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Riffing On the Tradition: Festival de la Clarinette

This weekend has seen the realization of a long-time personal goal to perform in Martinique, where I participated in the 26th annual "Festival de la Clarinette."

One of the many parallels between the cultures of Martinique and New Orleans is the prominence of the clarinet in their respective music traditions. Creole clarinetists from the islands were active performing and recording buoyant "Biguines," waltzes and mazurkas in Paris during the same period that Creole clarinetists from the Crescent City were making early jazz history with composers such as Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, and Noble Sissle.

Also, like New Orleans, Martinique's traditional music is currently undergoing a second revival of sorts. But, here there is a distinct difference. The popularity of traditional New Orleans music is largely the result of marketing, whereas the French actually have many different cultural organizations working to safeguard aspects of Caribbean heritage.

Anyone who has read a few of my posts knows that I harbor little enthusiasm for the ways in which the New Orleans tourism machine treats our traditions. Their parodies of Mardi Gras parades at conventions, recycled hackneyed images of musicians in print and television advertising, and next to nothing done to develop or build cultural infrastructure continue to put most of the burden on us, the cultural workers, to determine our music's value and meaning.

On the other hand, this charming festival targets the enthusiasm of the local population instead of visitors. November is not high season here for tourism, and for better or worse, from what I understand, Martinique isn't as "tourist-friendly" as St. Lucia or Guadeloupe.

One reason, perhaps, is that Martinique has historically been more important for the commercial activity in the port of its capital, Fort-de-France. This was in evidence during the short 10-mile drive from our hotel (more of a business center/dormitory), to the festival venue in a nearby suburb called Lamentin. The highway resembled a commercial business loop in Texas more than a tropical paradise, with the same furniture retailers and car dealerships that one sees in the industrial zones outside of Paris.

At any rate, the opening concert of the festival was my inspiration for this post. Tell me if this doesn't seem like something we could achieve at home if the right people worked together?

In Lamentin's small 250-seat cultural center, my band and the other invited musicians of the festival had front-row seats for a concert of more than 50 clarinet and saxophone students between the ages of 6 and 60.

The best selections involved the entire group, but their teacher, clarinetist Gustave Francisque, proudly featured many students in short solos and duets with rhythm accompaniment of piano, bass, drums, and percussion. The best part was that most of these features used traditional songs from Martinique and the pedagogy clearly emphasized their particular approach to the instrument that is to my ear a not-too-distant cousin to the New Orleans clarinet style.

Among the duet features, the most poignant were the parent and child and even grandparent and child pairings. As you can imagine, these brave mothers and fathers appeared far more nervous on stage than their kids. Also, several young musicians received awards for their progress and, besides the accompanying musicians, a few numbers featured local professional singers. Lastly, there was even a visual art component, with locally produced works featuring, in varying degrees of abstraction, clarinets and musicians.

This formula of generating interest in music by emphasizing traditional repertoire, involvement across generations, celebrating excellence, and using professionals in the community and community performance spaces as resources seems totally feasible for us. Thankfully, New Orleans isn't like other places.

So, what do you say? Let's get some cork grease and put the pieces together.

Evan Christopher, a noted member of the New Orleans music community, writes “Riffing on the Tradition” for NolaVie. His columns also are archived at Clarinet Road.com.

Evan Christopher is a noted member of the New Orleans music community and advocates for the cultural workforce. Click here for his performance schedule. He writes MAC-Notes for NolaVie. Email him with your comments about cultural issues, particularly in the music world, at [email protected]