Santiman et lokans dans le Gwoka. Deux esthétiques musicales inhérentes à l’histoire de la Guadeloupe

Book review by Mame Sène, Université des Antilles

Since Gwoka, music, song, dance, and cultural practices representative of the Guadeloupean identity was listed as an intangible cultural heritage of Humanity by Unesco on November 26, 2014, few books have been written on this art form. But no doctoral thesis had been written yet as mentioned in the Preface of the book by Bertrand Dicale, the well-known music critic.
As specified by the author (Gino Sitson) in his foreword, the book “draws its source from his doctoral thesis in musicology and is situated at the crossroads of cognitive sciences and the history of music, more precisely Gwoka”.

Gino Sitson (aka Pierre-Eugène Sitchet) earned a Ph.D. in musicology at the Paris-Sorbonne University. He is a vocalist, composer (eight solo albums), and researcher in musicology. His work focuses on music cognition, expressive properties of the voice, and the process of transmitting music from the “black” diaspora. Among them, he is particularly interested in Gwoka music from Guadeloupe. His book introduces us to two musical aesthetics: Santiman (feeling) and Lokans, which account for the way the people of Guadeloupe bring an esthetical judgment on the singing of the singers of Gwoka. This is the main thesis that the author offers to develop in his reflection.

The book’s front cover draws our attention to the painting of a renowned painter of Guadeloupe, Joel Nankin. Its rich and vivid hues of blue, orange, black, and brown, compounded with different faces, invite the reader to delve into this artistic exploration. There are some drums representing the Ka percussion instrument which is the basis of Gwoka music. The back cover with a synopsis and cursory information on the concepts of“Santiman” and “Lokans” specifies the epistemological range of the study: the field of musical semiology. These two words are loaded with extreme semantic complexity.

To support his thesis, Sitson states that they are the “fruits of a long ancestral tradition” and that somewhere “between historic facts and musical grammar understanding, these pages are highlighting the interest to analyze the peripheral elements around the music and show the sophistication of aurality in the tryptic of singing, dance, and drums of Gwoka music”. Presented as such, we expect a dense communication of information regarding the topic of the book. And this is the first thing that attracts our attention as we finally open the book. From the opening pages until its ending ones, Gino Sitson provides insight into the history of Gwoka encompassing the eponymous dance, music, and aesthetics. Although his presentation is supported by incredibly detailed and rich historical writings of different missionaries like Jean-Baptise Labat, or Jean-Baptiste Tertre, we sometimes are lost in the flow of information that the author tries to share.

The historical contextualization is appreciable, yet we cannot help but wonder throughout our reading about the purpose of some paragraphs which repeat the same idea. For example, we ask ourselves if it was necessary to have so many testimonies of different missionaries. Too much clumsily introduced information kills the purpose of the book. However, its strengths lay in the rich historical depth and biographical extent of Gwoka from slavery to his abolition. Forty pages out of a sixty-four-page book – without counting the preface, the preamble, annexes and bibliography, the author’s will, and the historical elements concerning the birth of the Gwoka – cover diversified topics, like the Creole language and the phenomenon of creolization.

Regarding these two points, Sitson, tells us in his preamble that he will explain ‘’ in a historical point of view how Gwoka is interconnected with the diverse African traditional music that was introduced with the first slave ships, so it means for the author to study the creolization in the Creole language and in the music itself. Our favorite part is the discussion about the way Gwoka may have been created: Gwoka comes from the process of creolization in which the music of the slaves played a key role. According to the author, in Guadeloupe, different traditional music coming from distinctive African ethnic groups have been in contact. This ethnolinguistic/esthetic interaction formed the phenomenon of creolization.

But what we found stimulating in Sitson’s reflection, is the idea that creolization started on the slave ships. How so? The fact that Africans were singing on the ship night and day, singing for them was a way to communicate with each other. People were separated, and they did not see each other, because the sound produced by their songs traveled through any walls, or barriers that could prevent them from hearing each other. Singing became a powerful tool to communicate, for example, the destination of a ship, or if someone wanted to find a member of his family, or able them to identify people from the same village. The Africans were singing in their different languages, so upon arriving in Guadeloupe the phenomenon of creolization was already established. They had already created a common identity on the ship. This new common identity may have “helped the creation of a language creolized and a musical culture nourished with interethnic singings”.

Looking for “Santiman” and “Lokans’’ in contemporary Gwoka, Gino Sitson makes the hypothesis that these two aesthetic values are associated with voicing. This vibratory phenomenon, specific to vocal cords, has the effect of accentuating certain vibrations during the performance of the song. Likewise, nasality aims to create empathy and captivate the audience.”

The author reiterates the complexity of the semantics of these two notions and adds that they aren’t only a technical analysis of the voice based on “measurable and quantifiable characteristics’’. Therefore, to have a complete definition of these two terms, the history of Gwoka and the philosophical/psychological aspects must be considered. Sitson will argue with his theory by explaining the word “Santiman”.

First, by clarifying three major concepts of the cognitive sciences: affect, emotion, and sentiment He will present the theories established by philosophers such as Spinoza or Deleuze. What we learn is that “affect” has the power to change our mental and physical capacities. Sitson makes an interesting correlation with Gwoka: according to him, the affect in Gwoka corresponds to the way the singer affects the audience with the power of his voice and the way the audience is affected by the singer which gives encouragement to the singer “to increase his power of singing”. About the notions of Emotion and Sentiment, the author tells us that these two words are often mixed. The author’s conclusion is that the sentiment of joy or sadness felt by the audience, and musicians comes after the emotional states, which is more a physical and mental reaction, provoked by Gwoka. Finally, Santiman expresses any kind of feeling. Music, “language of sentiments is expressing sentiments in diverse ways. For the Gwoka, Sitson calls it the language of “Santiman,” meaning the essence of the sentiments. ‘’Santiman” is the capacity of the singer to express his sensibility. And what about “Lokans’’? The author explains that it is the elocution, the way the singer is going to interact with the audience, at this moment the singer becomes a storyteller, and his dexterity of improvisation and playing with the public is a main point in the interaction and communication with the audience.

There are many points, and ideas that have been developed by Gino Sitson in his book. Although we understand the thesis, we still have many questions about how the topic and the arguments are brought to our attention. At times, the author’s thesis is difficult to follow, and even confusing because, as we said earlier, of the lengthy and repetitive ideas that are awkwardly conducted. Despite this, the author introduces us to a new perspective, a new interpretation of Gwoka Music. A refreshing angle to apprehend the role of the singer and the singing in Gwoka music, which is based on two memorable notions: Santiman and Lokans.