One Night in Martinique

By Alexander Britell

FORT-DE-FRANCE — When you hear old biguine music on a Thursday night in Fort de France, you find yourself in a place and time you never considered.

The band had no name. Its mercurial, talented leader had none either, or so he said.

This haphazard group of friends plays each week in a tiny restaurant and bar called Le Vieux Foyal, set in a weathered building on a narrow street in Martinique’s capital.

But here, listening to the left-handed guitarist and the bongo player and the saxophonist (and the dutiful scraper), names meant nothing.

Above: Le Vieux Foyal

This was in a corner of the Caribbean far too few have traversed, set to a soundtrack of an all but forgotten time.

It was a reminder that there are still places in the Caribbean with that extra degree of romance, of the unanticipated.

In an age of high-resolution photos and all-seeing-eyes, this was something your mind could simply paint.

The singer, his name Peter, Michael, or whatever he says at that moment, began to play the flute.

Of course, there was no flute. He was miming one, and whistling, sketching the perfect sound of a flute that Telemann would envy.

Above: JP

Le Vieux Foyal is owned by JP, as he likes to be called.

JP bought the relic of a building 10 years ago and transformed it into a restaurant, managing to set up one of the few sidewalk terraces on the thin alleyways of Fort-de-France.

For him, these weekly jam sessions are simply about old chums finding a place to play.

“I buy the instruments, I put them there, then I say, ‘do what you want,” he said.

As the night passed, more players emerged.

There was the soprano saxophonist who came out of the back patio for a solo. Had she just been serving food?

At the window, from the sidewalk, a spectator shook her head back and forth to the beat of the drum.

Moments later, she was the star, grabbing the microphone and singing Summertime.

I was sitting at the bar, where a man politely excused himself to scoop some sugar to complete his Ti Punch.

I was tasting a Depaz VSOP, a less popular rum in Martinique from the base of the mont Pelee Volcano with its own special character.

It was taken simply as a rum sec, or rum neat, but it was perfect cocktail – the slow, passionate drum of biguine- the antique walls, the air of discovery.

Biguine is methodical, deliberate, but provocative.

There is the continuous metronome of the bongos, the far-off sound of the guitar, the haunting, foreign, voluptuous cry of the saxophone.

It is a sound, a scene, a moment.

I have been to the Caribbean, but this was Martinique.

 

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