The documentary Voukoum had its first UK screening at the Caribbean Film Corner in Notting Hill over the weekend. This short film by Francois Perlier, officially released in 2012, gives a portrayal of the history, philosophy and musical heritage of the carnival group Voukoum from Basse-Terre in Guadeloupe.
The Creole word voukoum in Gwada, as explained in the film, refers to a disturbance, noise or ker-fuffle heard in the dead of night and so is an apt name for a carnival band. The main message given by members interviewed in the film is the importance of transmission of the Guadeloupean culture of mas. The camera cuts from travelling shots of the endless out-of-town grandes surfaces hypermarkets – in a critique of the consumer society that Guadeloupe has become – to scenes of Creole instruction where an elder teacher ensures the collective memory of the songs, their lyrics and their meanings is not lost from one generation to the next.
The film shows images of young boys, not only in the classroom, but also braiding and practising the crack of the whips that are used by to announce the arrival of the street band. These woven cords, symbols of power and resistance to power (examined more closely in a wider Caribbean context by Richard Burton in his Afro-Creole book) are themselves very powerful props in the theatre of Voukoum and the opening shots, announcing that this is not going to be your average feathers and sequins carnival film. Apart from the Lanset Kod in Haitian carnivals, this was the first time I’d seen these represented or in person (are they used in Martinican carnival? Not to my knowledge in any case).
The documentary includes incredible footage from the 2009 strikes and protests against the high cost of living in Guadeloupe (and Martinique), and Voukoum’s involvement gives the film a contemporary political context, beyond or perhaps stemming from the more playful carnivalesque associations. Even during the carnival images the way the band marches forth in attack and the sharply critical lyrics of the songs give a real sense of political urgency, reminding me of the military dynamic of Haitian rara.
It was good to hear acknowledgement of the history of Dominican and Haitian immigration in developing the Gwo Siwo, a rhythm specific to the south of Basse-Terre and to this band, and the spiritual references that are carefully incorporated, including explanations of the significance of the healing fèy Sen Jak worn by the group. While the school teacher in the film stressed the importance of writing down Creole – an oral language – in order to safeguard the culture of Voukoum, this film is surely testament to the equally, if not more, important role that audiovisual media has to play in transmitting the multi-sensory language, culture and sajess (wisdom) of the ancestors.
See the trailer below: