Shak-shak is the indigenous folk music of Saint Lucia. A shak-shak is a percussion instrument and so we call the local groups who play this infectious music “shak-shak bands”. Manmay La Kay is one such group.
“Charley”, as he is affectionately known, is one of the original members of Manmay La Kay, founded in 1971 in the village of Babonneau (see our article on this community on page 31). He turned 70 this summer. “When I was a boy the music was as much a part of the community as the people. There was music while the adults worked – when they were clearing land or when pulling logs; the men would heave the logs along in time to the beat of the drum.
“Every other Sunday, in the afternoon, there would be a dance that all the children went to after they had finished their chores. Then, in the evening, it was the turn of the adults; they performed quadrille (Lucian Creole: kwadril) dances. There were four couples and each had to pay; that’s how the musicians made their money. But if someone made a mistake, they had to pay for all the couples; that’s why the dancers were accomplished. They had precision!”
COMPONENTS OF A SHAK-SHAK BAND
The lead instrument in a Lucian shak-shak band is either a violin, an accordion or a locally-made bamboo flute. There is an acoustic bass guitar and a banjo for rhythm. The Lucian shak-shak is made from a perforated, cylindrical tin, filled with a specific amount of arrowroot seeds to produce just the right tone. Locally-made drums, called “tam boo”, complete the ensemble although a cuatro (a ukulele-type instrument) can be added to the mix.
SPREADING THE MUSIC TO THE WORLD
Charley laments that the traditional folk music is not appreciated by many of today’s young islanders and he considers it his duty to maintain this part of our culture. The tunes, mainly created by Charley (who does not read music and is self-taught in harmonica, guitar, violin, banjo and keyboard), are based on French Creole music. The band has performed in many other islands, being particularly appreciated in the French ones, once securing a number one hit in Martinique. The band has won several local awards and, in 2008, the Spanish authorities invited the members to perform at Expo Zaragoza.
The shak-shak music is certainly popular with tourists. One of them was so enamoured that he enabled Manmay La Kay to play and teach at a fiddle festival in Port Townsend, Oregon, USA in 2014. “There were 60 participants at our workshops. When they played, I was in tears! This was so uplifting – to see our local music being appreciated out there in the big world,” beamed Charley. This led to the band being invited to participate in another festival in Wyoming the following year. Says Charley, “This music is our culture, our heritage; it belongs to all of us.”
HEAR MANMAY LA KAY PLAY
The band plays every Friday night at East Winds (tel. (758) 452 8212; see our article on page 46), every other Tuesday at Windjammer Villa Beach Resort (tel. (758) 456 9000) and every other Thursday at Bel Jou (tel. (758) 456 1801). You will be able to see them at various venues around the island during October when we celebrate Creole month. You can also see the band on YouTube in excerpts from a documentary about Lucian Kwadril music, The Folk Was In Me, by Nadge Frank Augustin.
Manmay La Kay
has produced four CDs, available from Charley, tel. (758) 487 8420, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
A TALE OF TWO MUSICIANS
Memories of “Topical Tourist”, a regular visitor to the island who has had the privilege of playing with Manmay La Kay.
Charley, catches my eye, indicates with his violin, and the shak-shak band slow down in unison; the Polka finishes. The guests clap appreciatively, not realising that they are witnessing an art form held only in the minds of men that will soon pass into folklore. To many guests, however, it is just another manager’s cocktail party, and there is rum, dancing and fire-eaters to follow. They start to drift away as we dust down our fiddles.
Charley looks at them, smiles ruefully, and puts his head close to mine. “It was my 70th birthday last week,” he confides, with a sense of pride.
Charley, like many Lucian musicians is humble; a retired Windward Island Gases worker and self-taught on violin. He and his band, Manmay La Kay, bring joy to many. Fiercely proud of what he does, he holds his band together financially and musically as both business manager and leader.
Over the years he has taught me the Creole music and style, often throwing a number at me “live” which I have never heard before and expecting me to pick it up and go with it. I frequently get chastised for getting it wrong; notewise the music is simple but the rhythms can be tricky . . . Charley is a mentor and friend.
Making music with Lucians is special. Their musicality, humour and pragmatism shines, and the international language of music produces long-term friends.
Charley gives me his latest CD – my homework for next time. “Watch the rhythms on track 3,” he says with a wicked smile as he leaves for his next gig, playing the Lucian national anthem at the Cultural Centre.
Another great evening in Saint Lucia!