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Latin American Music Review 22.1 (2001) 31-47

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New Music and New Identities in the Guianas

Kenneth Bilby



On the northeastern coast of South America in Suriname and French Guiana, live six Maroon peoples--the Saramaka, Ndyuka, Paramaka, Aluku, Matawai, and Kwinti. Descended from enslaved Africans who escaped Dutch plantations during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, until recently they have remained relatively isolated in the interior rain forests.

When Melville Herskovits made his first field trip to the Saramaka Maroon territory in 1928, the Surinamese Maroons were recognized as the custodians of the most African cultures and musics to have survived in the Americas (Herskovits and Herskovits 1934; Herskovits and Herskovits 1936; Kolinski 1936). The same is still largely true today. The profoundly African musics encountered by Herskovits and other visitors of that era--genres such as sêkêti, awasa, susa, papa, and kumanti--are still very much alive, and remain as indispensable as ever to the social contexts and events with which they are associated.

But much has changed since the 1920s in music as in other spheres. Among the newer musical developments is a hybrid genre known as aleke, which emerged but a few decades ago and has since risen to become the most popular Maroon music among the young. Aleke is an intriguing example of a music that cannot be neatly categorized as either "traditional" or "popular," but rather is situated at the intersection of the two.

Maroon musical traditions in general, like other aspects of Maroon culture, have always shown a remarkable degree of internal dynamism (Price and Price 1980; Price and Price 1999, 237-308). But aleke has been especially dynamic. As a style born out of interaction between Maroons and non-Maroons, it has always occupied an ambiguous, borderline social space, and has been more open than most styles to conscious experimentation and change. It has always been primarily a music for the young. Over the [End Page 31] years it has come to embody and express a number of opposing themes in contemporary Maroon social life--tradition versus modernity; continuity versus change; young versus old; inside versus outside; cultural similarity versus cultural difference. Because of its ability to mediate and bridge these oppositions, aleke has been particularly sensitive to shifts in social boundaries, and has often served as a vehicle for the expression of new forms of identity.

In this article I will briefly describe some of the different settings with which aleke has been associated, and some of the different ways in which it has been implicated over time in processes of identity formation. I will begin by briefly sketching the circumstances surrounding the emergence of this new Maroon music, and will move from there to a discussion of the transitions it has undergone. 1

The Origins and Growth of Aleke

In the late nineteenth century, when gold was first discovered in the interior of French Guiana and Suriname, large numbers of gold prospectors arrived in the Ndyuka and Aluku (Boni) territories; on the heels of the gold rush came a further influx of balata bleeders. Among these migrant laborers were many African-descended Creoles from the Lesser Antilles, coastal Suriname, and neighboring French Guiana. As part of a pattern of exchanges that developed out of this encounter, the Creole prospectors welcomed Maroons to their nightly festivities, which often featured Creole drumming and dance styles such as kawina, ladja, and cassé-cô (Ijzermans 1987, 50-2, 57-8). 2 Since these Creole styles were derived in part from African sources, they were not entirely foreign to Maroon ears, and Maroon drummers were quick to learn them. Some Maroons also tried their hands at the European novelties introduced by Creoles, such as the clarinet and concertina. These musical exchanges continued into the next century. 3

The paths of development leading from these early musical encounters to the aleke phenomenon of today, and the various stylistic transformations entailed, were complex and convoluted. Present-day oral accounts of how this process occurred vary considerably, although there is general agreement...