Caribbean Music is a genre that includes a wide range of musical styles and traditions from islands located in the Caribbean Sea. It embodies simplicity, exoticism, richness, and wonder. The styles encompass various genres, from traditional folk like the Puerto Rican aguinaldo and Jamaican mento, to more contemporary forms like salsa and reggae. These genres are influenced by African, European, Indian, and Indigenous cultures, with a significant contribution from African slave descendants and other communities. Some popular styles that have gained recognition beyond the Caribbean region include reggae, zouk, salsa, bouyon, calypso, soca, reggaeton, and punta. The history of Caribbean music begins with tribal music from the Native Americans who were the first inhabitants of the Caribbean islands.
This music primarily showcased percussion instruments, many of which were developed by Native Americans, but unfortunately disappeared along with most of the Native American population during the 17th century. Following this era, Caribbean music emerged as a fusion of European settlers in the Caribbean and African slaves brought to the region. This music represents the culture of struggle, triumph, and hard work, all of which are reflected in the beats and rhythms of Caribbean music. The echoes of the past can still be heard, as the enslaved passed down to future generations the strength to continue fighting for freedom through the powerful sounds of music. The Caribbean Sea is home to numerous islands, each with its own experience of slavery and triumph, resulting in the development of unique cultural expressions through music. The different styles of Caribbean music can be categorized as folk, classical, or commercially popular. Folk styles mainly originate from African music and prominently feature percussion instruments and call and response vocals. Examples include traditional Cuban rumba, Puerto Rican bomba, and music related to Afro-Caribbean religions like Haitian voodoo and Cuban Santeria. However, some styles also exhibit European influences, such as Puerto Rican jiharo music and Cuban punto.
Local forms of classical music arose in the 19th century in Cuba and Puerto Rico, as trained composers began to infiltrate the region. The Cuban contradaza and habon, a lighter and more rhythmic Cuban style, are the most prominent styles in this category. Moving on to popular modern genres of Caribbean music, the con (Cuban dance music), chadracha, listera (romantic and languid style), and mambo (instrumental big band style) are the best known. Salsa and merengue gained widespread popularity since the mid-1960s. However, the most famous internationally recognized Caribbean music style is undoubtedly reggae. Originating from Jamaica in the late 1960s as a reinterpretation of American R&B music, reggae reached global recognition with the contribution of singers like Bob Marley. Calypso, originating from Trinidad and Tobago, continues to grow in popularity and is commonly associated with Caribbean carnivals. Ska, a dance music that originated in Jamaica, evolved in the early 1960s before making its way to the UK through West Indian immigrant connections and eventually spreading worldwide. In the UK, ska was also known as blue beat music. Rock steady and later reggae emerged from ska in the late 1960s.Ska, a popular dance form, has remained lively and enjoyable thanks to its revivals in the mid-1970s and the 1980s/1990s. This music is characterized by a ska beat played on drums and bass, rhythm guitar, numerous horns, and possibly a Farfisa or Hammond organ. It’s important to note that ska was not a recent creation by bands like No Doubt, the Mighty Bosstones, Reel Big Fish, or other bands from the 90s.
Ska, a music form that is forty years old, is currently experiencing a fresh and energetic revival known as the 3rd Wave. Ska has a rich history and a wide range of styles that is guaranteed to get you dancing. Musically, Ska combines Jamaican mento rhythm with R&B. The drums play on the 2nd and 4th beats, while the guitar emphasizes the upbeats of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th beats. This fusion allows the drums to carry the blues and swing beats of American music, while the guitar expresses the mento sound. Reggae, which traces its roots back to Jamaica, is deeply influenced by ska. It incorporates elements of American R&B and Caribbean styles, as well as folk music, Pocomania church music, Jonkanoo fife and drum bands, fertility rituals, adaptations of quadrilles, plantation work songs, and a style called mento. Notable early reggae artists include Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Rita Marley Anderson, Toots and the Maytals, and Desmond Dekker. As ska evolved into the slower rock steady genre, it gradually transitioned into reggae. This transition, like the one from ska to rock steady, was a subtle process that reflected and responded to changing social conditions in society. Unfortunately, in 1981, Bob Marley passed away and roots reggae never fully recovered from the loss of its iconic figurehead. As Jamaican audiences sought something new, dancehall reggae emerged as the next trend in music.
This computerized, DJ dominated style is vastly different from its predecessor, with lewd lyrics replacing righteousness and sound system competition becoming the main driving force. In 1985, Under Mi Sleng Teng broke away from reggae tradition by being the first record without a bass line. The origins of calypso, which emerged as a recognizable genre in the late 19th century, have several versions. Calypso is a blend of various African folk songs. It shares similarities with a universal type of song that originally served to praise, deride, comment, and relate. Early kaiso was sung in French patois, in the minor mode, accompanied by traditional African drum ensemble and chorus. Themes varied, but satirical political and social commentary, as well as the male-female relationship, were always highly popular and continue to be so. Calypso singers traditionally exhibited personalized styles in their dress, theme selection, and presentation. From the turn of the century onward, 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 showcased in ex tempo performances, which are typically competitive duets between two singers. While modern calypso (or kaiso) originated in Trinidad, its influence has spread and infected the entire Caribbean.Every island has highly respected Calypsonians who are a source of national pride. While some may think of calypso as a genre solely dedicated to carnival festivities and entertainment, it is actually a profound form of social commentary. Calypsonians tackle a wide range of topics, including politics, incest, and the challenges faced in island life. However, their critiques are often delivered through subtle satire. In Trinidad and Tobago, Calypsonians like Executor, Growler, Houdini, and Spoiler offer informative and entertaining expressions of this art form.
Today, Calypso music has evolved and incorporated elements of dance hall music thanks to artists like the Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener, Black Stalin, and David Rudder. In Barbados, singers such as Red Plastic Bag, The Mighty Gabby, and Alison Hinds keep the traditional Calypsos alive. The modern Calypso has become more complex with the addition of brass bands consisting of powerful trumpets and trombones. Other instruments like guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, drums sets, and various percussion instruments are also present. Some singers may choose to include a single instrument like the pan, cuatro, fiddle, or skin drum. Performers are often accompanied by a chorus that executes choreographed movements while singing. Before the annual carnival celebrations, singers can be found performing in Calypso tents. These tents were originally made of bamboo but any performance venue is now used. Throughout the year, singers perform in concerts and other shows. Calypso music sets the rhythm for various carnival celebrations around the world including Carnival in the Caribbean and Rio, Labor Day in Brooklyn, Caribbean American Family Day Festival in the Bronx New York, Caribana in Toronto, Miami Carnival, Boston Carnival, Atlanta Carnival, Caribbean Carnival Tallahassee, among others. Soca music is a fusion of soul and Calypso that creates a rhythmic sound.
The music of Trinidad and Tobago, with its geographical origin in the islands’ pre-Lenten carnival celebrations, has become an influential part of Caribbean culture. Soca music, known for its infectious rhythm, has evolved to become the definitive indigenous musical form of the Eastern Caribbean. It has gained popularity not only in North America but also throughout Europe.
Ring bang, a fusion of various Caribbean music styles, emphasizes rhythm over melody. Since its creation in 1994, it has gained popularity in Barbados and the wider Caribbean region. On the other hand, Rapso is a relatively new genre that emerged about twenty-five years ago but draws on the ancient African tradition of storytelling. It serves as a form of street poetry that addresses issues affecting everyday people. Rapso can be performed with a simple ensemble or with full orchestration.
Given the popularity of reggae from Jamaica and soca from Trinidad in Barbados, it was only natural for a fusion of the two to occur. This fusion came in the form of ragga-soca, a rhythm that is faster than reggae but slower than up-tempo soca.
Zouk, which loosely translates to mean “party” or “festival,” originated in Martinique and Guadeloupe and incorporates elements from various Caribbean countries. It is a fusion of Kompa from Haiti, cadence and tempo from Dominica, as well as other styles such as mazurka, biguine, bal grabmoun dances, balakadri, and other indigenous styles from Martinique and Guadeloupe.
Zouk music exploded onto the scene in the early 1980s, adapting its sound to include French and American pop music. Its defining characteristic is the combination of two quick beats followed by a slower tempo. Bands such as Kassav, Grammacks, and Exile One, as well as solo artists like Jocelyne Labylle and Ophelia Marie, popularized Zouk with their Creole and French lyrics. This surge in popularity led to a booming music industry in Martinique and Guadeloupe. In the United States, Zouk was introduced by the New Jersey band The Roast Beef Curtains. However, Kassav, founded by Pierre-Edouard Decimus and Freddy Marshall in 1979, emerged as the leading band in the Zouk genre. Their album Yélélé, released in 1985, featured the international hit “Zouk la Se Sel Medikaman Nou Ni” and catapulted them to international fame. Other notable Zouk artists include Tanya Sain-Val, Marie-Line Laupa, Dede Saint Prix, Alan Cave, and Jean Philippe Marthely. Zouk musicians living in Paris collaborated with African musicians and drew inspiration from Haitian band leader “Coupe Cloue” and his African style. Thanks to Kassav’s popularity, Zouk quickly spread across the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa. There are various styles within the Zouk genre, with traditional Zouk being the origin of this music style.Zouk-Love comprises love songs with a slower tempo. Zouk Lambada gained popularity in Brazil, while Kizomba origins lie in Angola, and Cola-Zouk originated from Cape Verde. Each style showcases distinct variations, ranging 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 and the Grenadines, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago. It incorporates elements of Soca music, Hindi-English lyrics, and instruments from Indian culture, such as the dhantai and dholak. Chutney songs are up-tempo and rhythmic, accompanied by the dholak, harmonium, and dhantal. Originally, chutney songs referenced data and offended religious leaders. However, in recent times, chutney has become extremely popular with new compositions that incorporate calypso and soca rhythms. Competitions often feature extemporaneous composition and accompaniment from bands with Indian, western, and African instruments. Chutney music completes the sound of Chutney Soca. Drupatee Ramgoonai introduced the term “Chutney Soca” in her album of the same name, which had versions in both Hindi and soca. The word was initially spelled Chatnee Soca before the current spelling of Chutney was established. The historical origins of Chutney soca exemplify how indo-Trinidadians have created a syncretic art form that incorporates them into the world of soca music.
Additionally, the text highlights the significant influence of indo-Trinidadians on the culture and politics of the country. In the 1990s, calypso and soca musicians began incorporating Indian themes into their lyrics, giving rise to the emergence of chutney soca. This genre gained mainstream popularity with the introduction of chutney soca monarch competitions during carnival season. Today, the Chutney soca competition has become the largest and most important indo-Caribbean concert worldwide, with production costs exceeding one million USD. These performances feature local Indian songs sung in Hindu or English to Indian rhythms, accompanied by instruments such as the tabla, synthesizer, African drums, and brass instruments. Similar to calypso, these songs often focus on social commentary. On the other hand, parang is a vibrant Christmas song sung in Spanish with Spanish patois and Latin words. Its main theme revolves around the annunciation, with “Maria!” being a commonly used exclamation. Parang music is accompanied by instruments like the cuatro, guitar, box bass, and chac-chacs. Paranderos, the performers of parang soca, traditionally wear colorful clothing with a Spanish influence. As Christmas approaches, the sound of Parang soca takes center stage.
The fusion of soca music with parang incorporates both Latin and Caribbean influences into its sound. Parang, which finds its roots in the Spanish word parranda meaning merry making, is a subgenre of soca and a recent addition to the music world. The origins of parang are disputed, with some believing it was introduced by Spanish or French-speaking Catholic monks during the Spanish colonial period in Trinidad. Others propose that Venezuelans, who migrated to work on cocoa plantations in the early 19th century, were responsible for the first elements of parang music. Steel band soca, in its purest form, represents the best of soca music. The captivating sounds produced by the steel pan instrument have a long-standing place in Trinidadian culture and carnival, often associated with revelry and festivity. It provides listeners with an authentic Caribbean experience, drawing them into the hypnotic sounds of Caribbean music. The steel band, consisting of several instruments and players, has its origins dating back to slavery when drums were used as a means of communication among enslaved Africans.
When the British colonial government outlawed slavery in 1783, African slaves were finally allowed to participate in the festive celebration of Mardi gras. This celebration had been brought to the island by the French. During this time, the playing of the drum was of great importance to both Africans and Indians. However, as time went on, drums evolved into steel pans and bands. They were no longer used for war cries, but instead for entertaining those who were willing to listen.
The steel band is composed of several individuals, each with their own specific roles. These roles include 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 versatile and capable of playing all types of music. However, they specialize in soca. When a song from a different genre is played on a steel band, you can immediately feel the soca vibe.
The steel band primarily uses one instrument: the steel pan. This pan is made from a sheet of metal that is typically .8mm or 1.5 mm thick. Traditionally, steel pans were made from oil barrels. However, steel pan bands now work with specific manufacturers to create steel containers that produce a specified resonance sound output. The sheet of metal is stretched and shaped into a bowl formation through the use of hammers and air pressure. This process is known as sinking.After the completion of molding and shaping, the notes of different sizes are tuned using an electronic device known as a strobe tuner. Soca music, including steel band soca, has a widespread influence, particularly as a welcoming form of music for tourists visiting the Caribbean island.
Caribbean music is frequently heard on cruise ships and is especially popular during the carnival season. While there is often more diversity than unity in Caribbean music, certain generalizations can be made. The majority of music in this region combines elements from Africa and the West, a fusion that began during European colonization and the slave trade. The boundaries between Caribbean music genres are not always clear-cut, as many genres have shared relationships and influenced each other in various ways. For instance, Jamaican mento has a longstanding history of blending with Trinidadian calypso, incorporating elements from each other while still maintaining their unique Afro-Caribbean roots. The cultural influences of the Shango and Shouters religions of Trinidad and the Kumina spiritual tradition of Jamaica can be found in both styles.