Gordon Henderson was born in Dominica, which is a small island located between Martinique and Guadeloupe (see the map at Appendix A). You can even see Martinique and Guadeloupe from the two opposing sides of Dominica, since it is located around 20 nautical miles from these islands (travel time is minuscule by small airplane). The official language is English. When he was a child, the population was only around 40,000 (it almost doubled by now – 71,293 at the 2011 census).
There were many foreign musical influences, primarily from the radio which was the main link to the broader outside world. These are music from the U.S., the U.K., from the more developed Antilles islands like Trinidad and Tobago, or Jamaica; in rock and roll, funk, pop, soul, calypso, reaggie genres. As a result, these played a huge rule in Gordon’s musical progression.
His early years
He went to a private Roman Catholic U.S. high school run by religious brothers, and Gordon’s interest in music was not appreciated by the principal:
you should not waste your time with guitar like Gordon Henderson does
– he told to the other students. However, Gordon wanted to show that you can build an industry from entertainment culture, by making music.
Generally, the artistic side is rarely supported, nor respected in African countries as well, thereby losing a lot of talent early on. The parents incentive their children to become engineers, lawyers, or economists etc. to be able to make a living, to raise a family. Being a musician means, you weren’t good enough to be a 9-5 corporate guy (remarked by the host, Rui Djassi Moracén).
Gordon said that it is indeed applies for Dominica as well. Being a musician means:
- You can’t do anything else, are retarded in terms of your intellect
- You are lazy and not very ambitious, are a bohemian person
Gordon told to one of his friends that he wanted to make a living from music, and the response was:
Boy, you have big ideas,
meaning you must be crazy, you are nuts!
The beginnings: Voltage 4
Gordon founded the band Voltage 4, had a stable life with a decent job that was enough to make a living, but he was invited to eventually become the anglophone singer of the Les Vikings de la Guadeloupe band. An old creole singer of the Vikings told Gordon, who was in Guadeloupe at the moment (again, the distances are very small), that someone want to do a recording, and Gordon agreed to write the lyrics and sing the song. At that time, everyone recorded their music at once, and the Vikings band was there and was so impressed by Gordon’s skills that the band members asked him if he wanted be part of the band and sing for them. He accepted the offer.
A new chapter: Les Vikings de la Guadeloupe (1970-73)
This influential and popular band can be considered a predecessor of Kassav (Pierre-Eduard Decimus left the band to create Kassav in 1979). Note that there are two other bands with the name Vikings (Les Vikings de la Martinique and Les Vikings d’Haiti). Les Vikings de la Guadeloupe is primarily a dance band, and it mainly played kadans / konpa (Haitian music), which was wildly popular in the region.
Guadeloupe, which is actually two main islands (with a lot of smaller islands of course) with a butterfly-like shape, is a much larger country and its higher population afforded to have a rich carnival life with a lot of opportunity for the numerous bands to perform: even 3-4 times a week, day and night! People danced a lot, particularly in the summer, and preferred kadans/konpa.
The bands were playing a wide variety of genres like salsa, reaggie, kadans, and they even had French, creole and Spanish-speaking singers.
In stark contrast to Dominica, where the music bands are mainly doing concerts for much smaller audiences just to listen to, to entertain.
The repertoire of the Les Vikings was varied in tempo and genre, but they played 75-80% music originated from Haiti ( konpa, kadans), which was the most popular, and is very danceable too. As for the rest, they played salsa, rock, reaggie and soul as well. (The local music types like gwo-ka (Guadeloupe) and biguine (originates from Martinique) were not the favourites of the audience.)
The konpa in the Antilles was not a complete, 100% replica of the one from Haiti, but rather decent approximations with some local musical flavoring of the various islands. However, there was no hybridization, nor fusion in that time, because the collective paradigm back then was to respect genres, and everybody empathized that this is MY MUSIC, this is Jamaica’s and so on to make a proper distinction.
Les Vikings de la Guadeloupe – Contestation (cadence-lypso, around 1974-78)
Les Vikings de la Guadeloupe – Ahi na’ ma (cadence-lypso, very fast, 1977)
Les Vikings de la Guadeloupe – Dégagez (a very typical cadence-lypso song, 1977)
Les Vikings de la Guadeloupe – Zagalakateleman (1981, partially cadence-lypso, very funky song with deep bass guitar in the background, saxophone in the foreground, trumpets. The bass guitar has a similarity to a Kassav song released in 1979.)
Les Vikings de la Guadeloupe – Mikolasie (kadance-zouk mixture, but mainly zouk, 1985)
Les Vikings de la Guadeloupe – Let’s Stay up Vikings (bossa nova) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRZi60l8KfA
Exile One: The birth of Cadence-Lypso
In 1973, he left the Vikings and founded his own band called Exile One with Dominican musicians.
Gordon always wanted to do some own recordings (mainly soul music and calypso) and encouraged the Debs label to try to make a single record (Henry Debs was one of the biggest producers in the region). It is called “Love”, and it worked beyond expectations: it became popular in South America, was a mini hit in Suriname (former colony of the Holland), and later in Holland. They released a second single (“Pin of Love”) with similar reception.
Finally, he was offered a record contract to make a whole album. However, he choose his own band instead of the Vikings, because the Vikings did not have enough experience in making soul music, not specialized in it.
The first album with Exile One was soul and afro-pop, and became a mini-hit in Guadeloupe. The band was influenced by the music of Osibisa (a London-based band with some members from Ghana and the Caribbean) at the period of black power movements.
Cadence-lypso happened by sheer accident. A dance promoter saw Exile One performing in a club when their songs were hits in the radios. He was impressed, and invited them to perform at a dance club in Paris. Gordon’s band performed all of their funky songs, people applauded, but did not dance. After a while, the promoter approached Gordon and told him that he must do something, the people wouldn’t be that tolerant much longer. So, Gordon discussed with the members that these party people liked konpa and we are calypso, so let us “creolize” the repertoire with konpa. After starting playing konpa music (in their interpretation of it), the crowd started to shout and move their bodies.
A record producer witnessed and heard the songs, and he instantly offered a record contract. At the studio Gordon tried to explain that he just tried to save the day, but the producer insisted to make the album regardless. Gordon wanted to do it with English lyrics (thinking he can penetrate a broader market), but the producer insisted having creole lyrics. They agreed that the producer pays him double: for an English and a creole lyrics album.
The latter version became instant hit and had a worldwide impact. The Exile One members were surprised with the success of their album. Henry Debs immediately wanted to make a new cadence-lypso album which was made in a short time afterward.
The July 1979 issue of the Bill Board magazine wrote an article about African music having included Exile One in France and mentioning that the album on Debs label had 70,000 copies sold, penetrated even Jamaica (it is hard for the smaller islands to do so) and Columbia as well.
One day, when they decided to add a full horn section to their music, a musician with the name Franky Jay came unannounced (and uninvited) from Trinidad to Guadeloupe and wanted to become member of Exile One after he heard about them. The band auditioned him and took him in afterwards.
A movement began, because people mainy Martinique and Guadeloupe, where the studios were located, didn’t realize how cadence-lypso came about. They thought it was Domincan music. Dominican musitians started it, but it began in diaspora. Since the producers and promoters didn’t know that, they went to Dominica, but the local artists didn’t know what cadence-lypso was: they played the usual funk, reggae songs. No, no, we don’t want that, play like this.
The songs were very varied, a broad spectrum exists inside cadence-lypso (slow, medium, fast) with different energy and dosage of instruments. Exile One did not document the formula on the paper, rather their laboratory was the dance hall. When the band played a new song, thet noticed by the reaction of the audience to what is appealing to them. To put in other words, their audience was their baromenter. So, they know how to arrange the song the people would like it. With a lot of experimentation.
Exile One – Jamais voir ça 1975 (calypso with reggae) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TypLogzeRv4
The above song was actually translated into Portugues reworked by Carlos Santos, and became a hit in Brazil with 3 million copies sold.
Exile One – Cadence Lypso (1976, cadence-lypso, fast) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=endy6ZUICLA
Exile One – Torti (cadence-lypso, slow with twoubadou-like beats. The flute is also used in some twoubadou tracks.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGChmLkLUEM
Exile One – Fraîche (a zouk song from 1987) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyvHht_Dc5Y
Exile One moved to France (1975), international tours
Exile One was invited to France to sign a record contract with Barclays Records. The received two offers: one from Phillips and one from the French Barclays. Gordon’s preference was Phillips because it was a larger, more international company, but the CEO of Phillips was kidnapped for 2 weeks, so they sign the contract with Eddy Barclay because they couldn’t wait. So, they were kept in France, but toured around the world (in Africa, in the Caribbean, in Europe) considerable. As a sidenote, Gordon described Barclay to be a very flamboyant guy, having married 9 times with some noteable women.“What a wonderful playboy to emulate,” Gordon added, but he actually married only once.
Barclay had distributed a song from Tabou Combo (the famous New York City single), for that Haiti (the Duvalliers dynasty) made him some kind of ambassador. Through Barclay, Exile One was invited to Haiti for a 2-months long tour from Cap to Cay.
They toured in Europe too, but were presented as an “exotic feature”. Gordon had arguments with journalists in Belgium and Germany, who founded abnormal that they played with guitars, trumpets etc., thinking that the have to be autentic by which they mean: expected to wear grass skirts and use drums (percussions).
Exile One’s legacy and significance
Innovative in terms of getting the new instruments, they were an electric band, using synthetizer, electric piano. They did not use digital technology (MIDI) yet, since Kassav was the first band to introduce it later.
The Haitian konpa bands were big bands touring in Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guyana – 19-20 musitians like an orchestra, with a lot of horns (trumpets, saxophones, etc.). A decade after, they started having smaller groups called Combos (or Mini-Djaz in Haiti) with limited members adopting electric instruments and neglecting the horns (usually using lead guitar instead of sax).
In the English islands, there were no horns back then, so Exile One was a mini-djaz band with a full horn section. The re-introduction of horn in Haitian mini-djaz konpa bands was an evolution in band format and Exile One played a role in this reverse trend :
Exile One, a very famous and influential kadans group who had their beginnings from the early 1970s, was a practitioner of mini-djaz from the start. They utilized synthesizers and a full horn section that inspired the trend toward returning to a heavy brass effect. They also proved that, with good musicianship, even something as structured and traditional as kadans can be molded into a new and exciting sound [cadence-lypso].
So mini-djaz moved back toward the jazzy origins in Haiti by returning to a commonplace implementation of a horn section.
Haitian music was one of the most influential styles in the region, konpa was instrumental in the genesis of cadence-lypso by Exile One, and later zouk, and thus konpa should deserve a huge recognition it haven’t received.
This article wouldn’t exist without the Gordon Henderson interview held at University of Kizomba Facebook page last year. It was an extremely important interview, because Gordon is very knowledgable in this topic with his vast experience. Many thanks goes to him accepting the interview, and the organizer of the interview Rui Djassi Moracén, and all the people contributed.
 University of Kizomba: Live Interview with: Gordon Henderson (February 5, 2022). Host: Rui Djassi Moracén. https://www.facebook.com/kizomba.edu/videos/903151987034175
 HaitianMusic.net – Mini Jazz. https://www.haitianmusic.net/popular-haitian-music/mini-jazz/