The Musicof Martinique

Martinique's music has been shaped by its French and African heritage, as well as international influences

Photo credit: © Derek Bridges

Much of Martinique's native music can be traced to French and African musical styles, dances, and rituals. But other countries have influenced its music scene, too, especially other French Caribbean nations such as Haiti and Guadeloupe. Music as an essential aspect of the culture and plays a large part in Carnival and other island festivals.


Biguine originated in the 19th century, and is one of the earliest musical forms to develop on Martinique. Two distinct styles of biguine exist: bidgin bélè (also known as drum biguine) and orchestrated biguine.

Bidgin bélè evolved from the bélè dances of slaves on sugar plantations. A leader prompts a call and response style of singing, accompanied by drumming and percussion. The percussion instrument, called a tibwa, consists of a piece of bamboo placed horizontally and hit with sticks. Vocal improvisation by a soloist is also common.


Long after bidgin bélè had become popular in the countryside, an urban version sprang up in the chic city of Saint-Pierre. While its rhythms remained the same, it took on more of the French character of the city's inhabitants. Called orchestrated biguine, its melodies were more French, its lyrics sung in Creole, and it had a big band sound. From the 1930s to 1950s, it enjoyed a large following in dance halls both on Martinique and abroad.

Chouval Bwa

In rural areas of Martinique, four- to five-member orchestras sat in the center of carousels and played musical accompaniment. Their music became known as chouval bwa, Creole interpretation of the French phrase cheval bois, or "wooden horse." A mostly percussive style, its instruments include the tanbour (a type of drum), bel-air (bass drum), tibwa, chacha (rattle), and an accordion for melody.

Kadans and Cadence

In the 1970s, political turmoil led Haitians to flee to Martinique, bringing with them their own incredibly popular music, kadans. Widely played throughout the Caribbean both live and on the radio, kadans is played by small jazz ensembles.

After its introduction, some Martinican musicians combined it with Trinidadian calypso, creating a style known as cadence (or cadence-lypso). As with calypso, cadence lyrics often comment on social issues.


Meaning "party," zouk emerged in the 1980s as a synthesis of biguine, cadence, and several other popular Caribbean and U.S. musical styles. Today's zouk has a more electronic sound than its big band predecessor, biguine. However, it's become at least as well-known outside Martinique, particularly in France. Throughout the Lesser Antilles, it's now the favorite musical genre.

As zouk expanded its horizons on the international market, staging became important. Costumes, lighting, choreography, and other theatrical elements take their cues from rock concerts. The band Kassav' has been zouk's biggest innovator and best known group.

Then zouk and chouval bwa mixed, creating another musical style, zouk chouv. One of the best known of these musicians is Dédé Saint-Prix.

Other Music

In the 1990s, both rap and raggamuffin became popular on Martinique, and musicians quickly took up these new musical imports. Given the history of musical development on the island, it seems likely that Martinican elements will eventually get mixed in, forming new hybrids.


Music and Carnival, or Vaval on Martinique, go hand in hand. But Martinique also hosts two biennial music festivals: Jazz à la Martinique and Carrefour Mondial de Guitare.

Jazz à la Martinique takes place in early December of odd-numbered years. Besides providing a showcase for the island's best jazz musicians, it's prestigious enough to draw international talent like Branford Marsalis.

In even-numbered years, Carrefour Mondial de Guitare celebrates guitar music in all its glory. Musicians from all over the world wow the crowds. Jazz, blues, rock, pop, classical, flamenco – it's all played during the week long festival. Performances are held in several locations on the island.

Martinique's music adds a lively beat to its sophisticated culture. While it still retains musical forms rooted in its own history, the island happily embraces foreign genres. Its talented, creative musicians have managed to translate their local success to the world stage.


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