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Zouk or Zouk béton is a fast tempo carnival style of music originating from the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, popularized by the group kassav in the 1980s. Zouk means festival, well-named because it uses carnival rhythms and contains West African influences. Zouk arose in the early to mid-1980s from kadans. Elements of gwo ka, tambour, ti bwa and biguine vidé are prominent in zouk. The French Creole tongue of Martinique and Guadeloupe is an important element, and are a distinctive part of the music. In Africa, it gained popularity in francophone and lusophone countries. In Europe, it was particularly popular in France and in North America in the Canadian province of Quebec.
Guadeloupeans Jacob Desvarieux and the brothers Decimus are widely credited for having created the zouk beton phenomenon in the high-tech recording studios of Paris in the 1980s. In 1978, Pierre Edouard Decimus relocated in Paris after a successful career in the French Antilles. Pierre Edouard Decimus was on the verge of retirement from the music business until he and his brother Georges Decimus met fellow Guadeloupean Jacob Desvarieux, a popular guitarist/songwriter kwown in Paris as a studio wizard. The surroundings of the Paris music recording technology gave him the idea of making “just one more record”. Subsequently, Pierre Edouard Decimus, his brother, and Jacob Desvarieux pulled together a team of Paris-based Antilles musicians and created a group named Kassav’ and a new sound called zouk. The original Kassav’ was all Guadeloupean but was later joined by Martiniquans Jean-Claude Naimro, Claude Vamur, Jean-Phillipe Marthely and Patrick St-Eloi. Kassav’ created its own style by introducing an eleven-piece gwo ka unit and two lead singers, tambour, ti bwa, biguine, cadence-lypso: calypso and mostly cadence or compas with full use of the MIDI technology. Originally, Kassav’ style had a certain political dimension. Their famous song “zouk-la se sel medikaman nou ni” implied that zouk constituted a banner for the cultural unity of Guadeloupe and Martinique.
In Jocelyn Guilbault’s seminal book on the subject, “Zouk: World Music in the West Indies,” she states that “Zouk is the creation of black, Creole-speaking Antillean artists,” and puts forth the theory that it is the product of the struggle to form some kind of national identity among the four islands, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique, and St. Lucia. All four share a similar colonial past, having been under both French and English rule at various points in their history, and are populated predominantly by blacks, who are the descendants of African slaves.
Music authors Charles De Ledesma and Gene Scaramuzzo trace zouk’s development to the Guadeloupean gwo ka and Martinican bèlè (tambour and ti bwa) folk traditions. Ethnomusicologist Jocelyn Guilbault, however, describes zouk as a synthesis of Caribbean popular styles, especially Dominica cadence-lypso, Haitian cadence, Guadeloupean biguine. Zouk arose in the late 1970s and early 1980s, using elements of previous styles of Antillean music, as well as imported genres.