Céline, a charismatic French woman with exceptionally long hair covered by a cabby hat, greeted us warmly. Her positive energy was infectious and her openness made her easy to talk to. It was no surprise that she knew a lot of interesting people and discovered many new things. A friend of my partner’s co-worker, we were meeting her to get some advice about the island’s job market and build some networks.
At the Chapel above Fort-de-France with a striking panoramic view of the Fort, waterfront, and town centre, she told us: “La vie ici est improvisée. On ne peut pas prévoir qui on va rencontrer.” Life in Martinique is improvised; we can’t predict who we’ll meet. Then she invited us to a house where some people she had met while eating lunch at the Calvaire were. We agreed.
We met Issa, an older Martinican with no front teeth and a philosophical (inebriated? You decide) mind. He talked about Buddhist meditation (a chant you might recognize if you’ve seen What’s Love Got to Do With It?) and how following the tempo of the gong requires you to stay in the moment and go with the flow. We also chatted with Michel, a French man who had retired to Dominica. They were friendly and offered us local grapefruit juice and rum.
Just as we were discussing how to make a graceful exit, Issa asked us to follow him and led us inside.
“This is my nightmare!” I exclaimed as I started making my way down what was a few stairs followed by a single shaky wooden plank placed across a gaping hole where the rest of the staircase should be. I went anyway and we were shown to the workshop of Sully Cally—an artisan renowned for his tambour drum creations.
Issa told us that we were witnessing a piece of Martinican heritage and to ask him any questions we wanted. His drums are made from old oak rum barrels which he shapes to fit together eventually placing metal rings at the top and bottom. He wets the wood and places them over a fire which alters the molecular structure and makes it easier to manipulate the shape. He hammers rings of different sizes down the barrel until the wood is tightly squeezed and the drum is the right inverted bell shape. He then puts on the crown—a ring wrapped in liana and banana leaves. It takes him about three days and 2000 hammer strikes per piece.
It’s true that Martinique can be a difficult place for an outsider, but most places are if you don’t fit in. To really make the most of the experience here, you always have to keep an open mind and keep an eye out for the opportunities to be brought in. My partner told me that the British owner of an eco lodge he stayed at in Dominica often tells his guests not to be afraid of taking people up on offers—for example, if someone holding a machete beckons you down an alleyway to taste a fruit you should go because they likely just want to share an experience. Talking to people and seeing the authentic place is how you learn and get the most out of any travel. Sure, no one was pointing a machete at me but it’s a good reminder that you just never know.
Sully Cally is a tanbouyé, dancer, and actor and has been performing for twenty years. His creed: Preserving traditional music at all costs. He offers private lessons and hosts many soirées. Visit http://www.sully-cally.com/