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The Caribbean -- Martinique (and Bèlè)

This week we travel to Martinique, St. Lucia's nearest neighbor in the “Lesser Antilles.” (Don't let the islands hear you call them that. They may get a complex.) Unlike St. Lucia, which is a sovereign nation that's part of the British Commonwealth, Martinique is an “insular region” of France, meaning it is officially one of the eighteen regions of France and therefore technically part of the European Union. Despite these political dissimilarities St. Lucia and Martinique share much in the way of culture and also the Antillean Creole language.    

Martinique's first inhabitants were Arawak people who came to the island about 100 C.E., got chased out (or worse) by the volcanic eruption of Mount Pelée in 295, came back, then got chased out (or worse) by Carib people who came in about 600. Christopher Columbus landed on the island in 1502 and "claimed it" for the King. The French colonized Martinique in the mid-1600s, built sugar plantations, brought slaves from Africa and started to make money.  When the British captured Martinique in the mid-1700s, the French thought Martinique, and its sister island Guadeloupe, were so valuable that they traded them to the British for the entire land mass of Canada. (whoops.) Over the next several decades the island changed hands several times between the French, who would abolish slavery when they would take charge, and the British, who would reinstate it.

The French eventually got Martinique back and kept it, supporting it through several natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes and another massively destructive eruption of Mount Pelée, in 1902. Today, Martinique isn't an independent nation; rather it's an "overseas department” of France with French as its official language and the Euro as its currency.   

We sing "We Are Happy," a hello song from Uganda, to open every All Around This World class. This week we sing hello in Antillean Creole: "Kontan Wè."

M'sieu Michel” a song drawn from the history of Martinique, refers to a labor strike about the smallest wage. (More.)  

Tree Fall Down” is a song from Anguilla that teaches an essential lesson – those who get to be too big will one day tumble. (More.)   

Angelique O” is a song from Haiti that seems, on the surface, to be about the poor treatment of a girl by a powerful family, but is actually much more. (More.)  

Dried Dates and Almonds” is a Bhojpuri song from the South Asian community of Trinidad about the power of parents' love for their child. (More.)  


Martinique’s music takes French colonial musical structures, adds African rhythms and throws in a touch of East Indian zest for good measure. The island’s most internationally known style is “Zouk” which is an energetic, highly danceable blend of all the above. Zouk started in the 1960s as Caribbean dancehall music but has since become more musically complex, adding sounds from other Martinican styles such as beguine, and kadans. There are many styles of Zouk dancing, but the traditional Caribbean Zouk features two steps that go along with the music: 1-2, 1-2. In Brazilian Zouk there are three steps: 1-3-4, 1-3-4… 

More info:  

-- Learn “The  History of Zouk” 

-- Heritage Institute's Zouk overview, including an introduction to several Zouk dance styles,  and, the most fun

-- A live performance by Kassav' of their international hit, “Zouk La Sé Sèl Médikaman Nou Ni” (a special treat: their original live performance video for the song)  

Have a great week,