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The Art and Culture of Martinique

April 5, 2010


photo by Oceandimages

When it comes to the arts in Martinique, the past is always present. There’s a creative rapport between tradition and innovation, between the pursuit of beauty and the pursuit of knowledge—especially the knowledge and understanding of Martinique’s culture and history.


The renowned poet and playwright Aimé Césaire explored questions about national identity in the mid-20th century. In the 1930s, he co-founded the literary and political movement called Négritude, which explored the collective experience of African and Caribbean peoples in the face of French colonialism. This theme is dominant in his poetry, notably in his volumes "Return to My Native Land" and "Beheaded Sun." He later turned to drama, showing a growing militancy in his plays, like "The Tragedy of King Christophe", about the decolonization of 19th-century Haiti, and "A Season in the Congo," about the assassination of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba.

Two of Edouard Glissant’s most important works are "The Ripening" (winner of the Renaudot Prize) and "The Fourth Century" (winner of the Veillon Prize), both of them stories about anti-colonial rebellion. Glissant addressed the same issues as Césaire, but he adheres to the Créolité movement, which focuses less on African roots and more on a specifically Caribbean identity. So do Raphaël Confiant, Jean Bernabé, and Patrick Chamoiseau, whose novel "Texaco" won the Prix Goncourt.

Joseph Zobel belonged in neither movement. Rather, his realist novels concentrate on the brutal conditions of black workers on sugarcane plantations in the early 20th century. His most famous work, "Sugar Cane Alley," tells the story of a young boy being raised by his loving grandmother, who works hard to put him through school. It also shows life in a colonial society from the perspective of the impoverished plantation workers. The novel was the basis for the award-winning 1983 film Sugar Cane Alley, directed by Euzhan Palcy.

Plastic Arts

A group of local painters founded the Caribbean Negro School in the 1970s in order to explore Martinique’s African heritage through their art. This same theme was carried on during the 1980s by the artists’ group, "Fromajé," whose purpose was to convey "the words of our ancestors, the strength of [their] roots, the memory of our people" and to develop "a Caribbean aesthetic." Fromajé is the Creole name for the silk cotton tree, which is native to the Caribbean. This tree is tall and imposing, and is known for its particularly deep and solid roots.

Today, a new generation of talented young artists is studying drawing, painting, sculpture, and other fine arts at the Ecole des Beaux Arts de la Martinique. Perhaps they’ll follow in the footsteps of the artists who came before them, using their talents to explore the history of Martinique and to express the deepest emotions and yearnings of Martinicans.

Music and Dance

The echoes of Martinique’s history sound out most clearly in the island’s music, especially in its mix of European, African, and Caribbean styles. Some Martinican music has the tonal system, harmony, and prominent melodies that are the signs of European origins. But much of Martinican music reveals Afro-Caribbean roots, whose hallmarks are call-and-response songs, in which lyrics are vocalized by a lead singer with responses from the audience, and by strong rhythms from drums, chachas (metal rattles), and tibwas (percussion sticks beaten against a bamboo tube).

The quadrille is an example of a music and dance form that’s very European, having originated in 18th-century France, while chouval bwa is rooted in rural Martinique and is played with large tambour drums and tibwas, along with bamboo flutes, accordians, and kazoos.

Bèlè is a form of music and dance that originated in Martinique’s northern rural areas over two centuries ago. It’s derived from a type of French song, called bel-air, that was introduced to Martinican slaves by Jesuit priests. But Bèlè acquired its own indigenous flavor as it evolved into various regional forms, the best-known coming from the northern town of Sainte-Marie. Bèlè songs are done in the call-and-response style to the beat of the one-skinned, conical bèlè drum, and sometimes also to the beat of tibwas. Bèlè dances are flirtatious affairs performed by a man and woman, involving forward and backward, to-and-fro movements, as the woman teases the man by performing unique footwork, swishing her hips, and twirling about in her voluminous, colorful skirt.

Biguine is a form of ballroom music that originated in Saint-Pierre in the late 19th century. It has roots in bèlè music, with rhythms generated by bèlè drums and tibwas. But it also draws from the European polka, and its prominent use of clarinets, trombones, and banjos makes it sound very much like New Orleans jazz.

The role of biguine in Martinican culture is the subject of the 2004 movie Biguine, directed by Guy Deslauriers. Deslauriers is a Martinican director who worked with Palcy on Sugar Cane Alley. Before making Biguine, he directed The Exile of King Béhanzin, about a late-19th-century king of Dahomey exiled by the French to Martinique, and Middle Passage, about the transport of slaves from Africa.
The film Biguine is about music, but it’s also about the effect of colonialism on Martinican identity.

The story takes place in the late 19th century, and concerns a husband and wife who leave the plantation where they were employed to settle in Saint-Pierre. They hope to find work as musicians, just at the time when the city was at the height of its cultural prominence, the “Paris of the Caribbean.” But they soon realize that the rural bèlè music they love is rejected in favor of more Westernized music. And so, an “evolution” occurs, from bèlè drummer to biguine clarinetist, a clear sign that Martinicans were still in the thrall of European culture.

Today, bèlè is enjoying a comeback. The Maison du Bèlè, based in Sainte-Marie, is a center for the research and performance of bèlè music and dance. The location is very appropriate, as Sainte-Marie is considered to be the cradle of bèlè.

At the Maison du Bèlè, you can take lessons, hear lectures, attend performances and informal jam sessions, look at exhibits, and buy CD’s produced by bèlè artists.

Biguine remained the dominant popular music until the 1980s, when it gave way to zouk, which means “party” or “festival” in Creole. Zouk is a fusion of traditional African and Caribbean musical styles (biguine, reggai, salsa, etc.), with influences from American and European rock. It’s noted for its syncopated rhythms generated by drums, tibwas, and chachas, yet it can also include electronic instruments like synthesizers, digital samplers, and drum machines.

Danmyé, also called Ladja, is a combined dance and martial art form that’s unique to Martinique, with very clear African roots. It’s a fight dance done to the sound of a bèlè drum, tibwas, and call-and-response singing, much like the music for bèlè dancing. Danmyé was created by slaves from Senegal, who based it on a traditional West African initiation ceremony called n’golo, which celebrated the passing from adolescence to manhood with fighting matches. The other main source of inspiration for danmyé was Laamb, a centuries-old form of Senegalese wrestling.

Though many towns outlawed danmyé in the late 1940s, it came back into favor in the 1960s, when there was a renewed interest in folkloric dancing. Today an organization in Fort-de-France called AM4 (Association Mi Mes Manmay Matinik) is researching and preserving danmyé and publishing CDs of danmyé music. Also interested in danmyé is Sully Cally, a well-known bèlè drummer, actor, and musicologist who has researched danmyé and given performances of danmyé music.

A terrific way to experience Martinican music and dance is to go to the many annual arts festivals on the island. One of the most important is the Festival de Fort-de-France, a theater, dance, and music festival that occurs in July. Another is the Festival des Sens, or “Festival of the Senses,” in November. The Festival des Sens is actually the biggest arts event in Martinique, a 24-hour marathon of nonstop performances all over the island, featuring traditional and contemporary music.


There is a lighter side to Martinican creativity. You will delight in the fine crafts at which Martinicans excel, like their intricate weaving, handmade pottery, exquisite gold jewelry, and ornaments made from bamboo and coral. Martinicans are also known for their collector’s dolls, which are made from the leaves of plants and dressed in traditional costumes of madras, a brightly colored fabric made of cotton and banana fibers.


This spirit of inventiveness extends from crafts to couture, where Martinicans combine the traditional and contemporary with finesse.

Martinican women have always dressed with flair. A traditional outfit for everyday wear consisted of a headscarf, cotton skirt, and an embroidered madras blouse. For special occasions, a woman typically wore a skirt made of a colorful, shimmering material and a matching cape. The grandest occasions called for a flounced skirt decorated with embroidery and lace, or for a long dress of madras or silk, with a lengthy train.

Traditional Martinican dress has been the inspiration for two of the island’s most noted designers: Olivier Bernard, who has described his first line of women’s luxury ready-to-wear as “modern, feminine, and Creole.” Paul-Hervé Elisabeth, who mixes the glamourous with the ethnic, called a recent collection of his, “Glam’roots.” He is noted for taking madras, a typically Caribbean fabric, or “wax,” a batik fabric printed with African motifs, and making them into high-fashion, European-style clothes.

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