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Zouk (or Zouk béton) is a fast jump up carnival beat style of rhythmic music originating from the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, popularized by the French Antilles Kassav' in the 1980s.

Elements of gwo ka, tambour bélé, ti bwa and biguine vide, including the full use of the MIDI technology, are prominent in zouk. Its originator French Antilles Kassav' is the only band that includes it in its repertoire to a lesser extent. Too fast, the style lost ground in the 80's due to the strong presence of kadans or compas, the main music of the French Antilles.

Today, zouk is the French Antilles compas music, also called zouk-love.[2]


Music authors Charles De Ledesma and Gene Scaramuzzo trace zouk's development to the Guadeloupean gwo ka and Martinican bèlè (tambour and ti bwa) traditions.[3]

The bèlè[edit]

The Martinique bèlè is a legacy of the slave music tradition. The bélé itself is a huge tambour drum that players ride as though it was a horse. It is characterized, in its rhythm, by the "tibwa" (two wooden sticks) played on a length of bamboo mounted on a stand to the tambour bèlè, and is often accompanied by a chakchak (a maracas). The tibwa rhythm plays a basic pattern and the drum comes to mark the highlights and introduce percussion improvisations.[4][5] [6]

It is organized in a certain way, the first entry of the singer ( lavwa ) and choir ( lavwa Deye or "answer"). Then the "Bwatè" (player ti bwa) sets the pace, followed by bèlè drum. Finally, the dancers take the stage. A dialogue is created between the dancers and the "tanbouyè" (drummer). The "answer" play opposite the singer, the audience can also participate. As a family, together singers, dancers, musicians and audiences are lured by its mesmerizing rhythms.

The Gwo ka[edit]

The Guadeloupe Gwo ka (Big drum) is both a family of hand drums and the music created with them, which is a major part of Guadeloupean folk music. There are seven rhythms in gwo ka, which are embellished by the drummers. Different sizes of drums establish the foundation and its flourishes, with the largest, the boula, playing the central rhythm and the smaller, markeur (or maké) drums embellishes upon it and interplays with the dancers, audience or singer. Gwo ka singing is usually guttural, nasal and rough, though it can also be bright and smooth, and is accompanied by uplifting and complex harmonies and melodies. There are also dances that tell folk stories that are accompanied by the gwo ka drums.


In the early-mid 80's, Kassav' created a style "zouk" by experimenting an eleven-piece gwo ka unit and two lead singers, tambour bélé, ti bwa, a steady monotonous bass with full use of the MIDI technology. Zouk was a brief experiment with the traditional bélé and gwo ka rhythms of the French Antilles; an attempt to develop a proper local music that would lessen or even eradicate the méringue-kadans or compas influence from the French Antilles.

When the MIDI technology came out, Kassav' used it fully creating new sound in both their fast zouk béton and Compas. The Antilleans were all over with zouk, but as other bands from the Caribbean and Africa added the MIDI technology to their music people got use to it. Because it was a jump up beat the fast zouk béton faded away; and Antilleans would continue to play and dance méringue-cadence or compas. After all French Antilleans and Dominicans are important players of the méringue-compas or cadence style. However, the problem is the fact that musicians from Martinique and Guadeloupe have calculatedly labeled compas as zouk in order to stay in the game; creating a big confusion in Africa, Cabo Verde, Angola, Brazil, Portugal and other places.

French Antilles Kassav', the originator of the zouk béton is a superb compas band that has taken zouk and compas to many places.[7]


In 1978, Pierre Edouard Decimus relocated in Paris after a successful career in the French Antilles. Pierre Edouard Decimus was on the verge of retirement from the music business until he and his brother Georges Decimus met fellow Guadeloupean Jacob Desvarieux, a popular guitarist/songwriter known in Paris as a studio wizard. The idea was to internationalized kadans. The surroundings of the Paris music recording technology gave him the idea of making "just one more record". Subsequently, Pierre Edouard Decimus, his brother, and Jacob Desvarieux pulled together a team of Paris-based Antilles musicians and created a compas group named Kassav.

Kassav' was formed in 1979 by Pierre-Edouard Décimus (former musicians from the Les Vikings de Guadeloupe) and Paris studio musician Jacob F. Desvarieux. Together and under the influence of well-known Dominican and Guadeloupean kadans or compas bands like Experience 7, Grammacks and Exile One, they decided to make Guadeloupean carnival music recording it in a more fully orchestrated yet modern and polished style.

Kassav' created its own style "zouk" by experimenting an eleven-piece gwo ka unit and two lead singers, tambour bélé, ti bwa, biguine, African styles and mostly cadence or compas with full use of the MIDI technology. In the 1980s they took Caribbean music to another level by recording in the new digital format. Kassav', whose music repertoire is 90% compas, is the creator of the fast carnival zouk style. The French Antilles' Kassav' was the first to apply the MIDI technology to compas.

The original Kassav' was all Guadeloupean but was later joined by Martiniquans Jean-Claude Naimro, Claude Vamur, Jean-Phillipe Marthely, Jocelyne Béroard and Guadeloupean Patrick St-Eloi. In the 1980s they took Caribbean music to another level by recording in the new digital format. Kassav wich created the fast carnival jump up music "zouk" style remains mostly a great compas band.

They continued to grow more popular, both as a group and with several members' solo careers, finally peaking in 1984 with Yélélé, which featured the international hit "Zouk-la-sé Sel Médikaman Nou Ni". With this hit, zouk rapidly became the most widespread dance craze to hit Latin American in some time, and was wildly popular even as far afield as Europe and Asia. Zouk became known for wildly theatrical concerts featuring special effects spectacles, colorful costumes and outrageous antics.


The word zouk means "party" or "festival" in the local Antillean Creole of French, although the word originally referred to, and is still used to refer to, a popular dance, based on the Polish dance, the mazurka (mazouk), that was introduced to the French Caribbean in the 19th century.

Actually the Creole word zouke, sekwe, zouke, etc. from the French verb "secouer" meaning "shake intensely and repeatedly" was used by Haitian artists who toured the French Antilles during the late 1970s and 1980s.[8]

The dictionary Le Petit Robert gives the following definition of zouk: "Very rhythmic music and dance originating in the Lesser Antilles (Guadeloupe and Martinique) in 1980".


Zouk as popularized by Kassav' is based on a consistent pulsating beat (tambour bélé and gwo ka) played on the bass drum, the "tibwa" rhythmic pattern played on the rim of the snare drum with the "chacha" or hi-hat/cymbals, rhythmic guitar's, a full-horn section and Keyboard synthesizers.[9]

Notable French Antillean zouk artists[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Manuel, Peter (2001). "Indo-Caribbean Music". Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. New York and London: Garland Publishing. pp. 918–918. ISBN 0-8240-6040-7. 
  2. ^ Peter Manuel, Musics of the Non-Western World, Chicago press University 1988p74
  3. ^ "Martinican bèlè". YouTube. Retrieved September 10, 2005. 
  4. ^ "Martinique bélé". YouTube. Retrieved March 6, 2014. 
  5. ^ "bélé dance and music". YouTube. Retrieved March 6, 2014. 
  6. ^ "Dominica bèlè". YouTube. Retrieved March 6, 2014. 
  7. ^ Pintade, Wikipedia 2014
  8. ^ Skah Sha and Magnum band were among the first Haitian music groups to use the word souke/zouke in the French Antilles. Magnum band, which toured the Caribbean countless times has once spent two years in Martinique and Guadeloupe. The band leader, superb guitar player Dadou Pasket popularized the word zouke in many live tunes; especially in the album "La seule difference, Ibo Records, 1981, in the song "pike devan" meaning full speed ahead. During the same year "Les Skah sha #1 that frequently toured the French Antilles featured a nice LP album called "This is it" Produced by Mini Records, July 1981. Zouke is the second tune's title
  9. ^ "Zouk Orchestration". YouTube. Retrieved September 10, 2005. 

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