Jérôme Camal on his book, Creolized Aurality

Interview by Sara Isabel Castro Font


Sara Isabel Castro Font: In this book you explore the sounds and practices of gwoka and how they depict the multiple and contradictory political and cultural subjectivities that characterize Guadeloupe’s postcoloniality. Throughout the book, your arguments seem to center around, or circle back to, ideas about homing and fleeing. Could you explain how these concepts were useful to move beyond dominant narratives about gwoka as a site of resistance or escaping?

Jérôme Camal: So first of all, these ideas are not mine. They come from the work of Michaeline Crichlow who you may be familiar with, who has written about what she calls post-creole. I think that’s a bit debatable whether something can be post-creole. It’s a way of engaging the dynamics of creolization into the contemporary moment and contemporary political subjectivities. What I really like about this tension between freeing and homing is that it allows for this complexity of political subjectivity or political positions for a place like Guadeloupe, which is a non-sovereign nation, a place where people have this history, this specific history of colonialism rooted in plantation economies and experiences of slavery and colonialism.  At the same time, Guadeloupe has always been France. France has always had Guadeloupe, the French republic has always included this particular territory, this particular island. It means that as much as there is, and has been a need, and there continues to be a need, for Guadeloupeans to emphasize the fact that they are different from the rest of France, there is is also equally a need for them to create a space to exist within the French state. So there’s this dual movement that I try to detail in the book between, at the same time, creating and pushing back against the narratives and the position that is assigned by the colonial state, and at the same time creating the space to be able to exist within that same state.

I think it was really important for me because the nationalist narrative and the narrative of resistance is so strong around gwoka, I wanted to acknowledge it and respect that particular narrative, but at the same time I wanted to show that even historically it was more complicated than that. That there has always been this tension, that outright resistance was never completely possible. Guadeloupe is a small place, so yes there was some maroon communities in Guadeloupe but they were not dominant in the way they could be in places like in Suriname, or in Guyana, or even Jamaica for that matter. So whatever resistance could take place in Guadeloupe was happening at what Michel Ralph Trouillot would call, the margins of the plantations but never completely outside of it. So it was always a site of negotiation even during the periods of slavery, between the limits that were placed on freedom and the efforts to carve out some amounts of freedom and to create, to own space in the plantation or at least in the margins of it.

Sara Isabel Castro Font: Chapter 1 analyzes the emergence of gwoka at the margins of the plantation system, and chapter 2 talks about how gwoka was taken up again in the anti-colonial activists’ project in the 1960’s. In particular, you analyze Lockel’s gwoka modènn as part of an effort to reinvent Guadeloupean culture and remake its society. These two chapters naturally delve into the tensions between racial and class solidarity that characterize the emergence and evolution of gwoka. I wonder if these tensions continue to play a role in current political projects and ideologies surrounding gwoka, or forms of cultural expression more broadly? 

Jérôme Camal: Yeah, I think so although it’s difficult because I think there’s two dynamics that makes answering this question for today and for Guadeloupe a bit more complicated. One of them is that we are dealing with a French territory. France has a very complicated, if I may want to use a euphemism, relationship to addressing race. There seems to be a set of blindspots there and French scholarship for example, struggles with real engagement with race and racism. That means that it’s not always easy to talk about these things with people even in the context of doing fieldwork.  There is not a habit like you would have in the U.S. where you could engage in these conversations easily because (especially now in the current moment) people talk about things like systemic racism, anti-blackness, and things like that, that becomes part of the popular consciousness. It’s changing but it’s not necessarily the same within France, and this includes the overseas territories.

On top of that you have a place that has been defined by complex racial categories that don’t map perfectly onto this sort of binary that is more common to the United States. So, and maybe this is also my own blindspot, I never really ask people how they would position themselves racially. The people use all kinds of ways of defining themselves and each other in terms of skin color, eye color, hair texture, and things like but it’s not just black and white, there’s a whole gradation of different racial and ethnic categories that people use. Now this being said, there are different ways – and I deal with this a little bit in chapter 4 – there is a tension that I see between the different ways of understanding the relationship to the African heritage in Guadeloupe and in gwoka. There are ways of contextualizing gwoka that will really emphasize the fact that it is a Caribbean adaptation of west African traditions and that will emphasize the roots of the music in west Africa. And then there are ways people can understand themselves through the lens of creolization as a creole society, which puts this sort of moment of creation on the plantation rather than prior to the middle passage in Africa. This entails different positionings regarding colonial history and regarding the French state as well. It’s this complicated dance between different positions that can be deployed strategically at times by different people, almost systematically, in a more rigid ideological frame. So you have people in Guadeloupe that would define themselves through the lens of Afrocentrism, and there are some people who embrace ideas that are very close to Afrocentric ideas without necessarily defining themselves as Afrocentric. You also have people who would think of themselves as Guadeloupeans first (“we’re Guadeloupeans, we’re not Africans, we’re not creole, we’re Guadeloupean and our music is Guadeloupean and what we need is this affirmation of Guadeloupean nationality”). Then there are a few who consider all this to be part of creole societies more broadly or Caribbean societies. All of these are different kind of social and racial frames in which people position themselves.

Sara Isabel Castro Font: Chapters 3-5 neatly illuminate the complex ambiguities and ambivalences that characterize how Guadeloupeans position themselves and their music vis-à-vis the French state. Chapter 3 conceptualizes creolization as a synthesis between cosmopolitanism and nationalism, and examines how musicians in Paris use gwoka as both tactics of resistance and accommodation. Chapter 4 examines how jazz ka (merging gwoka and jazz) articulates new forms of cultural and political belonging, and chapter 5 examines postnationalist strategies to create alternative forms of governance and belonging. Throughout, I was intrigued by the way you challenge the conceptual separations of nationalism, creolization, and diaspora by drawing from Glissant’s concepts of traces, opacity, and abyss. Could you speak more about how these terms help to understand the ambiguities and ambivalences that characterize Guadeloupean post-coloniality? Have you developed any of these ideas further in subsequent works?

Jérôme Camal: I’m in the middle of doing that. So first I should say that there are few people in Guadeloupe who embrace Glissant. He is not someone whose writings Guadeloupeans recognize themselves in. I’ve been told, by some of the more tolerant folks that I’ve worked with, that it’s great but it’s about Martinique, it’s not about Guadeloupe. So there’s a bit of tension in my reliance on Glissant as much as I do. For me it’s been a very, and continues to be, a very influential source of ideas, someone that I think with and through a lot, and sometimes I think against; but that is always there as a kind of guide for the research that I want to do both in terms of analytics and giving me vocabulary to think with, concepts to think with, but also in terms of ethics. If we think about the Poetics of Relation as a sort of ethics, as a way of understanding one’s position in the world and one’s relation to others, and especially for us as anthropologists, then what does it mean to take seriously Glissant’s demand? How do we make sense of that and how do we integrate it in our work?

It’s going to be hard for me to answer this succinctly, but what I can say is that the idea of the abyss, which is developed in that absolutely wonderful opening chapter to Poetics of Relation (in English I think “The Open Boat”), and in which you see Glissant identifying the middle passage as that point of entanglement from which the Poetics of Relation grew. So this is the middle passage as the point of entanglement and the starting point for what we can call a counternarrative of modernity. In that chapter, Glissant uses “nous” in French or “we” in English. There’s an ambiguity. Who does it actually describe? Who is this “we”? And as a French and White person, I read this as a sort of challenge to think about how I am caught into this. To what degree is someone like me implicated in this “we” and if so, in what ways? Obviously my ancestors did not go through the middle passage, yet as a French person it is impossible for me to completely separate myself from the history of colonialism and slavery. I am a product of that history – in different ways but as much as the people of Guadeloupe. I am completely entangled with this. My existence is a product of that. So I did not necessarily have the same immediate affective response to that history as someone who is Afro descendant would have, but I cannot ignore it altogether. For Glissant, the abyss is at the same time a rupture and a starting point for new modes of relations. And I think this for myself (as a White French citizen, American academic) an invitation to really consider my participation in these poetics of relation.

Opacity, I see it as a complementary tool to understand and to think about the limits of what this entanglement actually means. It goes back to what I was saying about the fact that I’m implicated into this history, at the same time I can never relate to it in exactly the same way as someone who is the product of that history through different family connections. This being said, opacity for Glissant is very complex. There’s a quality of it that, I think, there’s the incapacity to fully understand the Other, there’s this nature that opacity sort of protects within the Poetics of Relation; as much as we are always in contact with other people, we exist by differentiating our identities, one exists by differentiating oneself from others in these processes of relations, of exchanges. Opacity is sort of this system of protection against this irreducible core of who the person is. But that also means that there is something about ourselves that escapes us, that we are never fully aware of, and that sometimes surfaces.

As we are doing research on these questions about postcoloniality as an embodied experience, which is what I research now, or postcoloniality as a historical process, there are always going to be these things that we can never quite touch, regardless of where we are placed within these relations. So I think it’s really important that we both consider the poetics of relations of the things that implicate us together and inscribe into a longer colonial and postcolonial history, and then the things that allow for us to maintain a certain integrity about who we are; so both what brings us together and what allows us to still exist.  This is not in a melting pot, but in maintaining integrity for who we are and what we know; and also maintain a part of mystery too. This is what is poetic about the Poetics of Relations. There is something that is never quite graspable, that is never quite describable, but will always exist in this realm of what is intuitive and felt, more than understood.

I started a new project which is really a continuation of what I’ve been doing. I’m working with mostly Guadeloupean and some of the Martiniquean migrants in France mostly in and around Paris. I’m looking at how they use gwoka dancing, especially dancing, not so much music making, as a way to negotiate their position as postcolonial citizens of France and at how music and dance allow them to both maintain ties with the Antilles but also home the context of the French Republic. You can see why things like opacity would become really important because even though I am dancing alongside Guadeloupean migrants, we are experiencing kinesthetically (our bodies are moving together, we are experiencing efforts, we are literally sweating together, we are experiencing some of the same sensations in our body). That does not necessarily mean that these translations are going to have the same affective resonance for all of us, yes to some degree, but only to some degree. So this is where opacity again comes into play. I can be deeply moved by a song and having to dance to a song that celebrates those people who were lost during the middle passage or died on the planation. If it’s moving to me and it helps me sort of have an affective experience of what really is meant, but at the same time, although it is moving for me, it doesn’t have the same resonance as someone for whom we could be talking about their great grandparents. So this is where opacity again comes into play, we share these experiences both kinesthetically, and to some degree affectively, in the context of the dance, but there’s always going to be a limit to what those shared experiences are and how they translate across from one person to another.

Sara Isabel Castro Font: In various parts of the book you include reflections about your own positionality as a White French citizen and a U.S. academic and professional jazz player, which seems to be entangled as well in the post-coloniality of Guadeloupe.  What does it mean for you as French scholar trained in the US to conduct research in Guadeloupe? How do you think your social, cultural, and academic background affect your work? How did you navigate the multiple positions you held during fieldwork, not just as an academic but also as a musician?

Jérôme Camal: I came to Guadeloupe wanting to study the intersection of jazz and traditional music. So I arrived in Guadeloupe with this sort of persona that was constructed around the fact that I was a professional jazz musician, and I was coming from the United States. I think that came to define how many people within the gwoka community saw me because I was French but I was coming from the U.S. and I was performing American jazz; so that really shaped my early encounters with people. I think to some degree allowed for some conversations to happen with certain separatist activists who may not have been as open to speaking to a French person directly. I think my training in the U.S. has already been, and all the more know, as I mentioned a little bit earlier, in the U.S. there is a facility with dealing with both colonial history, postcolonial theory, and race that has given us a lot of vocabulary to deal with these things and an openness to talk about these issues. This sometimes in my conversations with people in Guadeloupe or with migrants in France can be validating. I have a vocabulary, I have a sort of openness to considering talking about racism, the experience of racism, and about the colonial heritage of France that is not yet widespread in France; so that makes our conversations easier. At the same time, how people read my body does put some limits on access. There are people who consistently refused to talk to me and it becomes a complicated dance, if I may. When I enter a dance for example, I find myself as the only white man in a group that is mostly Caribbean women with a few, if any, Caribbean men in the group. So my body stands out, how people relate to it is complicated. Oftentimes my gender is more often commented on much more than my race, my skin color, because dance spaces, especially with gwoka, are mostly female spaces. The fact that a man is actually learning to dance is commented upon and made fun of. I don’t think it’s ever provoked discomfort that I could feel, but maybe I am wrong about that. It also is impacting the reception of my work back in the U.S. where there’s a great sensitivity to issues of positionality. Of course I have to be careful to define my position when I engage with my work and present my work to American audiences.  It could be easy to dismiss what I do based on the fact that I’m a white guy — how could I possibly understand? So we’re back to these ideas from the Poetics of Relation and ideas of opacity. I think for us as anthropologists, especially in this moment when there are increased calls to decolonize the discipline, we need to not shy away from the complexity of our positions. These are things that Faye Harrison was already saying late 1980’s and early 1990’s. We should see both the limits and opportunities that different social positions in training create for us as anthropologists and know what that means for our work.  We should consider how we can ethically continue to conduct the work that we do, the politics of the work that we do, and build from that, rather than seeing it simply as only limits or disqualifying characteristics.

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