The heat was my cue. It hovered in the heavy air and rose up from the concrete of the sidewalk. Fort-de-France's monster of a siesta would begin soon. I had to hurry. But I was feeling hopeful. I'd become encouraged when walking past the city's air quality gauge, a commanding tower of lights overlooking the waterfront. Owing to Martinique's dependency on cars, the gauge had been stuck on its highest and worst grade, number ten (handily subtitled très mauvais, or very poor) the day before. Today, the gauge had fallen to number nine, mauvais (just plain poor). Was this my lucky day?
While probing the island's evolving music traditions, my wife and I had thus far failed to locate what I had thought existed in Martinique: original vinyl records from the island's fertile music scene of the 60s and 70s. The period saw the island's home-spun biguine (pronounced like "begin") and mazurka, styles that had combined French ballroom music with Afro-Antillean rhythms in the nineteenth century, further mingle with West African rumba, Haitian compas, and Cuban big band. A whole ecosystem of music had blossomed in the French Antilles, right under America's chin.
My preference for vinyl was reflecting more than just an acceptance of the compromises of analog media over the compromises of digital. Some tracks on the original recordings have never been commercially converted to digital, the reissues often espousing the greatest-hits format. After having visited several of the city's music stores and finding nothing but the shine of compact discs, we kept stepping through the baguette scents billowing out of boulangeries, around the foot traffic in front of creperies with hand-painted signage, and past clothing stores with exotic English names like Look Lemon and Wall Street.
And there it was. A drawing of an LP and a CD, captioned with a few French words I didn't understand, had been posted on a wall with an arrow pointing upward. Why hadn't this store appeared in internet searches, and why hadn't any locals known about it when I'd asked them?
When we reached the top floor establishment, I found out why. It wasn't a store. It was an abundantly air-conditioned engineering studio whose services include converting vinyl to CD and mp3. (Numériser, to digitize, became my vocabulary word for the day.) Eric, the sound engineer, welcomed us in but did not know of any brick-and-mortar stores selling vinyl. The only records he sees are brought to him as private collections. "My customers generally prefer the CD, because CDs do not have the cache-cache of vinyl," he said, referring to the crackles and pops emanating from grimy, scratched up records. Leave it to the French language to offer a pretty word to describe an ugly sound.
"They also want to hear their music in the car," he said, reminding me of how much time Martinicans spend in the gummed-up traffic around Fort-de-France.
This Caribbean-bound piece of France often echoes the French mainland with its warm baguettes at sunrise, crepe kiosks, unfathomably clean public pay toilets, and a monomaniacal excess of traffic circles. But a fondness for convenient public transit has yet to make the journey across the Atlantic.
One, four, seven, repeat
Following the lead of the Martinicans, my wife and I rented a car the next day to avoid the restricted schedules of taxicos, the island's fleet of minivans acting as buses. I had initially resisted, pointing out the Martinicans' penchant for tailgating on the tight curves that follow the island's wrinkly topography. Nothing would ruin the trip more than having our tiny Volkswagen Up bumped off a switchback and into the Caribbean Sea. (House-hunting tropical fish, however, would appreciate the gesture.)
We tried not to think about that prospect as we drove around curves hugging the mountainsides, the cutting yet sweet hi-hat groove of the compas on the radio fading in and out along each turn. Compas, originally from Haiti, has eagerly bred with biguine (which has the same accented groove, but usually played on the snare) to yield zouk, a style that has replaced most live instruments with synthesizers and drum machines. We heard all the styles on the same station, the same driving rhythm—on the first, fourth, and seventh beats—uniting the clan in an audible equivalent of a family mantelpiece photo.
The fuzzy interludes from the radio would have to tie me over, because my wife had understandably grown weary of my search for the mysterious LPs. We had instead aimed for another of Martinique's cultural mélanges, its seafood tradition, a curious mixture of French and Caribbean gastronomy. The previous week, we had ganged up on conch, a flexible workhorse ingredient of Martinique's cuisine: conch fricassee, conch crepes with beurre blanc, conch raviolis in a light consommé. This afternoon, we scored with stuffed crab (the meat comically served in a plastic shell) and grilled spiny lobster in the seaside town of Les Anses-d'Arlet, capitalizing on the knowledge that the average Martinican consumes forty-nine kilograms of seafood annually. The prevalence of tiled fish-cleaning stations on the plazas of coastal towns unambiguously reflected the reality that memorable seafood is much easier to find in Martinique than out-of-print media.
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