Polobi & the Gwo Ka Masters

This is clearly a striking voice. A song of the earth, deeply rooted in tradition. Its deep growling tone pierces the air, with a curious speech-song full of resonances, but resembling nothing else on the musical map.

The voice is that of Moïse Polobi, 69 years old, descended from a family of former slaves. He’s been singing and sounding his djembé-like Gwo ka drums since childhood, heart-beating the memory of his ancestors in Guadeloupe. He was initiated at an early age, thanks to his dancer mother, who guided him into the intricate universe of lewoz, traditional gatherings where mind and body commune, boosted by the explosion of drums and the chants of singers.

At twelve, Polobi entered the circle of a lewoz. “And from then on, my life was music.” The dance was also important, for one who won a five-franc piece for accomplishing two or three steps during a communal festival where Guy Konket, a renowned singer for all generations, was performing. This was another revelation. Since then, Polobi has remained faithful to the one he calls his ‘master’. “I took every opportunity to listen to Konket. I learned a lot from hearing him about how to project my voice.”

Polobi progressed, establishing himself as one of the masters of toumblak, the most famous Gwo ka rhythm today, associated with love, happiness and fertility dances among the many groups that make the drums resound in Guadeloupe. Based in his hometown of Petit-Bourg, his band is called Indestawas Ka, an ensemble with whom he’s performed in France and Canada, with eight albums behind them. However, it wasn’t until past his well-deserved retirement that the farm worker and lumberjack recorded under his own name. With a cap on his head, half rebel, half joker, Polobi comes over as a natural mystic, to borrow a song title from Bob Marley.

Moïse Polobi and Klod Kiavué. Photo credit: Karen Paulina Biswell.

It all started with a drumming event organised in September 2020 by Klod Kiavué, his neighbour in Grande Savane, the district of Petit-Bourg where both have almost always lived. The percussionist and singer who’d distinguished himself with David Murray and the Gwo-Ka Masters and Wopso!, his own long-term project, gathered some friends, including guitarist Christian Laviso and drummer Eric Danquin, for an informal meeting. As Polobi sang, his Creole words cut straight to the heart of the matter: his fruitful improvisations saying that another life is possible, far from the noise of the city, closer to the primal values that he appreciates day after day walking around Petit-Bourg in the woods of Tanbou and Duquerry and along the rivers Moustique and La Lézad.

Producer Valérie Malot immediately realised the value of exploring the unparalleled universe of this outstanding singer. This happened as Klod Kiavué examined a pile of cassettes, tapes that Polobi had recorded alone at home, accompanying himself on three drums, recounting his daily life, punctuated by the fishing of ouassous (local crayfish) and the tropical forest where he spends hours listening to the sound of nature. From five large bags Kiavué and Polobi extracted a handful of rare pearls, the thirteen pieces that make up the repertoire of the album Abri Cyclonique.

Recorded both during sessions at home and other sessions in the studio, the raw material at the heart of this disc was then entrusted to the good care of Paris-based Doctor L, a sound explorer for thirty years and producer of Les Amazones d’Afrique and Congolese group Mbongwana Star. Taking control he adds his distinctive touches, such as Cuban rhythms in place of the ka drum on ‘Neg Africa’. Curious echoes and delays, sounds recorded directly in the surrounding nature, techniques derived from free jazz and funk, all project the gwo ka into a new dimension. It’s an unprecedented hybrid for Polobi in which he becomes something like a dub poet. “This music is moving forward,” agrees Polobi, for whom this excursion into the electronic world is a first. Although he adds: “But in the end, the spirit of gwo ka remains!”

In both form and substance, the age-old wisdom has been transformed by these sound machines in tune with a new millennium. This transformation simultaneously acts as a bridge towards the unknown and towards a younger generation. Just as the prophetic message of poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant, also from Martinique, said the principle of Creolisation was to exchange with the other without getting lost or distorted. It’s a principle that’s clearly followed in this music.

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