Fanswa Ladrézeau : “for me, Gwoka is a deity”

First, what characterizes François / Fanswa Ladrezeau is simplicity. To do this interview, there was no question of meeting in a sophisticated and cozy place. Fanswa, as usual, was sitting in front of his favorite music instrument, the ka, in the pedestrian street in Pointe-à-Pitre (Guadeloupe) where passers-by never forgot to greet him and I sat down next to him and he told me whith passion about gwoka, this music he loves.

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KARICULTURE.NET : How did you become a “tanbouyé” (ka player) ? If you had not been a singer and musician, what other profession would you want to exercise ?

Fanswa Ladrézeau : I went to school in Chanzy in Pointe-à-Pitre, I was 8-10 years. After school, 5 pm, I stayed watching Marcel Lollia known as “Vélo” who was playing gwoka in Chanzy Boulevard. At that time, I lived in Chauvel. When Akiyo was born in this district of the town of Les Abymes, I met again “Vélo” who was a founding member of the association. When I was 17, in the 1980s, I became an Akiyo member as a “fouettard”, as a boy who cracked the whip to lead the carnival parades. I learnt to make the carnival drum and the ka then to play music.

I started working in a firm specialized in hydraulic pumps and septic tanks in Jarry in the town of Baie-Mahault. This company went bankrupt so I composed the song “Mwa Bout” to tell what happened ; it’s on Akiyo album released in 1993. Then, I became a professional singer-musician. If I was not an artist, I would have exercised a job related to nature as a farmer or cabinetmaker.

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KARICULTURE.NET : What motivates you to play regularly in the street? You consider the street as the best stage to be in contact with the public? Is it also a way for you to follow the example of the ka-master, “Vélo”, who also played in the street?

F. L. : Since 1988, I play ka in the street. Of course, that allows me to be in contact with the public. When I play ka in the street that gives me strength. When I play ka in the street that is also a kind of resistance. It is a way to perpetuate Vélo’s work, the local tradition for children who can be attracted by so many things which come from abroad. It’s a mission for me to be in the pedestrian street in Pointe-à-Pitre everyday from Monday to Saturday and in La Place de la Victoire (Victory Square) on Sunday. Moreover, I am a professional artist, I only play music to earn my living.

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KARICULTURE.NET : Gwoka music has come a long way, during these last years. In the past, gwoka was often described as a music for vagrants, the “Vyé nèg” (bad Negroes). You chose to perform this music – gwoka – how do you describe it ? When you are playing, how do you feel? What do you think about zouk artists that integrate more and more the ka into their compositions?

F. L. : People like musicians, dancers and singers have fought for this music. Before, gwoka was a “forbidden” music, we must pay tribute to the ka-masters. This music gives me spirituality, power, freedom and even it allowed me reach mystical levels. I have traveled all over the world with my ka. For me, Gwoka is a deity that gave me everything I wanted. Some artists use, with sincerity, the ka to “dress” their music. For example, Klod Kiavué introduced me to the jazzman David Murray who invited me to sing a song with him in 1997 and to accompany him with my ka on several of his jazz albums. Other artists use the ka but this is just a passing fad.

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KARICULTURE.NET : What are your subjects of inspiration? Do you think gwoka is rather an activist music, a claim music ?

F. L. : Gwoka is always there when Guadeloupe has problems. We are in a colonized country. We can sing social problems with gwoka but we can also sing joy and love. Unfortunately, some people sing “dirty things” with gwoka. I draw my inspiration from social and economic themes, from Africa, from the major powers that destroy poor countries but I can sing joy and “Bodé apiyé” (fun). I am one of the spokesmen of the people. I am a militant but I also acted by teaching ka to young people, by giving information about gwoka to the public. My song “Krack la” was chosen as a thesis theme by students of the University of Antilles-Guiana, that makes me happy. Musically, I am very open, I can perform with a zouk artist, dance hall artist etc.

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KARICULTURE.NET : When did you join Akiyo? How do you feel about this experience in this group?

F. L. : I did my “cultural service” in Akiyo. Akiyo is in search of identity, it wants Guadeloupeans become aware of problems but without being moralistic. I would never be what I am without Akiyo. Thanks to Akiyo, I took the plane for the first time to travel all over the world (US, Europe), to give concerts and to meet interesting people. Akiyo taught me pedagogy, today I do knowledge transfer. Akiyo is an institution. Often on the street, some people don’t call me by my name, they call me Akiyo ; they identify me with Akiyo and I am proud of that.

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KARICULTURE.NET : Do you think that to be a “good Guadeloupean”, you must know how to play gwoka, you must go to a “léwòz” ?

F. L. : When you know your culture, you’re upright. Even if you do not go to the “léwòz”, you must take more interest in your history and your culture. Gwoka belongs to our history with Creole language and our local food. This music helps us to resist for decades.

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KARICULTURE.NET : For a very long time, gwoka suffered from a lack of recognition from the Guadeloupeans. Since November 2014, UNESCO has listed gwoka as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity. What is your reaction about this recognition from a world authority?

F. L. : We don’t need UNESCO to recognize gwoka. Before UNESCO, people fought to promote this music. I refused to sign the petition for this recognition. UNESCO wants to own all world heritage. For me, every country should be responsible for its heritage. Before they went to UNESCO, why first, there was not an organization in Guadeloupe for this recognition?

Today, this recognition is established, we have to deal with it. It seems that there will be financial aids for gwoka actors, if that can help them, so much the better… However, UNESCO cannot dispossess us of gwoka which is the soul of our people ; it is our intangible heritage and no one can take it away from us. With simple barrels, our ancestors created this musical and spiritual instrument – the ka – which is our heritage.