For the past six years, the season of Jazz ‘n Creole has made itself well-known on Dominica. This fine fusion of traditional and contemporary musical styles can be seen and heard at various venues around the Nature Island and culminates with a feature event that takes place at the Cabrits National Park on the Pentecost Sunday of that annual long holiday weekend. You can read about my earlier enjoyment of a fringe event at River Stone Bar & Grill here.
While I have yet to attend the main event, I have enjoyed the variety of shows in the evenings before the main event. They are referred to as Fringe Events. These are smaller affairs, but no less entertaining than the big day!
As part of my 2015 selection, I got completely caught up in the first session, called CINÉJAZZ, which was hosted by the Alliance Française de la Dominique.
Director Stanislas Riener had organized a film showing of Biguine (in French, with English subtitles), which was directed by Guy Deslaurier and written by Martinican Patrick Chamoiseau (He is a prominent French Caribbean author who created Texaco, which won the notable Prix Concourt in 1992. It is available in English at the Roseau Public Library. I highly recommend this historical novel for its fascinating details and insights into the plight of the people in this same-named shantytown near Fort-De-France Martinique in the 19th and 20th centuries).
I was particularly excited about viewing the Biguine movie, because I had studied the origins of French West Indian/Creole-Jazz music in my French language classes with Monsieur Stanislas around the time of Dominica’s World Creole Music Festival 2014. To see the film only added to my enjoyment and appreciation of Creole-Jazz music and its roots.
From the start, I was drawn into this visual/auditory tale, which was set in St. Pierre, Martinique, once known as the ‘Paris of the Antilles’ in the 19th century. The imminent eruption of Mount Pelée in 1902, and its massive destruction of all but one or two (sources vary) of its inhabitants during that catastrophe only added to the intrigue of the story as it evolved on the screen. After the abolition of slavery in the mid-19th century, a musician couple abandon their no-longer popular traditional African instruments, such as the wooden (bamboo) flute, which was originally accompanied by drums. With strong encouragement from his lady, the gentleman takes up the clarinet, and infuses the woodwind with a sound reminiscent of a mixture of traditional African and then-contemporary European-influenced styles. Their music further evolves as a result of their experiences at the opera, and the lady (chanteuse) again incorporates classical ‘colonial’ styles with Creole lyrics that told stories of personal and current events through song. They formed a band that delighted large crowds in the nightclubs where they played. The exchanges between the rich woody tones of the clarinet and the darker brassy resonance of the trombone pleased my ears tremendously and I wished I could have heard more.
Of course, dance is part of the Biguine and the renowned Compagnie Pomme Cannelle from Martinique vividly displayed this mix of African rhythms with formal ballroom steps,bringing the movie to life. The beautiful traditional Creole wear also complemented the musical action that took place in the bars and taverns of this once-famous French-Caribbean city. I was on the edge of my seat as the music, song and dance hypnotized me. I was increasingly jilted out of my revery when the rumblings of the background volcano became more prominent and persistent. I won’t give away the earth-shattering conclusion (although you probably can guess some of what happened). But did the music die too?
After having seen Biguine, I have a better sense that the Caribbean origins of jazz have often been overlooked. While Cole Porter did give this Creole genre some prominence in the 1930’s with his enduring ‘Begin the Beguine’, this movie will convince you that there is a magical, musical, mystery that originally unfolded on a French Caribbean island in the late 1800’s. If one is lucky (as I feel I have been), it can still can be occasionally heard today in countries that honour their Creole heritage – and that includes Dominica!
After a break for some delicious refreshments, the evening continued with another treat: entertainment from two superb musicians who call themselves Dékalaj. Saxophonist/flautist Jussi Paavola from Dominica was accompanied by keyboardist Frantz Laurac from Martinique. This dynamic musical duo has also performed in Paris and the Dominican audience was privileged to hear their wonderful Jazz-Creole offerings that night.
Again, I feel blessed to have experienced the tremendous artistry of both of these musicians before this evening, and because of their high standards, I appreciated the opportunity to hear them again. I was initially ‘wowed’ by Frantz Laurac when I heard him accompany fellow Martinican, SLAM poet Black Kalagan in March at the Alliance Française de la Dominique. The rhythmical mix between the beat of the poet’s emphatic words, interspersed with percussive electronic piano interludes impressed me to the max!
And then there is Jussi – I was ‘blown away’ the first time I ever heard him play a few years ago with BREVE, a very popular and versatile local band of highly talented musicians. (More on them shortly). I am in awe of his ability to switch easily between flute and saxophone, add percussive accents with tambourine, cow bell, etc. and even sing! At this writing, he draws an enthusiastic crowd every Thursday night at 8 Castle Street wine bar and café in Roseau for ‘Sax and the City’.
As the two musicians offered up a variety of Creole-Jazz and even some Reggae fusions, the small crowd hung on to every note until 10 p.m. I certainly left the Alliance Française with a huge smile on my face, as the high calibre film and superb live performance assured me that life on a small island is NOT void of cultural activities of an international standard.
Friday was a big night out for me. I was eager to attend the ‘Tis the Season to be Jazzy’ Happy Hour at the Fort Young Hotel in Roseau. Friend Jenny came along with me, and we arrived early to see the sunset and secure a table in the bar area. While
Asher Thomas and his band ‘Mac & Cheese” serenaded the drinkers and diners with easy-listening tunes, Jenny and I made short work of our substantial, reasonably priced, delicious fish dinners. We appreciated the prompt and friendly service of the efficient wait-staff, which definitely added to our enjoyment of the evening.
I really did not know in advance about the featured band, but I can assure you when I heard the familiar sounds of the saxophone, well, it just had to be BREVE! No more sitting at a table from that moment, as Jenny and I situated ourselves in close proximity to the music-makers. While all the tables in that area were filled with keen patrons, we were content to stand and take in the abundant Jazz, Creole and Reggae tunes. Of course, I could not be still – impossible in that setting, so I moved my body to the beat. This group really knows how to entertain a diverse crowd – they engaged the audience with every song. It was also fun to watch them interact with each other through constant smiles and eye contact, as well as their delightful playing of improvised duets and solos ( it’s jazz!). You can read a recent rave review about them right here.
Although all of these competent musicians sang well while playing their respective instruments, I was particularly impressed
with a young lady named Jade Leatham. Her rich, resonant contralto voice complemented the harmonious qualities of the other instruments. I also enjoyed her stint on acoustic guitar, which brought back memories of my glory days on that six-stringed non-electronic instrument.
When the night was almost over, renowned Dominican music icon Gordon Henderson, the ‘God-Father’ of Cadence-lypso music graced the stage for one Creole song in the genre that he created. The audience was ecstatic and I could tell that this particular tune took them down memory lane.
By the time we left, it was almost midnight. BREVE had played a very long set – about 2 1/2 hours non-stop. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to get high on fabulous Jazz and Creole on the Nature Isle!