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Callaloo 25.2 (2002) 701-705
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Recontextualization, A Caribbean Legacy
Berrian, Brenda F. Awakening Spaces: French Caribbean Popular Songs, Music, and Culture. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Brenda Berrian's Awakening Spaces: French Caribbean Popular Songs, Music, and Culture is an important contribution to the body of scholarly studies of French Caribbean culture. Berrian's central theme taps into the process of reconceptualization that is fundamental to Caribbean reality. She reminds us that, "The pride in being a French Caribbean and the crafting of songs are linked in an emphasis on memory inside a recontextualized space" (205). This recontextualized space travels between mainland France and its departments Guadeloupe and Martinique, not only interstitially but inclusively. Through writing and performing contemporary life French Caribbean peoples engage in remembering the past and forging a future in which they are active participants of French and Caribbean cultural production. The concept of recontextualization allows Berrian to weave the multiple, and often conflicting, threads that shape French Caribbean history into a constructive narrative of continuity, resistance, and, most importantly, reconceptualization of French Caribbean identity. Specifically, she "focuses on how vocalists, songwriters, and musicians from Martinique (and sometimes Guadeloupe) have treated the themes of empowerment and identity" (1). But her project succeeds in accomplishing much more than the study of the French Caribbean's musical history between 1970 and 1996; in addition, it offers a thoughtful analysis of the links between politics, literature, and culture of the region.
Awakening Spaces deserves to be read along with other classics such as Bernabé, Chamoiseau, and Confiant's Éloge de la créolité, Gratiant's Fables créoles et autres écrits, Aimé Césaire's Retour au pays natal, Glissant's Discours Antillais, and Fanon's Peau noire, masques blancs. Berrian's text forces us to think beyond the land of origin and into the future where she signals a new-found cultural agency based on multiple spaces that awaken possibilities. She takes the reader on a journey where language and music [End Page 701] have the power to transform not only people's roles in life, but the perception of their lives, as well. By looking carefully at Creole lyrics and translating them, she engages with the éloge writers' belief that "Creoleness is about belonging to an original human entity which comes out of a process." (Éloge de la créolité, 92). This process is one of violent interactions between the Americas, Africa, and Europe. According to the éloge writers, Creolization is a result of tense interactions and survival from plantation dynamics, where language, race, religions, food, and medical practices mixed. Particularly, the Creole language came into being out of a need to communicate. Displaced groups from different areas in Africa had to follow commands in their masters' French without ever having learned it; survival meant figuring it out in some way. Creole therefore was (and is) predominantly oral. Creole is the space in which tradition, memory, and history are passed on throughout the generations. But Creole is no longer only a language of resistance and survival, it is an authentic living language that is finding its way to "legitimized" written form (in official texts and as a nationalized language in Haiti, for example), and back to oral transmission via music. As Gratiant says, "Par un juste retour des choses, l'écriture créole fonde son rayonnement sur la transmission orale." (By a twist of fate, the blossoming of Creole writing is founded on oral inheritance, my loose translation. The original has a poetic quality with more emphasis on the return of the repressed that I found hard to capture in English [Fables créoles, 23].) Creole is the basis of major, internationally acclaimed literary texts such as Patrick Chamoiseau's Texaco; Creoleness is a central way of being and living for French Caribbean Communities. Consequently, the process of interaction Berrian describes is one of a new intermixing, where Creole is a strong, positive marker of various regional histories. This is a history that is shaped by plantation culture and the more recent...