Jouné Kréyol brings Black History Month alive in South London

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Black History Month rightfully seeks to expand views of Africa and its Diaspora, but there are usually glaring blind spots. Our perception of the West Indies remains largely governed by the territorial divisions of Empire, so that Jamaica and Trinidad, formerly British colonies, spring to mind at the expense of Guadeloupe and Martinique, two islands that are still départements francais. But they are an integral part of all our Caribbean history.

This engagingly soulful event celebrates as much. Produced by Zil' Oka, a musical ensemble and organisation that stages cultural events for the relatively small francophone West Indian expatriate community in Britain, the numbers of which are hard to ascertain because its members are administered as French citizens, Jouné Kréyol is a whole day of family-based activities, from cooking workshops to dance classes, games and quizzes on the creole language.

The presence of all age groups, from children and teenagers to adults and pensioners, at a community centre on the Tulse Hill estate in South London, also reinforces the old African adage that it takes a whole village to raise a child. This feels like cultural activism from the ground up rather than a top-down diversity initiative.

As the tang of akwa a mori, [codfish fritters], wafts through the air the evening of performances by Guadeloupean and Martiniquan artists begins. Up first is singer S.Rise, whose set is lively, though the reggae-slanted backing tracks rather than a live band, compromise his strong tenor. Things take an upward turn with songstress Ines Khai, whose finely wrought vocal is effectively embellished by the subtle but resonant backing of two members of Zil' Oka. The sparkling timbres produced by percussion, whistles, bells and conch shell weave a rich fabric around yearning melodies fringed by syncopated guitar chords. Sung in creole, the pieces speak of anything from affairs of the heart to the rigours of daily life, and visibly connect with the audience.

The same applies to Zil' Oka, who scale up to the full band with more vocalists and percussionists, two of whom play the 'gwo' ka', a large kind of conga while Christian Takadoum excels on the higher pitched 'ti ka.' With the bigger drums providing a rumbling bass Takadoum solos liberally in the upper register, some of his phrases ending on sharp, crisp notes not dissimilar to the rimshot of a snare, and as the swish polyrhythms spread out over a wide dynamic spectrum it is easy to see why jazz musicians such as David Murray and Jacques Schwarz-Bart were keen to incorporate this vocabulary into their work. The evening climaxes with the appearance of special guests Ka Fraternité, a similar, [Paris-based] organisation to Zil' Oka that brings more drummers and singers to the stage to create a denser, bulky sound, especially when calabash shakers, almost like a heavier form of maracas, come into play. More importantly the percussionists enter into call and response with a troupe of dancers as the audience joins in a rousing praise song to the elders, 'Pas Oublier', which essentially means 'lest we forget.'

Much as the drums and dance are to be applauded the beauty and plurality of the creole language also stand out. Nothing conveys this more than the many renditions of 'How are you?' that are flagged up in the hall. In Martinique they say 'Sa ka fet?' In Guadeloupe 'Ki jan aw?' In Haiti 'Koman ou ye?' Out of many people, many tongues.

– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photos by Max Boucher