Gwoka as seen by... / The musicians / Neil Clarke  

Gwoka as seen by... the musicians

Neil Clarke


Neil Clarke. American percussionist (Brooklyn, New-York). Plays mainlyAfro-Cuban percussion instruments (conga, bongo, bata...) and African ones (djembé...). A member of African Spirit, the group of Randy Weston, the American pianist. He was invited by the Festival of the Conseil Général to come to Guadeloupe in order to meet up with Kafé, a Guadeloupean gwoka musician.
After two weeks’ immersion in the gwoka environment (meeting and later a
concert with Kafé and his musicians, a léwòz evening in Viard, Sainte-Rose, meeting with Bébé Rospart, Gérard Pomer, Georges Troupé, Jean-Marie Lurel, Joseph Kancel (Ti Bonm La)..., and listening to the gwoka record collection at the Caribbean Multimedia Library), Neil tells us what he thinks about this music .

For me, with the gwoka, before I came here I had no idea. Maybe if I had seen the CD with David Murray or something, then I would know something about it.
I didn't know anything about gwoka, anf I actually didn't even know the name before I arrived here, and when I asked Luc [Michaux-Vignes] about what is the traditionnal music here.
I looked on the internet for information about the traditionnal culture of Guadeloupe, and I got things, information on Guadeloupe and also Martinique, I saw information about zouk, I saw information maybe about biguine, nothing about gwoka.

Maybe my search was not deep enough or broad enough but I'm more than the average tourist. If I didn't find it, I think it would be difficult for the average tourist to find it because there's nothing there.
So, when I arrived, Luc [Michaux-Vignes] told me about gwoka, he told me the traditionnal drums, he gave me some explanation, but I had no idea what it was.

Neil Clarke (with Jali Michaux-Vignes)

As I began to find out about gwoka, the first thing I understood was that it was a style of music. The style of music got its name or was related with the gwoka drum. So I know gwoka drums, I know gwoka music, I had no more idea.

Neil Clarke (centre droit), Ti Bonm La (Joseph Kancel, centre gauche), Jean-Marie Lurel (debout, à droite), au cours d'une soirée Lèwoz à Viard Sainte-Rose.

And even the first exposure that I had to the gwoka was the demonstration That Kafé did.
Kafé explained the seven rythms, and he did the boula, he showed the boula. But his demonstration didn't give the marqueur. His demonstration didn't include the song ; his demonstration didn't include the dance. So, for me, it's incomplete.

Now, again, because I'm interested, because I'm a percussionist, because I have been doing research for 30 years, I recognised that it was incomplete.

If you have people from Guadeloupe who are demonstrating gwoka, and all they give you is the boula rhythm, then you think it's all there is to it. So you really don't have an idea of what the complexity and the depth of the tradition is, because you're not getting all of the part. That's like saying jazz is just [he sings a basic rhythm], and nothing else.
You know, you need the base, you need the chord structure. All of that is what jazz is.

To really get an idea, say, the average person who comes to Guadeloupe may not be interested in the gwoka "folklorique", the gwoka "traditionnel".
But they may be interested in "gwoka moderne". But in order to really understand "gwoka moderne", it would be nice to have an understanding of "gwoka traditionnel", so you can see where it comes from.

As I began to become more aware of what the gwoka was, it amazes me, it really really amazes me at the depth of this tradition with the drumming, with the dancing, with the songs, with the structure of the melody, with the interaction beetween the dance and the marqueur...

For there to be a tradition that is so deep, and for me not to know about it ! Percussionists know about bomba, they know about plena, they know about samba, they know about battucada, they know about merengue... they know about all these different rhythms in the Caribbean, and gwoka is a big secret, it's a big mystery. Not even a mystery, cause maybe you know about gwoka but you don't know anything about it, then at least you know that there is something to find out about.

I had to find out these 7 rhythms, these 9 rhythms, with different names, some of the names reflecting names from Africa. I've studied west-african drumming, many different kinds of drum orchestras and styles and traditions from Mali, from Guinea, from Senegal, from Nigeria, from Ghana, from Ivory Cost.

Gérard Pomer (gauche) et Neil Clarke (droite).

So when I see that, wahh, there's something in Guadeloupe where you have a specific kind of drum that's made a specific kind of way, is played in a specific technique, there are specific notes, there is a specific way that it's played in relation to the dancer, there is a specific interaction beetween the drum and the dance, there are recognised masters, there are different styles from different region of the island... That says to me that is something really significant. It's not just something that people get together and they play whatever they feel like playing.

There are masters, there are styles, there are traditions. That says to me it is a whole line. And I think a majority of people don't get an opportunity to understand it on that level. I think the only reason that I am beginning to understand it on that level in the fiteen days that I've been here is, number one, because I've had an experience before of studying and doing research in the drum traditions.
And number two, I'm taking the initiative, I'm taking the motivation to go and look for it and ask the questions to find out.

Because even the people in the group that I'm with [African Project], they don't understand the way that I understand it because they have not taken the time to go look for it and they haven't asked the questions.
I feel that I have only touched the surface, because what I think about gwoka beeing the traditionnal music of Guadeloupe, it's an expressin of the life, of the history, of the tradition, of the sentiment. All these things, the way they dance, the phrases... because the phrasing I know from Africa. Very often when you study african traditionnal drumming, and variations of styles, very often there is a direct relationship beetween the spoken language and the cadence of the way the phrases are played on the drum. If you listen to traditionnal african drumming from a particular region and you make comparisons in a variation, very often there's a direct relationship beetween the cadence and the way the people speak, and the rhythm, the rhythmic structure of the phrases, and very often the drum acts as a surogate of speech, as in bata. Traditionnaly in bata, it is speaking phrases.

Randy Weston (à gauche) et son groupe à l'Artchipel en décembre 2002. Neil Clarke aux percussions (à droite).

If you talk to djembe players from certain parts of Guinea, from certain parts of Mali, from certain parts of Ivory Coast, they are talking when they play the phrases they are talking. So in the way of the flow, in the way of the cadence, the way they speak, will reflect the way that they play ; the way that they play will reflect the way that they speak.
That's why very often if you want to play rumba, if you don't know how to speak spanish, and if you don't understand the way the people speak, you're not gonna really understand the phrase.

And from that night we went lewoz, and I was playing together with Ti Bonm La (Joseph Kancel), he was playing, I understood everything that he was playing, but to me to find a way to play the way he was playing, I have to think in creole. Because the way that you play is creole, and the way that I play is Brooklin.

I can play like that, but it would take time. An if I learn to speak creole, and I learn the attitude, and I learn the sentiment, and the feeling, then I can play the marqueur. I have no doubt. As they say, if you want to speak a language, you get a girl friend from that country, because you learn its organic.
As Georges Troupé was saying, To understand is to study it scientifically. To do it, you have to do it organically. You have to do it because you feel it. A professor can write on the board, like the score that you have, or the website, or the different gwoka rhythms, any music studied ; anyone who read music can understand what that is. That doesn't mean that they can play it. Because you have to feel it to play it.
You see people they study and they understand, they play it, but it's not alive. In order to be alive, you have to fell it, you have to experience it.

So for me, with the gwoka, I am beginning, I am in the process of beginning. And that's why it was important for me to start with gwoka "traditionnel", to start with lewoz, because it's the root. It's where everything else is coming from.
Gwoka "moderne", into the zouk, it started with lewoz. It started with pajanbel, mende, graj, tumblak... So in order for me to understand now, as I build an understanding of the music of the boula, the music of lewoz, now if I am moving to the gwoka modern, I'll understand where it's coming from. Because sometimes the base is playing the boula, but if I don't know that the base is playing the boula, then I think it's just a baseline, and now I can take liberty of improvisation, not knowing that it has to be together with, in the same way that in the cuban music with the clave and with the tumbao. Because in cuban music, what the base is playing is really coming from tumbao. So now people hear the base and say oh yeah, it's awesome. But they don't realize it's coming from the drum, it's coming from tumbao.

So you build your understanding from the ground up. And the more time that I spend, I have a feeling, I talked with Bébé [Rospart], I talked with Gérard [Pomer], I talked with Ti Bonm La, different styles, different flavours... I'm sure if I had time I would have understand it.

Now that I have the opportunity, my next step would be to listen to gwoka "moderne", which I haven't started to do yet. So I can't even say what is the expression in Guadeloupe popular music, because I haven't moved to that stage. I can appreciate it, I can enjoy it, but to understand it as a musician to be able to play it, first I have to understand.

With the gwoka, it's also amazing me that there's not more understanding of the significance of the rhythms, and the origins of the rhythms. It's really amazing to me that the rhytms have survived, as specifically as they have survived without having more significance attached to them : a specific order or cultural signifiance...

Arnaud Dolmen, Neil Clarke et Georges Troupé.

Because obviously traditionnaly in Africa rhythms were used for specific purposes : work rhythms, praise rhythms, celebration rhythms. Religious rhythms...
I just find it very intersting that the body of rhythmic material has survived without its specific significance for the different rhythms, that purpose for the rhythms.

I think it's important because when we saw the class that Bébé [Rospart] was teaching, Bébé was explaining to the dancers that there are certain movement that are appropriate and acceptable, and certain movements that are not appropriate and not acceptable. One of the things he said was that women don't lift their legs up very high. And an other thing he said is that your knees don't touch the ground. And an other thing he said is that there is no break in the movement.
Now, what happens is that if people don't understand the story, there is no reason for them not to do inappropriate things.

So, if as the generations go by, and nobody understand the story to keep them from doing inappropriate things, then the tradition is going to disapear. As we talked with Gérard [Pomer] and I asked Gérard what he thought about that, nad I asked Gérard because I remembered what Bébé said about doing things which were not appropriate. And Gérard responded they do the best they can, which to me was a very diplomatic way of saying they really don't know, so they can't be expected to do it properly, because they don't know.
Now, if these people continue to do it, they do the best they can. The children which are watching them are gonna see it, and the children gonna think it's OK. And when the old people are gone, who know, and the new people are doing it in a way that nobody said that it is not the proper way, then it' gonna go. Because there's nobody keeping it. Because there what happens is as the dancer's dance is inappropriate, the marqueur marks the dancers. So as the marqueur marks the dancers dancing inappropriate, now the whole language of the marqueur changes.

So the tradition that we see now it's not going to be the tradition, which is Ok because yo have creativity, but creativity should be based on an understanding. Because traditionnally the dance is a language.
So maybe there's something in the movements of woulé before that talked about what you do when you're working in the fields.
Maybe the old people would tell you that you're doing a movement for pajanbel inside graj, and you are not supposed to do it here. But if you don't know, people dance and they don't know the movements for pajanbel, and they make a movement appropriate for graj, and the marqueur plays it, and everybody is doing it like that, and the tradition is gone...

We were talking about rumba the other day, about rumba yanbu and rumba wayanco, and the yanbu is a very old style of rumba. And characteristically, rumba yanbu is very slow, because it is the feeling of people in the country. Rumba waranco is more modern, and is faster, and you find normally music of people of the country is slower and is of a lower tonality than music in the city which is faster and higher. And it's because of the environment of the people. People who are in the city, and are used to hear high pitch and fast, if you play low pitch and slow, they get bored. It lacks keeping their attention. If you play music that is fast and high pitch for people of the country, after a while they get... it's too much. Music reflects the environment the people come in.

So I think if you have opportunity to study the history of the different rhythms in gwoka, maybe you're gonna see something about the origin and the idea being expressed.

Bébé Rospart (gauche) et Neil Clarke (droite).
I'm sorry that I only have 2 weeks here, and I really wish that I had more opportunity to stay ; I have to find a way to come back sometime. It's very interesting to me. And especially with the idea it is a rhythm called mendé, and it's so clear that the possibility exists that it's related to the mende people in Siera Leone.
Now the thing would be to find out what of the other rhythms. Maybe they reflect something. Because the conga drum, conga, congo. In kikango, conga means to call. So now you have some keys on how to look at it. Is it a congo drum because it is played by the people from the Congo, or it is the conga drum because the congo people used it to call ? It gives you some steps, some things to grab... [...]

I'm very excited about the gwoka. I'm excited about the Médiathèque [Caraïbe] because a place that is dedicated to exploring and making available the information about these different traditions, so it creates a forum when people who are interested can come to open up the understanding. It's an example I believe for many other places in the world.

In the last decades or two decades, there has been a global explosion of interest in african drumming, in any kind of form. And when I say african drumming, I include cuban, djembe, samba, all of them I consider african drumming. There has been an incredible explosion of interest. People, three decades ago, looked at drumming as primitive and inferior and insignificant. Now you find people all over the world, in Europe, all over Europe, all over the United-States, Canada... people who are not of african ancestry, are going crazy. I make a joke but I am afraid that all the trees in Africa are going to be cut down to feed this madness for drums. When the drums were cut down in very special way, and which wood... special drum, special tree, special time to make a drum. Now it's being mass produced in such a commercial frenzy. For people who want to play drums in the week-end, and the drums sit there, and they're palyed for 6 months and never played again.

Meantime, there's such a mass interest. But people are approaching it on such a superficial level. If I was interested in playing violin, and I want to learn from a teacher, I would be learning the technique and then the repertoire that I would learn wopuld be aknowledged pieces by aknowledged composers and masters of classical music... And this is how I would get my training. And there would be an appropriate way to do it and an inappropriate way to do it. And if I had a quality teacher, a teacher that'd make sure that I knew, even if that was the teacher's interpretation, it would be the proper way to play this.

Very few people, I think, have violins and just go and teach themselves. But people who take drums, they teach themselves, and will go out and play in public not having studied with anyone that really knows.

Neil Clarke (left) and Léon Leborgne (right), gwoka percussionist in Kafé's ochestra.

But, again, there is such an interest in african drumming... toward Brazil, djembe, bata... And I think the gwoka need to be inside of that whole examination, because it is a piece of the story, a piece of the picture.

But to me in the end, if the significance and the particular prospective on rhytm and on sensibility and on life, if it gets lost, we all have lost. As if we were all painters, and all of a sudden blue was no longer available. How can you paint a picture why a sky or the ocean if you have no blue. Or red is not available, or yellow is not available... That's the way that I feel from my experience of studying rhythm and studying drum traditions. If you don't undertand the substance and if you don't have the substance and the inspiration of the different rhythms, if you don't have it available to you, if it disappears, we're missing a color.
It's exciting to me to come to Guadeloupe and to listen to the gwoka and to experience it, to try to catch the spirit of gwoka. Me I can play rumba, I can play Djembe, I can play cutillo, I can play merengue, I can play bomba plena... but gwoka has a particular personnality which is nice, as something else. And it exists, it's alive, and people live from when they're born to when they die. Vélo, the masters... People go to lewoz, it's a way of life, ah, incredible, incredible !

dec. 2002