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Biguine: The Original French Jazz?

by Amber Scurry on April 28, 2015

While jazz had a turbulent time being accepted in America in its start, France readily accepted the controversial music genre. One of the reasons for France’s interest in jazz is “Negrophilia”, a term that describes France’s obsession with everything African, particularly art[1]. While this period of interest was controversial, this period had its benefits. Black musicians could find work and not face the same discrimination that they would in America.

Negrophilia had a type of a hierarchy. France had a limited focus on African-American culture, especially in this particular case of jazz. France did not take to account other countries of the African diaspora. Because of that, France may have neglected to look at their own involvements in Africa and its other colonies, mainly though colonialization, and its various effects on those various cultures.

Did France overlook a jazz created by their own direct influence?

Biguine is a music genre that combined 19th century French ballroom music with African rhythms. Similarly to jazz, it combined aspects of European musical tradition with aspects of African musical tradition. The genre started in Martinique, a former French colony located in the Caribbean Islands. Martinique is now described as “a department of France” and it continues to have significant cultural and political ties to France. Their official head of state is the French president, and the official language is French[2]. The compositions of biguine are described as featuring a “lively 2/4 meter and an eight-bar structure” that acted as the central characteristic that displays the fusion of European and African[3].

There are various theories why biguine was overlooked in favor of jazz. One reason was a bias for American culture in France. Biguine and its performances were usually not presented with the glitz and glamour as with the case of American jazz in France. In France, American Jazz was performed in theatres, which made the music and performances more of a spectacle. A French newspaper’ reaction to jazz performer Josephine Baker’s debut in La Revue Nègre, a famous jazz show in Paris in 1925, stated “This is no woman, no dancer. It’s something as exotic and elusive as music, an embodiment of all the sounds we know”[4]. In contrast, many of the biguine performances in Martinique were much more lowbrow, with it being performed in casinos and ballrooms. This made the music more interactive, in which people could dance to it.

Despite biguine being the underdog to jazz, an aspect of it did incorporate itself into popular culture during the 1930s. The beguine, which was inspired by the music, a dance similar to the rumba, and has bolero rhythm[5][6]. The dance is described as “spirited but slow, close dance with a roll of the hips”. When the dance’s popularity spread internationally, many adaptions of the dance were created including a famous tap dancing version. That version starkly contrasts in comparison to the original. It is up for debate whether these adaptions could be seen as deviating from the original style or expanding it.

Biguine music has not been the subject of popular culture or academic writings. While scholars continue to have more of a complete view on the history of jazz and its origins, hopefully the biguine genre will get the recognition as a genre that carries similar characteristics to jazz and prevalent around the same time as the Jazz Era.

[1] Sowinska, Alicja. “Dialectics of the Banana Skirt: The Ambiguities of Josephine Baker’s Self-Representation.” 2005-2006. PDF File. 12 March 2015. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.ark5583.0019.003

[2] “Martinique”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 26 Apr. 2015 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/367084/Martinique>.

[3] Gangelhoff, Christine and Cathleen LeGrand. “Art Music by Caribbean Composers: Martinique.” The International Journal of Bahamian Studies 19.2 (2013). Web. 11 March 2015.  http://dx.doi.org/10.15362/ijbs.v19i2.198

[4] Sowinska, Alicja. “Dialectics of the Banana Skirt: The Ambiguities of Josephine Baker’s Self-Representation.” 2005-2006. PDF File. 12 March 2015. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.ark5583.0019.003

[5] “beguine.” Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 13 Mar. 2015. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/beguine>.

[6] “Beguine.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2015. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/beguine

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Tyler Fisher April 30, 2015 at 6:29 pm

This article had a lot of overlapping information that was contained within my paper, I thought that you did a good job of describing this dance form and describing the way in which it came to be. You provide good evidence that shows the way the genre came to become a part of popular culture.

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