlè. In the choreography of the quadrille, two squares intersect in a structured way. But inside the two squares, the dancers engage in individual prowess, in two… It is, therefore, necessary to integrate the sign language and relational codes between the dancers in the movement. Grace, exchanges in dance, rhythmic encounters are enough to interest a spectator who discovers the quadrille.
Source: François Bensignor, “Martinique: bèlè d’hier and hui,” Men – Migrations , 1291[En ligne] URL: http://journals.openedition.org/hommesmigrations/698; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/hommesmigrations.698
☝🏾 It’s not over!
Now, I leave you with this video clip of a “new-age” bèlè: the story narrated, the sounds, the dance, the smiles … what’s not to love?