Music in the Caribbean

The genre of Caribbean Music encompasses a diverse variety of musical styles and traditions from islands that are located in the Caribbean Sea and it represents something that is simple, exotic yet rich and wonderful. The styles range anywhere from traditional folk genres such as the Puerto Rican aguinaldo and Jamaican mento to more contemporary music such as salsa and reggae. They are each syntheses of African, European, Indian and Indigenious influences, largely created by African slave descendants, along with contribution from other communities. Some of the styles that gained wide popularity outside of the Caribbean includes reggae, zouk, salsa, bouyon, calypso, soca, reggaeton and punta. The diverse history of Caribbean music begins with tribal music from the Native Americans that first inhabited the Caribbean island.

This music largely featured percussion instruments, much of which was developed by the Native Americans and sadly perished along with most of the Native Americans during the 17th century. After that time, Caribbean music came out of the combination of the European settlers to the Caribbean as well as the African slaves that were brought along with the settlers. The music represents the culture of struggle, triumph, blood, sweat and tears that are all reflected in the beats and rhythms of Caribbean music. The rewards of a battle well fought in search of freedom can still be heard echoing form the distance past as the enslaved left with future generations the strength to keep fighting using the powerful sounds of music. Located in the Caribbean Sea are many islands each having its own experience of slavery and triumph, each developing its own cultural expression through the use of music. The outer most Caribbean styles of music may be grouped into the different categories of folk, classical, or commercially popular music. Folk styles were derived primarily from African music and tend to be dominated by percussion instruments as well as call and response vocals. Included in this category are the traditional Cuban rumba, the Puerto Rican bomba as well as music associated with Afro-Caribbean religions (such as Haitian, voodoo, and Cuban Santeria). A few styles, however, reflects a more European influence. The Puerto Rican jiharo music and Cuban punto are two key examples.

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Local forms of classical music were created in the nineteenth century in Cuba and Puerto Rico as formally trained composers began to infiltrate the area. The most prominent styles in this category are the Cuban contradaza and the habon (a lighter and more rhythmic but also Cuban style). The best known forms of Caribbean music are the modern, popular genres. These include the con (the most popular style of Cuban dance music); the chadracha, the listera (a romantic, languid style), and the mambo (an instrumental big band style). Since the mid-1960s, styles like salsa and merengue have become widely popular. The most internationally famous style of Caribbean music has clearly been reggae. This style emerged in the late 1960s in Jamaica as a reinterpretation of American R & B music. Singers such as Bob Marley have helped push this style into the international arena. Calypso (with its origin in Trinidad and Tobago) continues to grow in popularity, and is the music generally associate with the various carnivals in the Caribbean. Ska is a dance music, that was originated out of Jamaica until it was evolve in the early 1960s to shake the butts of working and middle class Jamaicans before going on, via the West Indian immigrant connection, to the UK, and then on to the world. In the UK, ska was also known as blue beat music. Rock steady, and later, reggae sprang from the loins of ska in the late 1960s. Mid 1970s and 1980s/1990s revivals of this popular dance form have kept this music alive and fun through the present. The ska beat on drums and bass, rhythm guitar, lots of horns and maybe a Farfisa or Hammond organ that is the ska sound. Ska was not recently invented by ska-influenced bands like No Doubt, the Mighty Bosstones, Reel Big Fish or any other 90’s band.

Ska is a forty-year-old music form now in a fresh, vigorous 3rd Wave. Ska is rich in history, broad in scope and guaranteed to make you shake your groove thang. For the musically inclined, here is a description of the rhythmic structure of ska: Musically, Ska is a fusion of Jamaican mento rhythm with R;B, with the drum coming in on the 2nd and 4th beats, and the guitar emphasizing the up of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th beats. The drum therefore is carrying the blues and swing beats of the American music, and the guitar expressing the mento sound. The roots of reggae music are based in Jamaica. This indigenous music grew from ska, which had elements of American R;B and Caribbean styles. It also drew from folk music, Pocomania church music, Jonkanoo fife and drum bands, fertility rituals, adaptations of quadrilles, plantation work songs, and a form called mento. Notable early reggae artists were Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Rita Marley Anderson, Toots and the Maytals, Desmond Dekker. As the fast beat of ska mellowed through rock steady, it gradually led to the creation of reggae. The transition from rock steady to reggae was, like the transition from ska to rock steady, an imperceptible process which was both a response to and a reflection of the changing social conditions of the society. In 1981 Bob Marley died and roots reggae never really recovered from the loss of its figurehead, and in the true fashion of Jamaica’s audiences looking for a change, dancehall reggae emerged.

This computerized, DJ dominated style couldn’t be more different from its predecessor with lewd lyrics replacing the righteousness and sound system competition seeming the strongest motive. In 1985, Under Mi Sleng Teng marked the complete break from reggae tradition, as it became the first record to be recorded without a bass line. There are several versions of the origin of the calypso which emerged as an identifiable genre towards the end of the nineteenth century. Calypso represents a mixture of several folk songs in the African tradition. In its original functions to praise or deride, to comment and to relate it is similar to a type of song that is universal. The early kaiso was sung in French patois, in the minor mode. It was accompanied by the traditional African drum ensemble and chorus. Themes varied widely. However, satirical political and social commentary, and the male-female relationship were, and continue to be, extremely popular. Traditionally, calypso singers have exhibited highly personalized styles in dress, theme and presentation. Since the turn of the century, the calypso has been sung in English. Great emphasis was placed on the ability to compose intricate lyrics with long, obscure words, and to improvise. The art of improvisation is still demonstrated in the ex tempo which is usually a competitive performance by two singers. Modern calypso (or kaiso) was invented in Trinidad, but its influence has spread out to infect all of the Caribbean. Each island has well respected, major Calypsonians and national pride for the musicians runs high. Many people believe that calypso is about jumping up and dancing at carnivals, that the form is devoted to entertainment. But true calypso is a very serious form of social commentary. The calypsonians address everything from politics to incest to the conditions of island life, although the attacks are often framed through subtle satire. In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, the old timers like Executor, Growler, Houdini, and Spoiler all provided informative listening entertainment.

Calypso of today is dance music. Thanks to the Mighty Sparrow, the Lord Kitchener, the Black Stalin, David Rudder to name a few, we still have traditional Calypsos fused with dance hall music. In Barbados, you’ll hear Bajan’s singing the lyrics of Red Plastic Bag, The Mighty Gabby, and Alison Hinds, to name a very few. The musical accomplishment of the modern calypso has become more complex. This is provided by the brass band, so called because of its powerful trumpets and trombones. Other instruments in this ensemble include guitars, key-boards, synthesizers, the drum set and a wide range of percussion instruments. Additionally, some singers might include a single instrument such as the pan, the cuatro, the fiddle or a skin drum, among others. The performer is accompanied by a chorus that executes choreographed movements as they sing. In the weeks preceding the annual carnival celebrations, a number of singers perform nightly in the calypso tent. Originally, a bamboo tent was specially erected. Today, any performance venue is used. Through the year singers appear in concerts and other shows. Calypso is the music used to create the rhythms of Carnival in the Caribbean, Carnival in Rio, Labor Day in Brooklyn, The Caribbean American Family Day Festival in the Bronx New York, Caribana in Toronto, Miami Carnival, Boston Carnival, Atlanta Carnival, Caribbean Carnival Tallahassee and a host of other cities all over the world. Soca is the rhythmical fusion of Soul and Calypso.

Its geographical origin is Trinidad and Tobago and its inspiration has always been those islands pre-Lenten carnival celebrations. The ever infectious Soca music has now evolved into the definitive indigenous musical form of the Eastern Caribbean. The music is part of the vibrant Caribbean culture and has now established itself as far afield as North America, and throughout Europe. Ring bang is a fusion of all the music of the Caribbean with the focus is on the rhythm rather than the melody. Since its creation in 1994, Ring bang has grown in popularity in Barbados and throughout the Caribbean. Rapso is quite recent, emerging about twenty-five years ago. However, it draws on the ancient African tradition of story-telling. Rapso is street poetry. Its main theme is the issues that affect the lives of ordinary people. Rapso may be unaccompanied by a simple ensemble or full orchestration. Since both reggae from Jamaica and soca from Trinidad are very popular in Barbados, a fusion of the two was always likely. This fusion came in the form of ragga-soca; a rhythm that is faster than reggae but slower than up-tempo soca. Zouk loosely translated means “Party” or “festival” and is a style of music originally from the Caribbean countries of Martinique and Guadeloupe. Zouk is a fusion of Kompa from Haiti, cadence and tempo from Dominica, other styles of music such as mazurka, biguine, bal grabmoun dances, balakadri, and other indigenous styles of the people of Martinique and Guadeloupe.

Zouk exploded on to the music scene in the early 1980’s. The music went beyond the Caribbean by adapting to French and American pop music. The main characteristic of Zouk music is the two quick beats followed by a slower tempo. Zouk was popularized by bands that include Kassav, Grammacks, and Exile One, and solo artists like Jocelyne Labylle of Guadeloupe and Ophelia Marie of Dominica. The lyrics are sung in the local Creole and French. With the popularity of Zouk, the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe saw a big surge in the music industry. The United States was introduced to the music by a band from New Jersey called The Roast Beef Curtains. However, the leading band to emerge from Zouk is Kassav, founded in 1979 by Pierre-Edouard Decimus and Freddy Marshall.Kassav became an international phenomenon in 1985 after the launch of their album fifth album Yélélé featuring the international smash hit “Zouk la Se Sel Medikaman Nou Ni.” Other renowned artists from the Caribbean whose name became synonymous with Zouk include Tanya Sain-Val, Marie-Line Laupa, Dede Saint Prix, Alan Cave, and Jean Philippe Marthely. Zouk musicians living in Paris began recording with African musicians, and were also influenced by “Coupe Cloue”, a Haitian band leader who utilized an African style. With Kassav’s popularity, Zouk became the most widespread dance to hit the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa. There are different styles of Zouk, which include the traditional Zouk that was originated the genre of music; Zouk-Love includes slower tempo love songs; Zouk Lambada popular in Brazil, Kizomba originally from Angola, and Cola-Zouk originally from Cape Verde. Each style has noticeable differences from tempo to language.

All have their roots in the beautiful music originating from Martinique and Guadeloupe. Some famous Zouk artists and DJ’s include Kassav, Exile One, Francky Vincent, Alan Cave, Face, Experience 7, Eric Virgal, Daan Junior, Zouk Machine, DJ ET, DJ Double F, DJ JAM, Mafie, Zouker Kaysha, DJ John Gee, Vegetable Basket, Cyrielle, Princesse Lover, Boss Tweed NYHC. For almost three decades, Zouk has swept the islands and has united artists from the French and Creole segments of the Caribbean. With the emergence of Zouk, the artists have created a large music industry that gained international popularity in many parts of the world, mainly France, where some of the artists lived, Brazil, and the French speaking part of Africa and Canada. Zouk music is versatile, entertaining and the Caribbean will continue to be a great source of inspiration for the music market. The Chowtal songs are sung during the Phagwa or Holi festival, the Hindu spring festival that is celebrated with song, dance and the playful sprinkling of participants with colored liquids. These are Hindi songs, sung by a chorus and lead singer. They begin slowly and softly and increase in tempo, volume and pitch. The songs often celebrate the love shared by deities, Radha and Krishna, and Rama and Sita. They are accompanied by the Dholak, Jhals and sometimes, the harmonium.

The Chutney soca sound is native to Saint Vincent ; the Grenadines, Guyana and Trinidad ;Tobago. The musical style infuses elements of Soca music along with Hindi English lyrics and instruments from the Indian culture such as the dhantai and the dholak. The Chutney is an up tempo, rhythmic song, accompanied but the dholak, the harmonium and the dhantal. Original chutney songs made reference to data and were offensive to religious leaders. Within recent times, the chutney has become extremely popular and new compositions are being written. Some of these contain calypso and soca rhythms. There is also some extemporaneous composition and accompaniment (especially in the growing number of competitions) may be provided by bands which include Indian, western and African instruments. Chutney music completes the sound of Chutney Soca. It was Drupatee Ramgoonai who first called the style of music Chutney Soca in an album entitled chutney Soca. Two versions of the song were published in two versions Hindi and soca. The word was spelt Chatnee Soca before the new spelling of Chutney was established. The historical origins of Chutney soca are the perfect example of how indo-Trinidadians have created a syncretic original art form that has incorporated indo-Trinidadians into the world that is soca music.

Additionally it also shows just how much indo-Trinidadians have influenced the culture and politics of the country. Chutney soca first started to show up in calypso during the 1990s when calypso and soca musicians would incorporate Indian themes within their lyrics. Chutney soca started to experience mainstream popularity during the 1990s when carnival season started to incorporate chutney soca monarch competitions. Since then the Chutney soca competition has grown exponentially to the point where it is considered the most important and largest indo-Caribbean concert worldwide. The cost of production exceeds over one million USD. Local Indian songs may be Hindu or English sung to Indian rhythms. They are performed to the music of bands that include the tabla, the synthesizer, African drums and brass instruments among others. The songs are similar to the calypso in their tendency towards social commentary as a major theme. Parang is a lively rhythmic Christmas song, sung in Spanish with some Spanish patois and Latin words. Its main theme is the annunciation, “Maria!” is perhaps the most frequent exclamation in parang. The music is accompanied by cuatro, guitar, the box bass and chac-chacs. The singers, paranderos wear colorful clothing, originally in Spanish style. The sound of Parang soca is taking center stage during Christmas.

Soca music is now being fused with parang. The sound of parang has both Latin and Caribbean influences incorporated. Parang finds in roots in the Spanish word parranda which means merry making. Parang soca is a subgenre of soca and is a recent comer to the world of music. The origins of parang is still disputed in many circles however it is believed that it was first introduced by the Spanish or French speaking catholic monks that brought it to Trinidad during the Spanish colonial period. The second theory proposes that it was the Venezuelans who were responsible for the first elements of parang music when they migrated to work on the cocoa plantations during the first part of the 19th century. Steel band soca in its purest form is soca at its best. The melodious sounds which emanate from the steel pan captivate the listening audience. The instrument has a long standing place in the Trinidadian culture and carnival. The instrument most times is associated with revelry and festivity. It brings to the listener an authentic Caribbean experience and those who come within distance to the hypnotic sounds are drawn into the experience of Caribbean music. Steelband soca is well worth listening to. The sounds will linger in your mind and heart leaving you wanting more. The steel band is made up of several instruments and players and its origins date back to slavery. During this period of time drums were used as a form of communication among the enslaved Africans.

When slavery was outlawed in 1783 by then British colonial government African slaves were allowed to participate in the festive celebration Mardi gras which was brought to the island by the French. The playing of the drum was the most important event to the Africans and Indians during that period. As time passed drums evolved into steel pans and bands, no longer were they being used in the war cry but in entertaining those who are willing to listen. The steel band in made up of several individuals who carry out specific roles these are, Soprano, Lead or Tenor, Double Tenor, Double Second, Double Guitar, Quadrophonic (four pans), Triple Guitar, Cello, Six Pan, Tenor Bass, Six Bass, Nine Bass and Twelve Bass. Each individual is responsible for a specific pitch. Steelbands are capable of playing all types of music however they specialize in soca and when a song of a different genre is played on a steel band you will immediately feel the soca vibe. The steel band consists of one form of instrument this is the steel pan. This is made from a sheet of metal that is usually .8mm or 1.5 mm thick. Traditionally steel pans are made using oil barrels however steel pan bands are now using specific makers to manufacture the steel container to a specified resonance sound output. The sheet of metal is stretched and with the aid of several hammers and air pressure it is shaped into a bowl formation, the process is known as sinking. Once this is completed the notes of varying sizes are molded and shaped into the surface. After this is the crafts man or technician will tune the instrument using an electronic otherwise called strobe tuner. The influence of soca music including steel band soca is far reaching. Steelband soca is used as a welcoming form of music to tourists who visit the Caribbean island.

It can often be heard on cruise ships and it is quite popular during the carnival season. In many aspects, it is more common to see a marked diversity than a marked unity in Caribbean music. A few generalizations can be made, however. Most music of this region combines features of music from Africa with features of music from the West. This combination began with the European colonization and slave trade but still continues into the present. The divisions between Caribbean music genres are not always well defined, because many of these genres share common relations and have influenced each other in many ways and directions. For example, the Jamaican mento style has a long history of conflation with Trinidadian calypso. Elements of calypso have come to be used in mento, and vice versa, while their origins lie in the Afro-Caribbean culture, each uniquely characterized by influences from the Shango and Shouters religions of Trinidad and the Kumina spiritual tradition of Jamaica.

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Music in the Caribbean. (2016, Nov 06). Retrieved from