Words by Erin MacLeod—
Gwo ka means, quite literally, “big drum” in Guadeloupan Kreyol, but the music that is Gwo ka means that and so much more. It means dancing and singing, but it also means history, culture and independence.
With roots in West African drumming practice, gwo ka is a sound that developed over a hundred years ago in Guadeloupe. The sound of the goat’s skin drums musically connects the French Département d’Outre Mer with Africa and the memory of enslavement. At the same time, it also presents an independent sense of what it means to be Guadelopean, a local identity.
A music of resistance, gwo ka was once looked down upon as a lesser form but, over the years, it has become a cornerstone of Gwada music. It’s influence can be heard in zouk, soukous and other French Caribbean sounds, and it also mixes quite well with many other types of music. David Murray, working with the Gwo ka Masters has demonstrated how good mixing jazz with gwo ka can sound, but it’s also darned good on its own, on the street, be it in Paris or Pointe-a-Pitre.
Jacques Goldstein’s film on David Murray and the Gwo Ka Masters:
Gwo ka in Paris:
There are seven specific gwo ka rhythms, each representative of different things, from love to life to conflict. One, called lewoz, symbolizes rebellion—apparently its rhythms soundtracked the rebellions of the enslaved in the eighteenth century. It’s also used to describe a gwo ka event—a swaré lewoz—which takes place outdoors at night. Think of it as an improvised, acoustic, sound system party, where rum flows, tasty food is cooked and folks dance. Drummers sit in a semi-circle and both men and woman act as singers and chanters. The dancing is spontaneous, sometimes sexy, and audience participation is most definitely encouraged.