What is Zouk music? A brief history

Album cover of Maldón by the band Zouk Machine
Zouk Machine: ‘Maldòn’ (1989)

An introduction to Caribbean Zouk music and where to start. (See bottom of the page for the Spotify playlist.)

What is Zouk?

First off, what does zouk actually mean? The word comes from French Antillean Creole meaning ‘to party’, and that derives from the French word ‘secouer’ meaning ‘to shake’. It’s also thought that zouk comes from the creolised version of the Polish word ‘mazurka’ (‘mazouk’) meaning ‘dance’. So, if it isn’t already clear, zouk is dance music and its origins can be traced back to a variety of Caribbean musical styles, including dancehall and folk.

Zouk really took off with the success of French Antillean band Kassav’ in the 1980s. They sung in French Creole and based their music on the Guadeloupean rhythms of the gwo ka (a large drum). They were also heavily influenced by Antillean music such as Dominican calypso, Martinique bélé and Haitian méringue (also known as compass music). Studio producers in Paris added the final touches; refining their euphoric sound and adding in bright synths.

Tunes at the ready, Kassav’ brought their fast and funky carnival rhythms to the French venues and concert halls. It was a hit and soon enough audiences worldwide were joining the zouk craze.

From its cross-continental roots in Europe, Africa and the Carribean, zouk today remains truly international music. For instance, there’s Brazilian Zouk-lambada dance style, Europe’s ‘zouk bass‘ music and we can often hear zouk-inspired synths in Congolese soukous music.

Where to start?

Zouk Machine

The all-female group from Guadeloupe flourished during the 80s and 90s and their biggest hit, the funky Malden (la musique dans la peau) (1990), sold over 1 million copies. Since then, the members have since gone on to have successful solo careers. For instance, member Joëlle Ursull was runner-up in the 1990 Eurovision Song Contest performing White and Black Blues, written by Serge Gainsbourg.

Medhy Custos

Guadeloupian singer Medhy fuses RnB, soul and reggae into perfect slow-dance songs, such as the sensual Elles Demandent. This slower style is known as zouk-love. Meanwhile, Afro-Pop number Mes Divas picks up the pace with an infectious energy and a polished production.

Kassav’

Kassav’ are the undoubted pioneers of zouk and they have released 20 albums since their formation in 1979. Big horns, ecstatic synths and fast rhythms, their high-energy music is known as zouk béton.

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