Last month's Bocas Literary Festival spread its net wide enough to include a screening of the 2004 French film Biguine, directed by Guy Deslaurier and scripted by Martiniquan Patrick Chamoiseau, one of the French Caribbean's foremost Cr�olist writers, whose novel Texaco won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1992.Chamoiseau along with fellow Martiniquans, writer Rafael Confiant and linguist Jean Bernab� became champions of Antillean Creolit� with their 1989 socio-cultural manifesto �loge de la Creolit�, which challenged Aime Cesaire's negritude in its famous opening sentence: "We are neither African, Asian or European but Creoles." This Creole stance shifted cultural discourse from Afro-centrism and its counter discourse to the deracination of official French assimilation policies, to focus not on a lost African past but on creolisation and the problematic erosion of Kweyol culture in all its forms (principally orality) in the face of economic and cultural dependence on the metropole.
Although the Creolit� project (which must be viewed against the background of Black consciousness sweeping all Caribbean subregions from the 1970s on) has been criticised for romanticising a dying Kweyol culture and even superseded by Edouard Glissant's rhizomic Antillanit�, it can undoubtedly be credited with making visible and heard an otherwise lost Creole heritage.Just as Texaco provided a literary version of the oral history of Martinique's morne dwellers, the slaves from Senegal and Guinea and their descendants, so too the film Biguine documents the genesis of one of the first Kweyol cultural expressions to challenge and subvert the dominance of Eurocentric culture. Yet Biguine is much more than a dry documentary, capturing as it does the flowering both of the town of St Pierre, Martinique, long time "Paris of the Antilles" (and its subsequent total destruction by the1902 eruption of Mt Pel�e); the creolisation process itself; the origins of Kweyol jazz (and an alternative reading of the origins of this supposedly Afro-American genre) and another Creole music genre, which like the Cuban rumba and son would become the soundtrack of the European avant garde.
From the beginning of the 20th century right through to the 1940s, it was the Biguine rather than the Yankee foxtrot which ruled the dance floors of Paris' bohemian Latin Quarter. Cole Porter's 1935 composition Begin the Biguine ensured international exposure for the orchestrated creolized version, in much the same way that Harry Belafonte would popularize Trinidad calypso in the 1950s and 60s. Biguine continued to be the popular music of Martinique right up to the 1970s, when it was displaced by Haitian konpa and later zouk, although it continued and continues to inform Kweyol jazz and World Music as Biguine Moderne.Viewed just as a period movie (1873-1902), Biguine would still be valuable, allowing audiences to visualise and vicariously experience a St Pierre and way of life long since gone. Although it's highly unlikely that all the Afro-Creoles of St Pierre dressed quite as elegantly as the actors, what has now become the national costume (from the lace-trimmed white blouses, madras skirts and head foulards of the women, to the black pants, white shirts and madras sashes of the men) is historically accurate, as are the great houses and salons of the St Pierre b�k� elite.
Given the excellent production and cinematography what really moves the film beyond the cachet of historical nostalgia verging on the sentimental, is Chamoiseau's script which benefits from both his story-telling skills and ear for Kweyol dialogue. The developing relationship between the musician couple vocalist/dancer Hermansia and her bamboo flute/clarinet playing man Tiquitacue, serves as cipher for the development of orchestrated Biguine from its west African fertility dance ritual roots (bidgin b�l�) and in the process gives audiences a hands, feet and ear-on overview of creolisation. The son Hermansia bears for Tiquitacue, is a child of the Biguine.Country bookies Hermansia and Tiquitacue, the embodiments of Kweyol rural tradition, are lured by St Pierre's magic and metropolitan culture.Their na�ve wonderment at the trappings of tropical colonial life (jewellery,glass decanters and "stranger rhythms and instruments") is matched only by their naivety in thinking that the sophisticates of St Pierre would be interested in their b�l� music, performed to drum, tibwa and bamboo flute accompaniment. Both b�k�s and mulattos despise the drum, or cannot even register it.
The opposition between Creole and European instruments encapsulates the tensions and dynamics of creolization. Disappointed they're unable to earn a living playing their Kweyol music,Hermansia and Tiquitacue are forced back into servitude, she as domestic and he as stevedore. Realizing the key to "the other music" is the clarinet, Hermansia scrimps and saves to buy herman one. Initially Tiquitacue feels he's betraying his roots when he attempts to teach himself the unfamiliar instrument, until a chance street encounter with "an angel of destiny"-an accomplishedCreole clarinetist- inspires him.Other formative influences in the couple's crash course in metropolitan music, are the opera arias, bel cantos and operettas they soak up from 'The Peanut Gallery"of the Grand Theatre, which Hermansia adapts to b�l� style and Kweyol lyrics, composing extempo drawing on her own experiences. For survival, after initial resistance the couple embrace the adrenaline rush of creolizing creativity and are soon riding the rising star of orchestrated Biguine which "circulated low to the ground, outside the official."
While ostensibly addressing the European polka (along with the quadrille, waltz and mazurka-all formal ballroom dances) the creolized Biguine rode the African rhythms of the cinquillo and echoed the call and response of the bidgin b�l� in the interplay between clarinet and trombone, a syncretic process fundamental to creolization. Syncopated drum rhythms were transposed to the piano and that's the beguine-ing of jazz. As the new music sweeps through St Pierre foreshadowing the volcano's eruption, the audience is also introduced to the uptempo version or Biguine Vide, which drove carnival bands on the streets.By framing the Hermansia Tiquitacue story as a folk script, Chamoiseau neatly sidesteps questions of strict authenticity, while staking a claim for marginalized/despised Kweyol culture and its contribution to creolization. One does not have to endorse Creolist discourse to acknowledge that Biguine is an invaluable and entertaining insight into one of the processes which shaped the entire region before globalization. Watching the film one couldn't help but wonder why no one to date has attempted a similar feature (several documentaries already exist) for Trinidad's calypso.