woman dancing to the beats of the boula and make

Gwoka: Discover the Creation of Guadeloupe’s Beats and Rhythms

Guadeloupe is a French overseas department located in the Caribbean region. It is essentially  an archipelago comprising the islands: Grande Terre, Basse Terre, Marie Galante, La Désirade and Les Saintes. The main areas in the region are the islands of Grande Terre and Basse Terre, which are sister islands separated by a channel called the Salée River and connected by two bridges. They make up the largest piece of land in Guadeloupe and it is also where the majority of the Guadeloupean population reside.

map of the french overseas department in the caribbean
Map of Guadeloupe. Image Credit: World Atlas

Since the islands’ discovery in the 15th century, the region has been a victim of colonization and slavery. As a result, the prominent culture is heavily influenced by the African and European elements, giving rise to a unique Guadeloupean creole culture.

One of these uniquely Guadeloupean cultural artforms is the music genre of Gwoka, the topic of discussion for today’s post.


An Introduction to Gwoka

Gwoka is a uniquely Guadeloupean genre of music that features singing, playing the ka drums and dancing. Though dancing is optional, the Gwoka is truly incomplete without every single one of these elements.

For the people of Guadeloupe, Gwoka is more than just a type of music. It is part of the Gualoupean lifestyle and cultural heritage, which is why it has become the identity of the archipelago.

Gwoka is performed and appreciated by all ethnicities of the islands. It isn’t reserved for just a particular group of people and neither is it linked to any religion, making it a secular and non-discriminative form of cultural art.

At a Gwoka performance, the musicians play percussion instruments, a dancer performs in front of the musicians and a group of singers sing in Guadeloupean Creole, a language that combines French and African dialects that the ancestors of the local people brought along with them from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade. It is the unofficial and preferred language spoken by Guadeloupeans across the islands. Together, they act as forms of emotional expression conveyed by the artists. These expressions are then supported by the audience through clapping, cheering and singing along with the group of singers.

a dancer facing the ka masters and dancing
Gwoka performance at a swaré léwòz. Image Credit: UNESCO

The Gwoka is performed at celebrations, cultural and formal events, festivals, protests and even funerals. Impromptu Gwoka performances are common and can be done on the streets or just any open space outdoors.

Being a cultural heritage of the islands and a true sign of Guadeloupean identity, the Gwoka was even enlisted as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in November 2014.


The Creation and Evolution of the Gwoka

The history of the gwoka is ingrained in the limited recorded history of Guadeloupe. Its origins are quite dark as it is deeply connected to the transatlantic slave trade that happened between the 17th and 19th centuries.  Today, 3/4th of the population of Guadeloupe are descendants of slaves brought to the Caribbean from West Africa.

Before the French arrived on the islands, they were already colonized by the Spanish shortly after Christopher Columbus set foot on the islands in the 15th century. The French arrived in 1635 and drove the Spanish out, overtaking control of the land. One way they did this was by bringing in agriculturists from the mainland to settle down in the new territory. In the process, the indigenous Arawaks and other Carib Indians died either because of disease or because they were killed.

The settlement of the farmers eventually led to the establishment of sugar, coffee and other profitable plantations. Requiring more people to work the farms at cheaper costs, the colonists then opted to bring in slaves from Western Africa to work at the plantations.

Gwoka was created in the 17th century with the arrival of the slaves as a way to communicate their pain, suffering and emotions as they faced oppression. Music and dance were the only things they could do freely at the time.

Originally, they would perform an ancient form of the Gwoka known as bamboula, where people would form a circle, sing and dance. This evolved into the Gwoka that is performed today. The dance movements and the rhythms played on the ka drum are variations of those brought along with the slaves. As they all came from different villages and kingdoms in Africa, they’d combine these elements to form their own version of rhythm and moves, even giving them spiritual meaning to get them through their suffering. Some sources say that the dance has roots in the African snake dance and the Congo dance.

Slavery was abolished 1848 in the islands, after which the Gwoka wasn’t performed as frequently as it used to be.

a group of enslaved plantation workers dancing and singing to the beat of the drum
An illustration of the ancient bamboula singing and dancing. Image Credit: SoundCloud

That is because the Gwoka was looked down upon because of racist sentiments and was dismissed as a thing of thugs, the lower class and the blacks. In fact, it wasn’t only Gwoka that got this sort of cold treatment. The entire Creole culture, including music and language, wasn’t approved of. People weren’t allowed to speak Creole in school or at home. The culture was, however, preserved by the agricultural workers.

This continued till the 1950s and 60s, which is when the people protested against this cultural assimilation and wished to drive the French out of Guadeloupe. In order to do this, people needed to develop nationalist sentiment and a sense of unity. The Gwoka provided just that. It brought people together and became a symbol of freedom, cultural identity and pride for most Guadaloupeans. Anti-French groups kept forming between the 1960s and 1970s and, after a period of violence, the Liberation Army in Guadeloupe gave the French the ultimatum to leave the region. However, that only led to the French amending and creating laws that would prevent that from happening.

Today, the local government has more autonomy than they did before, but they still haven’t gained independence.

As for the gwoka, it has become more prevalent since the separatist movement practically made it a symbol of national pride, symbolizing unity, the willingness to fight and freedom. Today, dance and music are performed in open spaces, it is taught in schools and in special training centres specifically for the gwoka.

Musicians playing the ka drums along with guitars and a trumpet.
Musicians playing the ka drums along with guitars and a trumpet. This is an example of the modern Gwoka, also known as Gwoka Modénn. Image Credit: J. Camal

The genre of music has even evolved to a more modern version, one featuring other Caribbean instruments such as the Cuban conga drums and instruments like guitar. The genre has even fused with genres such as jazz, another musical genre that was created by the enslaved Africans in the USA. Together the genres form the jazz-ka genre, where the rhythms of the ka drum pleasantly complement jazz instruments.


Gwoka Instruments, Rhythms and their Significance

The Ka Drums

The drums are the most peculiar thing in Gwoka. The drums are barrel-shaped with solo heads that are played with two hands.

The Ka drums come in sets of two. Consisting of a boula and a makè. Three drums are kept next to each other while playing them for a performance. One makè is played between two boulas.

Earlier, when slavery still hadn’t been abolished, the drums were made out of wooden barrels used to preserve meat in salt; a food that was given to the slaves at the time. Afterwards, barrels used to make rum were used to make the drums but now, they’re manufactured using raw materials. They’re made of oak, cedar, mahogany or pear wood. Today, Ka workshops can be found throughout the archipelago.

The boula and the makè may differ in size and shape, but that isn’t what differentiates them. It is in fact the thickness of the skin that determines which drum is which. The surface that is hit is made of goatskin; the thicker one is the boula while the thinner one is the makè.

the barrel shaped ka drums, the boula and make
The boula on the left and the makè on the right. Image Credit: Évelyne Chaville

The boula is played by a boularyen who places the drum on the ground horizontally, sits on top of it and plays it with both hands. The boula gives the rhythms for the singers and the dancer. The makè player sits on a slightly raised bench or tool, places the drum in front of them and plays with both hands.

To create rhythms, a combination of seven rhythms are played in different sequences and the rest is improvised according to mood and the ambience. The seven rhythms are discussed below.


The Rhythms 

In Gwoka, all three elements, the vocals, the rhythms of the drums and the dance are significant, but in a lot of cases, the dance is excluded. This is because, in truth, more than the dance, it is the drums and the vocals that are most important. The message of the songs is communicated primarily through these two elements.

Through the vocals, voice modulation and lyrics, the singer expresses their emotions, educates social values to the audience and tells stories.

As for the drums, the message and emotions are communicated through the rhythms. And in gwoka, there are 7 rhythms where the ka masters play the ka drums. Each rhythm adds meaning to the performance and equally corresponds with a mood. They are discussed below:

Toumblack: A rapid two sound rhythm is produced to express positive emotions and mood, such as happiness and love. This rhythm acts as an indicator to resume a movement or to change a movement.

Kaladja: A slow two sound rhythm produced to express emotions of pain, suffering and sorrow. It is also used for romantic slow dancing.

Graj: A slow four sound rhythm played similar to Toumblack. This rhythm is associated with working in the sugar fields as the harvesting would be done based on the tempo of the graj.

Léwòz: A complex two-beat rhythm that is associated with war, giving commands or attack

Padjanbél: A medium-paced three-sound rhythm associated with working in the plantations.

Woulé: A slow-paced three sound rhythm that was created to imitate the whites. In the olden days, a scarf or piece of fabric would be used for dance.

Menndé: A faster four sound rhythm associated with a carnival, representing excitement and escape, an escape from work to entertainment, just like a carnival. It is played at carnivals to welcome and encourage people to visit.

The knowledge of playing the Ka is passed on to family and friends informally, but there have been more and more workshops and courses in schools to teach and engage future generations in traditional music and dance forms.


Gwoka Traditions in Guadeloupe

In Guadeloupe and particularly in Grande Terre and Basse Terre, every once in a while, people will gather in open outdoor spaces for a gwoka session or a swaré léwòz. These are mostly done on Friday or Saturday evenings, but some spontaneously begin whenever there is a gathering of people. There is no designated spot for a gwoka session, they can begin at a restaurant, at a gathering in someone’s home, on the street or just any other empty space. The gathering is enjoyed with Caribbean white rum and fish. Asking the locals around about a léwòz is the best way to participate and show interest in participating in one.

A swaré léwòz begins late in the evening and can last all night, even extending till early morning. They are the most traditional form of entertainment and are performed mostly between June and September, the summer months.

At the swaré léwòz, first, the participants, musicians and the audience gather and form a circle. Within this circle, the musicians sit at one side and the group of singers stand behind them. One person out of these singers hosts the performance and leads the group. The other singers carry instruments resembling maracas, made of gourd and filled with grain.

a woman performing in front of the ka players in a circle
A dancer performing at a swaré léwòz. Image Credit: William Farrington

Once the host starts the show, dancers enter the circle one at a time, face the ka players and perform their solos, moving according to the beat of the drum. The dance is usually improvised as the performer lets go of themselves, completely surrendering themselves to the rhythms. Meanwhile, the singers sing about daily work, daily struggles, things that bring joy, things that bring sorrow, about their surroundings, etc., expressing the purest forms of emotions. The audience clap, cheer and join in on the chorus to show their support, as a sign of solidarity.

Every Gwoka performance is different. Each expresses a different mood, a different emotion and each has a different feeling or vibe. This factor makes Gwoka really special and personal.


Keeping Gwoka Alive

In efforts to keep traditional music and dance alive, several Gwoka schools have opened up and they are even being taught in school. Enlisting to UNESCO also helps this tradition to be slightly more visible to the world, fortifying its Guadeloupean identity. After all, it is indeed the essence of Guadeloupe. This would also be something the ancestors of today’s Guadeloupeans would perhaps be proud of.


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