Caribbean Music

In keeping with my feature on Caribbean Life. It would not be complete without mention of Caribbean Music. Sounds of the Caribbean are as varied as the islands themselves - from the tinkling of steel pan drums that immediately puts you in a tropical frame of mind, to Reggae beats that tell the story of the hardships the islands have endured.  Music has always played an important part of life in the Caribbean, providing islanders with a meaningful art form, and a means of entertainment. Want a quick trip to the Islands?. . .Listen to the music right here!


Perhaps the genre most associated with the Caribbean is Reggae, but before Reggae came Ska and Rocksteady. Ska music came into being as African music and American blues/Jazz met in Jamaica. Ska, and its descendant, Rocksteady, are the two direct musical predecessors of Reggae. The music's social predecessors are Jamaica's independence and its ever-nagging political problems. However, while Rastafarian beliefs are incorporated into the songs of many reggae musicians and lyricists, not every Reggae musician is a Rasta.

While the Hon. Robert Nesta Marley (Bob Marley) and The Wailers are the best-known musicians of reggae and dominated the genre as it spread internationally, there are a number of other popular reggae musicians. Reggae itself has evolved since its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, but both traditional Reggae and Dance Hall, the style it birthed, have gained international attention in recent years. Reggae has also come under under fire for homophobic and misogynistic lyrical content and it still remains the international form of music. Bob Marley will always dominate the international reggae scene, but Jamaica's own popular charts are filled with many artists who produce this native style of music. More on the History of Jamaican Music.


The islands' African roots played a part in the development of Calypso and Steel Pan. Steel pan music developed out of necessity to overcome oppression. The drums have always been an important part of African rituals, but when both cloth and bamboo drums were banned by the government of Trinidad in the 1930s, the people on the island improvised, banging their traditional rhythms out on steel oil drums. By the 1940s, a steel drum specifically for making music was developed, and Steel Pan music has been evolving ever since. Calypso originated as slave songs, sung by plantation workers who were not allowed to speak to one another, in order to communicate. Since the 1970s the beats of calypso have sped up, giving birth to two new musical forms. Rapso and SOCA are two up-tempo versions, which some traditional calypsonians refer to as "party music."

Rapso combines calypso with American hip-hop music. Meanwhile, Soca combined Calypso with Chutney (Indian style music) brought to the islands, by the large number of indentured servants from India. Barbados is also a generator of soca hits; Carnival connoisseurs can spy the subtle difference between Bajan soca tunes and Trini ones (hint: Bajans keep catchy choruses curt). The former dominate at the annual Crop Over festival, Barbados’s version of Carnival, held in August and marked by high-energy fetes and a grand parade.


Latin music is also popular throughout the islands. Much of the Caribbean's Latin styles have their roots in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. Musical styles such as the Rumba, Meringue, Mambo, and Salsa originated on these islands. Latin music is all about feeling the rhythms and allowing them to take over and move your body in dance, and to the untrained ear the different styles can sound similar. Salsa has roots in both Cuba and Puerto Rico, it also claims heritage in the Spanish-speaking community of New York. This fusion of many Latin dance styles closely resemble the Mambo in some ways and is one of the most popular musical styles to come out of the Caribbean in the 1950s & 60s.

Merengue, the Dominican Republic's national style of music, has international roots. Taken from the Caribbean to France, and then back to the French colonies, many different styles of the music that became merengue have been played throughout the region. The Latin music community in the Caribbean has been and continues to be influenced by many sources.


Nearly every genre of music exists on some level in Haiti, from rock to jazz and folk. However, there are some dominant forms that are especially significant in Haiti’s cultural framework. Compas is perhaps Haiti’s best known musical genre. It is an updated version of the French meringue. Compas/Kompa has also been extremely influential on other music genres in the Caribbean, particularly in Martinique and Guadeloupe, where it evolved into Zouk music. Mizik Rasin is a musical style born from political dissatisfaction among the youth in the late 1970's.  Using Reggae-inspired music, Mizik Rasin included lyrics that praised the values of communal living and peasant life. The movement had a tremendous impact on youth culture. Communes of dreadlocked young people sprang up throughout Haiti’s rural areas. More on the Music of HAITI.

The French islands Martinique and Guadeloupe also specialize in Zouk and Compas music, both locally made and imported from Haiti. The spin off from Zouk & Compas is called Bouyon Music, born in the Island of Dominica. You can dance and revel in Bouyon at Dominica’s annual World Creole Music Festival in October, the only one of its kind in the region.


The local music in CuraƧao, born in the early 1980s, is called Ritmo Kombina — literally, “combined rhythms” in Papiamentu.  Ritmo is very much Afro-CuraƧaoan music, sometimes disturbingly derided as the music of the lower classes. Ritmo is like a mix of merengue, salsa and soca. Usually played by a band of horn players, drums, timbalero, piano, saxophone and conga players. Dancers throw down plenty of footwork and lots of pelvic grinding to this music in the clubs. More on Dutch Islands music Here.

To really celebrate the music of the islands, make sure to attend a Carnival or Festival, which is celebrated on nearly every Caribbean island. It has often been said that it is not math that is the universal language, but Music. What better way to experience the culture of the Caribbean islands than swaying to the beat of the music created there. This music will surely add another layer to the memories of your island vacation.

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