Les “petits bouts” de Bèlè

Just before Easter I enjoyed an après-midi of dance (mostly Guadeloupean Gwoka and Martinican Bèlè) in a giant yurt-style construction (l’Espace fraternité)  in the Parisian banlieue of Aubervilliers. Reminiscing with Creolophile friends we drank home-made Planteur out of plastic cups and ate big slabs of coconut cake, sat in booths around a low wooden stage, on which different dance groups were performing.

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Many die-hard Gwoka and Bèlè-ites (les anciens, including my new friend Monsieur Bonan)  find this regular Parisian activity inauthentic and unfaithful to the traditions of these sacred artforms. The  rigid division between spectator viewing and spectacle onstage, the frontal organisation of the choreography, as well as the noticable gendered split between male musicians and singers and female dancers all contribute to a shift away from the origins of this social practice. At Sware Bèlè or Gwoka in Martinique and Guadeloupe respectively, musicians and dancers are often made up of anyone present and integrates those either willing or compelled to swap in/join in and take over. There is also an acceptance of more and more female singers. I wondered what my Bèlè teacher in Martinique, Josy Michalon, would have said. Originating from the north of Martinique, Josy would often warn us of the touristic Bal Creole-style performances put on in the South of the island and I am sure she would have had at least something to say about some of the more froufrou costumes worn by the girls dancing.

While there I overheard a young child asking her mother where exactly are the Antilles? The mother explained that they are ‘les petits bouts de France très très loin’ (‘little bits of France, very far away’). These so-called “pieces” – collaged onto the map – of France might be geographically far away, but Eastern Caribbean communities from the 93rd and the 94th suburbs were in the majority in this Parisian yurt, suggesting the sense of belonging and pride such cultural performances instil and a continued need for the representation of these forms in Metropolitan spaces. While they were few Metropolitan spectators present, several cameramen and photographers recorded the events, mediatising and diffusing what some consider to be reconfigured, choreographed “pieces” of heritage, but that constitute, all the same, important reminders to both Caribbean and Metropolitan audiences of the cultural patrimoine and matrimoine they depict.

Spurred on by a friend, who was eager to see how people would respond to my topic of cross-dressing in the French Caribbean, I took the opportunity of a pause in performances to distribute flyers for my audience study.  I moved around the tent approaching families and groups of young people, most of whom  had heard of the plays and films of my project and politely accepted a flyer. Contrary to expectation, not one adverse reaction or disparaging remark was made – at least not to my face. According to my friend the fact that I am non-Antillean and non-Metropolitan French helps in his respect and I am inclined to agree, i.e. in other words I can get away with blurting out taboo questions because I’m English – though I perhaps didn’t hang around long enough to fully test this theory!

Interestingly, later that evening, I was telling a Parisian friend as she piled our plates with Easter accras about the first march against homophobia which took place in Martinique while I was there. She immediately mentioned the ‘well-known figure’ who was murdered in what she had understood from news reports to be a homophobic attack. I immediately corrected her, insisting the incident was a ‘crime of passion’ perpetrated by a close acquaintance of the victim. I am still amazed at how stories from ‘la-bas’ become blurred and altered to fit the expectations of a metropolitan public and made a mental note to investigate further how the news of the murder had been diffused in France.

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