Julian Gerstin
percussion    /  ethnomusicology

This article is copyrighted material.  Students, if you use this in a paper, remember that you must credit the author (me) even if you don't quote exactly ("paraphrasing").  More important, you should not assume that simply reading and quoting (or paraphrasing) means that you understand the material.  Find other things to read as well, so that you have a broader perspective.  Be sure to listen to the music, tooójust reading about music doesn't give you the understanding that listening does!

"French West Indies"

New Grove Dictionary of Music, 2nd edition.  Ed. Stanley Sadie.  London: Macmillan (2001).

        The islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, and Guyane (French Guiana) on the South American mainland, are former French colonies incorporated into the French nation in 1946 as départements díoutre-mer.  Each department presents a full range of internationally circulating music, from Western classical to rock, jazz, rap, and Caribbean popular styles such as salsa and reggae.  This article discusses only the major indigenous genres.  Musical terms are in Créole, the major spoken language of the departments.
Colonized in the late 1600s, Martinique and Guadeloupe quickly became two of Franceís most lucrative possessions.  Slavery ended in the 1840s, but through World War II the islands retained a primarily agricultural economy based on the labor of a largely African-descended population.  Since departmentalization in 1946, the islands have seen rapid urbanization plus large-scale migration to metropolitan France.
        Guyaneís exploitation has been much less intensive.  In colonial times it served as a penal colony, in recent years as the center for French spaceflight.  Much of the land remains rainforest.

I.  Martinique.  II.  Guadeloupe.  III. Guyane.  IV.  Commercial music.


Rural traditions.  In Martinique as elsewhere in the Caribbean, slaves were allowed their own outdoors dances on Saturday afternoons and nights, after Mass on Sundays, and on holidays.  Music also accompanied koud'min (French coups de main), i.e., work parties, typically for farming and house-raising.  Early slave dances of the French Antilles and other islands were frequently (and perhaps indiscriminately) labeled kalenda, bamboula, djouba, or chica in colonial literature.  Descriptions of each of these varied.  One common theme involved transverse heeled drumming, i.e., drums laid on the ground, with the drummer straddling the drum and using one heel to change the pitch.  Often a second percussionist strikes the drumís side with a pair of sticks.  These practices suggest a Central African (Congolese) derivation.  Choreography included group circle dances and successive soloists.  However, slaves soon adapted slaveownersí choreography.  In the early 1700s French contredanse, with a basic pattern of a two facing lines, became popular; a 1724 account by Labat of a Martinican dance he called kalenda (but which closely resembles todayís mabelo) described this choreography.  Quadrille (Créole kwadril), groups of two or four couples arranged in a square and executing complex series of steps, became popular in France about 1780 and spread through the New World in the early 1800s.  In Martinique, at least two adaptations of quadrille developed, bèlè (French belair) from the North Atlantic region and haute taille (or réjane) from the mid-Atlantic.
        After Abolition the most frequent rural dance events were secular entertainments known as swaré (French soirée, evening), held weekend nights in large outdoor sheds (paillasse).  Admission was charged and food and drink sold.  Until the 1980s, various dance styles remained strongly regional.  Those of the North Atlantic region around the town of Ste-Marie have enjoyed the greatest prestige, in their original rural setting due to the influence of roughly a dozen large families that for several generations specialized in performance at a virtuostic level.  North Atlantic genres include bèlè, lalin klé, and kalenda.  The several bèlè dances include bèlè, bidjin bèlè, bèlia, gran bèlè, bèlè pitché, and bèlè marin.  All use kwadril choreography, but each has its own movements, songs, and drum patterns.  The main type of performance, swaré bèlè held on weekend nights, is theoretically open to all, but participation as a dancer, drummer, or lead singing is limited to knowledgeable performers.  Participants perform sets of five or six dances and then yield the floor.  In contrast, lalin klé (French la lune claire, full moon) dances are loosely choreographed, and the lead singer acts as konmandè (French commandeur), or caller; they are therefore open to as many people as wish to dance.  Formerly held on nights of a full moon, lalin klé are now danced at swaré bèlè as opportunities for everyone to participate.  They include ting bang and woulé mango, both circle dances, and bènèzwél, kanigwé, and mabelo, line dances derived from contredanse.  Swaré bèlè are also the setting for kalenda, a dance for successive soloists (formerly male, now both sexes).
        After World War II, modernization temporarily disrupted rural performance.  The specialist performing families of Ste-Marie found work in the folkloric troupes that emerged in the 1950s, but were largely ignored by urban audiences.  In the 1980s younger, urban Martinicans began reviving interest in traditional music.  Many revivalists are nationalists and view bèlè as an emblem of their ethnic heritage.  They turned mainly to the Ste-Marie performers for knowledge and inspiration, so that today the Ste-Marie dances are the best known of Martiniqueís regional traditions.  Today, bèlè is most often danced at swaré bèlè sponsored by associations de 1901 (non-profit cultural organizations), cultural centers, towns or quartiers on the occasion of their annual fête patronale, or restaurant or cockfighting pit owners.  Touristic shows at hotels provide a non-parrticipatory venue.
        Other regional traditions include haute taille (or réjane), a quadrille style from the mid-Atlantic, and bèlè du sud, a complex of dances from the south with movements and music similar to Ste-Marie style bèlè but danced by an unlimited number of couples rather than in quadrilles.  Certain regional work musics are still remembered but no longer used for work: from the North Atlantic fouyté, which probably formerly accompanied communal planting, and lavwa bèf, songs encouraging oxen to work; and from the Northern Caribbean lasoté, communal planting music.
        Traditionally performed throughout the island, including the cities, and revived today along with bèlè is the martial art/dance danmyé (or ladjia), similar to the better-known Brazilian capoiera in its combination of dance and combat.
Instruments and performance.  Ste-Marie style bèlè, kalenda, and danmyé are all accompanied on a single drum, tanbou bèlè (also called ka by older musicians).  The lone drummer plays both steady rhythmic patterns and cross-cutting improvisations marking choreographic changes.  The drum is a single-headed, open-bottomed barrel about 65 cm. tall, with a goatskin head about 30-31 cm. in diameter.  The transverse playing style allows not only heeling, which is found on several other Caribbean islands (e.g., Jamaican kumina, Haitian djouba), but also a lateral twisting of the left forearm and wrist that creates a continuous roll with the left fingers, and sustains the stronger notes struck by the right hand.  This technique is similar to that of many frame drums (e.g., Brazilian pandiero, Puerto Rican pandereta).
        A second musician plays a steady ostinato on the side of the drum with tibwa (French petit bois, little wood), a pair of sticks about 40 cm. long and 1.5 cm. thick.  Sometimes tibwa are played on a length of bamboo mounted on a stand.  Often a chacha (single-cylinder metal rattle) or two are added to the ensemble, but are considered extra.  In practice more than one drummer may accompany a dance, but they take turns, playing for alternate dancers.  There are often two tibwa players, playing simultaneously.  The exceptions are lalin klé and bèlè du sud, in which two or three drummers play in near-unison.  The tibwa patterns are considered the basic rhythm of the dance.
        Call-and-response singing completes the ensemble.  The lead singer chooses the sequence of dances through his or her selection of songs, each of which goes with a specific dance.  All songs are in Créole and concern relations between the sexes, local gossip, and current politics.
        The mid-Atlantic quadrille dances are accompanied by a variety of instruments, usually accordion, violin, chacha, and tanbou di bas, a frame drum played by both striking and rubbing.  One player acts as konmandè, directing the dancers.  In common with quadrille adaptations throughout the Caribbean, Martinican quadrilles involve a "set" of dances, each with its own choreography and music: pantalon, líété, lapoul, and pastourèl.  In the mid-1990s only one quadrille group was active.

Urban traditions.  Guadeloupean gwoka drumming (see below) became popular with urban youth in the 1960s, and has been indigenized; in fact, gwoka is better known in Martinique than bèlè.  Initial interest in gwoka arose from a nationalist/ethnic movement, the retour aux sources (return to the roots), inspired by the nègritude of political leader Aimé Césaire.  That specific meaning has largely been lost.
        Chouval bwa (French cheval bois, wooden horse) was played for old-time, hand-pushed carousels, of which only one remains.  The repertoire consists of musique Créole (see below).  Instrumentation includes accordion, clarinet, saxaphone, bamboo flute, tibwa played on bamboo, tanbou débonda ("two-buttocks drum", a two-headed cylindrical drum played with sticks), and assorted percussion.
         Chanté Noël is a fairly recent tradition, consisting of lively biguines and mazouks on Christmas themes, sung informally at Christmas parties.

Carnival.  Martinican Carnival is found in both urban centers and small towns.  It has a complex history, waxing and waning with economic and demographic changes.  During the twentieth century until World War II, musique Créole bands riding on carts or trucks played a fast style of biguine known as biguine vidé, or simply vidé.  Carnival declined during the War and did not fully resurge until the 1980s, when groups à pied, marching bands of fifty or more percussionists and horn players plus costumed dancers, became popular.  Most vidé songs are traditional; the band acts as song leader while onlookers shout the responses.  Percussion consists of drumset components, homemade drums built from plastic plumbing and food containers, tanbou débonda, gwoka, chacha, tibwa, and various struck bells.
        The groups à pied are organized mainly as associations de 1901 identified with specific neighborhoods.  In Carnival they perform alongside other forms of music and display: sound trucks, theme-costumed groups, traditional individual masqueraders, spontaneous vidés of friends and hangers-on, biguine song contests, costume contests, decorated cars and floats, and paid-admission parties (zouks).


Rural traditions.  Documentation of slave music is better for Guadeloupe than for Martinique.  In the 1600s and 1700s, rural slavesí free-time musical dances were known as bamboula or gwotambou (French gros tanbou); there were also koudímin.  In towns, sociétés (mutual aid societies) developed in order to raise funds to purchase slaves' freedom, to pay for funerals, and for entertainment.  Their organization was often elaborate, with hierarchical "royal courts."  Sociétés sponsored regularly occurring music/dance events, with entrance fees and, in some cases, written invitations.  This form of organization spread into the countryside, so that, after Abolition if not sooner, sociétés existed for both balakadri (quadrille balls) and bamboulas.
Guadeloupean balakadri persisted into the 20th century and, despite disruption after WWII, made a comeback in the 1980s.  The Guadeloupean-administered nearby island of Marie-Galante also has had a vital and well-documented balakadri tradition.  As in Martinique (and the Creole-speaking island of St. Lucia), kwadril dances are in "sets" consisting of the dances pantalon, líété, lapoul, and pastourèl, all quadrilles proper, plus creolized versions of 19th-century couple dances, biguines, mazouks, and valses Créoles.  Instrumentation consists of variable combinations of accordion, guitar, violin, tanbou dibas, chacha (either a single metal cylinder as in Martinique, or a spherical calabash without a handle, held in both hands), malakach (maracas), triangle, bwa (tibwa), and syak (a bamboo rasp 1 m. long, grooved on both top and bottom, held with one end on the belly and the other on a door or wall, and scraped with both hands).  A konmandè completes the ensemble.
         By the 20th century bamboula drum dances became known as swaréléwòz (French soirées la rose) or simply léwòz, after the La Rose société.  (Various La Rose associations with differing purposes, but usually incorporating music, are found in St. Lucia, Guyane, and elsewhere.)  During the departmental era formal drum sociétés lapsed, but the drumming tradition was revitalized by urban youth beginning in the 1960s.  As in Martinique the revival incorporated nationalist politics.  The revitalized tradition is often termed gwoka after the drums used, and dance events are swaréléwòz, kout tanbou (drum stroke), or kout mizik (music stroke).
The term gwoka may derive from gros ka (big drum), from French gros and Créole ka, a widespread Caribbean term for "drum"; or from Bantu ngoma (drum).  A gwoka ensemble consists of from two to five boula, drums built very much like Martinican tanbou bèlè and played transversally, occasionally with heeling; plus one makyé (French marqueur), a smaller, higher-pitched drum held upright between the legs.  The boula play in near-unison while the makyé solos, matching the rhythm and energy of the dancers.  Added to this may be one or more calabash chacha, as described above, plus tibwa played on bamboo.  Some musicians state that tibwa was only recently adopted from Martinique.  The seven traditional rhythms are léwòz, graj, woulé, toumblak, padjanbèl, menndé, and kaladja.  Dancing is often largely improvised, though some defined steps exist, and is by successive soloists (male and female).  Songs are call-and-response, in Créole, and concern relations between the sexes and topical matters.
        Funeral wakes have two contrasting traditions.  Outside the house, men perform bouladjèl (mouth drum), a call-and-response, competitive percussive vocalization.  Song leaders shift frequently as singers challenge one another.  Inside, women sing kantikamò (French cantiques à la mort), also in call-and-response form.  The men arrive on their own and support the mourners; the women are invited, and their songs dedicated to the dead and the spiritual world.
Martial arts/dance forms also exist, known as mayolé, sovéyan, and bènaden.  Each is accompanied by gwoka ensemble and call-and-response singing.

Carnival.  Carnival music in Guadeoupe, mizik vidé, took a new turn in the 1980s, led by the group Akiyo.  This is a large percussion-and-vocals ensemble that features songs and costumes on strongly nationalist, anti-colonial themes.  Percussion includes boula, makyé, tanbou bas (bass drums) with both one and two heads, tanbou chan (a small high-pitched drum), and chacha.


The music of Guyane remains sorely under-researched.  The author has not been to Guyane, and takes the following information from available sources.  For information on South American Indian music in Guyane, e.g., the Waiapi and Wayana, the reader is refered to Beaudet.

Créole music.  In the French departments, "Créole" refers to indigenous hybrids of African and European cultures.  In Martinique the term applies specifically to the culture of semi-elite mulâtre townspeople, but also to the customs of poorer people in both town and countryside.  In Guyane, urban Créoles distinguish themselves from the nèg marons or "Maroons," descendants of escaped slaves who developed a strongly African-based culture in their rainforest retreats.  Thus, Guyanese dances labeled "créole" consist of a number of styles in which, as in Martinican bèlè, drumming and call-and-response singing accompany choreography based on contredanse and quadrille.  According to Blérald-Ndagano, the dances grajé, léròl, kanmougé, moulala, bélya, djanbel, labasyou, and djouba all utilize a contredanse-based choreography; laboulanjèr is a quadrille; débò is a circle dance; kaladja is danced in a single line of men and women, alternating; zink can be either a circle or single line; mayouri imitates agricultural movements; and kasékò (French casser le corps, break the body) is danced without preset choreography by an unlimited number of couples or people dancing alone.  According to Jolivet, léròl is a quadrille, and mayouri were pre-abolition agricultural work parties at which the other dances were performed.
        The most common Créole instrumental ensemble is known as tanbou kasékò or tanbou léròl.  It includes two or more barrel drums similar to gwoka and tanbou bèlè; the larger drum, tanbou bas or tanbou foulé, plays a basic pattern while the smaller tanbou koupé improvises with the dancers.  A pair of tibwa accompany on a wooden box, and sometimes a calabash or metal chacha is added.  The dances kanmougé and mayouri use a different ensemble, two tanbou kanmougé, a "male" for the support patterns and a "female" for the lead.  These are up to 1.8 m. long, single-headed and open-bottomed, and carved of a single piece of wood.  They are played transversally, and were formerly heeled; an accompanist plays tibwa on the back of the male drum.  However, only one association de 1901, the main type of organization performing Créole dances today, still uses tanbou kanmougé; the others use only tanbou kasékò.  Similarly, gragé was traditionally, but today rarely, accompanied by three or more frame drums (tambou gragé).
Call-and-response singing in Créole accompanies all dances.  Song leaders are usually woman (in contrast to both Martinique and Guadeloupe), and may accompany themselves on chacha.

Maroon music.  Maroons in Guyane include members of the Aluku (Boni), Ndjuka (Djuka), Paramaka, and Saramaka groups, all descendents of slaves who escaped to the rainforest.
        Among the Alukuówhose traditions are similar to those of the Ndjuka and Paramakaólarge-scale performances or pee occur in various contexts, notably booko dei (funerals) and puu baaka (end of mourning ceremonies).  Pee include recitations, stories, and unaccompanied songs along with instrumental music and dancing.  Dances are accompanied by three drums: gaan doon, the largest and lead drum; pikin doon, mid-sized and supportive; and tun, the smallest drum with the simplest part.  Additional instruments may include kwakwa, a long wooden board struck with sticks by several players; and kaway, rattles attached to dancersí calves.
An extensive repertoire is also performed for obia pee, ceremonies for African deities.  As in African-based religions through much of the Caribbean, deities are grouped according to ethnic derivation, and different dances are done for each.  For example, Bilby notes, kumanti pee celebrate deities of Ashanti origin ("kromanti" being a common Caribbean term for Ashanti or Akan customs and people).



        In Martinique and Guadeloupe, musique Créole (or musique traditionelle or patrimoine) refers to three song types dating from the 18th and 19th centuries: biguine, mazouk (mazurka) and valse Créole.  Instrumentation varies, but typically includes some combination of clarinet, saxophone, trombone, accordion, bamboo flute, chacha, tibwa, drumset, piano, bass, and banjo.  Biguine is the best-known of these styles outside the French Antilles, having been performed in Paris by emmigrant musicians as early as the 1920s.  Biguine is somewhat more associated with Guadeloupe, mazouk with Martinique.  The ostinato patterns of tibwa form the rhythmic basis of these two styles.
         Early recordings of musique Créole sound rather like Dixieland jazz, due to the orchestration and recording technology.  The genre continued to mutate, and remained popular through the 1950s and 1960s in a jazz big-band format.  But by the late 60s audiences turned to foreign styles, first Haitian konpa direk and then Dominican cadence.  Not until the late 1970s did a new indigenous style, zouk, recapture the public.  An invention of the group Kassaví, zouk featured singing in Créole, a rhythm section composed of both Guadeloupeans and Martinicans, a white French horn section, multiple catchy melodies per song, tibwa-, gwoka-, and vidé-based rhythms (on a base of konpa direk), and state-of-the-art production values.  It thus appealed to Antilleansí sense of both local identity and cosmopolitan modernity.  Zouk has also had success in France, Francophone Africa, and other Caribbean islands.
         Certain more esoteric styles have also made an impact.  Martinican singer/bamboo flautist Eugene Mona recorded, during the 1970s and 1980s, a series of intense, politically charged songs based on an eclectic combination of  biguine, gwoka, rock, and reggae.  The 1970s groups Falfrett, Difé, and Pakatak mixed musique Créole and jazz with gwoka and other Afro-Caribbean percussion.  Malavoi, an acoustic group led by pianist/composer Paul Rosine, boasted a four-violin front line and blended Martinican quadrille with jazz, adding zouk touches in the late 1980s.  In Guadeloupe, guitarist/composer Gérard Lockel developed a jazz style based on the rhythms and modes of gwoka.  Although his experimental sound has been admired by musicians it has not been widely popular, and the only Martinican bands to attempt a similar transformation of bèlè have been Bèlènou and Creativí Sim.
         In the early 1990s Jamaican dancehall (a genre combining reggae with rapping) became popular among French Antillean youth, who responded with ragga (or raggamuffin).  While similar to dancehall, ragga is marked as French Antillean by rapping in Créole and the addition of a standard tibwa rhythm.
         To my knowledge, Guyanese popular music remains entirely undocumented.  Styles from elsewhere are of course popular, and there is a local vidé (Carnival) tradition.  Beginning in the 1970s, youths in both Guyane and Suriname developed a style known as aleke, played on three long drums resembling traditional Ndjuka drums, a bass drum/highhat combination, djaz, and various light percussion.  Aleke evolved in tandem with kaseko, a popular style primarily from Suriname and Guyana (formerly British Guiana), and kawina, another Surinamese style.  All these were influenced by the Créole traditional dance kaséko.  Clearly, these interlinking histories are worthy of further research.



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---- 1993.  Mouvman.  Déclic 066-2.
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---- 1993.  An ti van frémi.  APAL 05.
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---- 1992 [1962].  Ti Emile.  Hibiscus 191170-4.
Dahlia.  n.d.  Chants traditionnelsótradition créole Guyane.  Bleu Caraïbes 82819-2.
Germany, Claude and Joselita.  No date.  C & J Germany.  Association Chouval Bwa DSC 493 630.
Gerstin, Julian.  2001.  Martinique: Canefields and City Streets.  With Dominique Cyrille.  In the CD series, Caribbean 1962 Field Recordings of Alan Lomax.  Rounder 11661-1730-2.
Grivalliers, Raoul  (Ti Raoul). 1994.  Best Of.  Sully Cally TRSC94.
Groupe de Morne des Esses.  1995 [reissue].  Groupe de Morne des Esses.  Sully   Cally GMSC95.
Kassaví.  1987.  Grands Succès, Vols. 1 & 2.  Sonodisc GDC10502.
Lockel, Gérard.  1988.  Gwo ka modènn.  Production A.D.G.K.M.  GKM2.
Malavoi.  No date.  La belle epoque.  Hibiscus 082061 WM 302.
Mona, Eugene.  No date.  Eugene Mona Vol. 1, 1975-1978.  Polygram 191212-2/ Cocosound 88050-4.
---- No date.  Eugene Mona Vol. II, 1981-1984.  Cocosound 88051-4.
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Plastic System Band.  1992.  Itinéraire.  1992.  Rhythmo-Disc AD40143.
Rastocle, Benoit and Paulo.  1994.  Les Frères Rastocle.  FRSC [Sully Cally] 94.
Serotte, Maní and Buisson Ardent.  No date.  Guyane: Maní Serotte & Buisson Ardent.  Musique de Monde 92616-2.
Tanbou Bô Kannal.  1994.  Kélélé.  Déclic 324-2.
Various (biguine, mazurka).  1993.  Best of Hurard Coppet, Léona Gabriel, Saint-Hilaire.  Sully Cally HUSC93.
---- No date.  Biguine LíAge DíOr des Bals et Cabarets Antillais de Paris, Vols. 1 & 2.  Frémeaux et Associés FA007, FA027.
Various (Suriname Maroons).  No date.  Music from Saramaka.  Folkways FE 4255.
---- No date.  From Slavery to Freedom: Music of the Saramaka Maroons of Suriname.  Lyricord LLST 7354.