Historical research on the slave trade from the 16th century to today convincingly shows that Africans and their descendants were treated as objects to be exploited and not as carriers of culture. Even today, however, despite an acceptance of the importance of seeing African descendants as contemporary individuals and assessing their valuable contributions, degrading expressions created by European slave owners still persist. In the past, slave traders used not only the word black to refer to slaves, but also terms in Spanish such as carabalí, lucumí, takua or cangá, to simplify references to slaves. Those terms negated the true historical identities of African cultural groups, such as the Ibo, Yoruba, Nupe or Malinke-Wangana, among others. In the fields of anthropology, ethnography and history, expressions such as “black trade” have yet to be exorcised and replaced with “slave trade” or “human trafficking.” It is clear that the language created by the conquistadors is still alive.

Meter: the center

An organological analysis of Caribbean music of African heritage (for example, instrumentation and its songs) points to time signature or meter (clave) and its variations as a central rhythmic element. Percussion instruments made by artisans were used to perform the rhythm. Fernando Ortiz categorizes these instruments as palitos entrechocantes. The meter or beat is the percussive musical pattern that is played with these instruments that accompanies or points the way for the drums. Because of its importance, meter is closely related to the origins of this genre of music.

Through the historical parallels in the development of this musical pattern on the different islands and regions of the Caribbean, it is possible to identify similarities and differences in the frequency of the beat. The predominant place of the beat in the organology or structure of the musical variations created by the rhythm instruments can also be established. Basically there are two types of meters in the Antillean Caribbean. The first is the rumba meter, which originated in the coastal zones of Cuba, on the docks and in coastal neighborhoods where the rumba was formed. The second is the son, the generic name for the music that originated in the countryside and was later introduced to coastal areas of Cuba, as well as the rest of the Caribbean.

The meter for rumba is also 2/3 time. This means that the percussion’s effect is created by the third beat in the first measure, which is accented by a stronger beat or is an octave different, subtly mixing with the second measure and creating an illusion of rhythmic rocking back and forth. In written music (a mode that we originally inherited from the Europeans), this movement takes place in the first measure. The popular name for this pattern is rumba, as mentioned above. Among the three kinds of rumba that currently exist, the yambú, the guaguancó and the columbia, this pattern is most obvious in the guaguancó. It can be noted sometimes in the yambú, a genre whose meter is usually played in a pattern identified as the meter of the son genre.

The first cousin to the rumba meter is the son meterwhich includes various musical forms of the genre of the same name. These are known as the guajira, son montuno (the roots of salsa), changüícha-cha-chá, the guaracha and the son bolero, among others. But this meter is not exclusive to the Afro-Cuban musical argot. It can also be noted, for example, in merengue in the Dominican Republic and the plena of Puerto Rico, where it also plays a central role or starting point. Although the basic son beat is a 3-2 pattern (three beats in the first measure and two in the second), it is usually written in the inverse, 2-3.

Another rhythmic pattern or meter is 3/3 time, a kind of triptych, with an air of triplets. This meter consists of the constant repetition of the equivalent of the first measure of the son meter. This makes it a kind of waltz, accenting the first beat and keeping an even spacing with the other two beats. Some of the musical variations of this form are the Haitian compa or kompa direk a type of merengue or meringue from Haiti that has influenced contemporary Dominican merengue (e.g. Juan Luis Guerra y 440). This rhythm can be clearly identified in the beat of the sicá and grasimá bombas of Puerto Rico (among others), the French-Haitian tumba, the Colombian bomba, the calypso of Trinidad, St. Croix, Vieques and Culebra, the samba and capoeira of Brazil, reggae of Jamaica, soul rock of the United States, and the rap and reggaeton of the Caribbean.

Finally, it should be mentioned the meter used by the Brazilian bossa nova, which is closely related to the meter of the son. In both patterns, the first measure is exactly the same. In the second measure, the second beat is an octave lower (following binary meter), which also creates an illusion of rocking back and forth in space, an effect parallel to that of the rumba meter.

Musicologist Luis Manuel álvarez often refers to a rhythmic pattern defined as 16/16 time. According to álvarez, this pattern, conceptually, is more African than the patterns discussed above which have completely depended — since the colonization — on written European music and meter. This rhythmic pattern consists of a space, bar or measure in which the sequence of 16 beats combined in triplets and eighth notes that include all the meters and rhythmic patterns of African descent in the Americas.

Secondary percussion

Examples of the next rhythmic layer, which accompanies the base meter, include the catá of the French tumba and the columbia rumba, the cuá of the bombas and the guagua of the guaguancó and yambú rumbas. These musical elements constitute a secondary percussion. Along with the meter — as in the case of the rumbas — they form a structure (which serves as a skeleton) upon which the drums adapt their styles and expressions, depending on the place of origin and the region where the musical variant developed.

The catá form of the French tumba, the wawa (guagua) of the Cuban rumba and the cuá form of Puerto Rican bomba are performed by two sticks on a surface, whether it is bamboo, a hollowed tree trunk, a box, a table, the floor or on the side of the barrel or drum. This percussive component varies, however, depending on the style, the genre or the country of origin of the musical variation. For example, in the case of the Cuban rumbas, the rhythmic, dynamic and metric patterns of the wawa in the guaguancó rumba are not the same as those of the yambú rumba or the catá of the columbia rumba. Similarly, in the bomba of Puerto Rico, the cuá beat of the sicá or grasimá bombas is different from that of the bomba holandé or the bomba yubá.

The drum: the dress

On top of this framework is the drum, which is like a perfectly fitting dress that gives shape to the core of Afro-Caribbean music. In the bomba of Puerto Rico, calypso of Trinidad, gwoka of Guadeloupe and the French tumba of Haiti, there are two basic parallel beats, even when there are more than two drummers, or bomberos (as the musicians who play the bomba in Puerto Rico are known). In the Puerto Rican bomba, the most high-pitched drum is known as the primo. This is the repicador drum, the one that communicates with the dancers. Its role is similar to that of the premier drum in the French-Haitian tumba. The second drum sets the beat or bass. In the Puerto Rican bomba it is known as the baleador. Its role is similar to that of the second drum and the bulé drum in French tumba. The latter is the last instrument added when three drums are required, such as with the masón and babel dances.

The song: the petticoat

The third layer, like a petticoat to the dress, is the song, the melody to which the lyrics are sung. The content comes from the lives of the community and the relationship with the surrounding environment. The center of the song is the chorus, which begins with a call by a soloist, who plays the leading role. The body of singers responds to the refrain first given by the soloist, leaving a measured space for the insertion of improvisations. These patterns continue depending on whether the style of the song is improvisation or traditional composition, all within the framework of the rhythm layers described above.

This allows any designated singer to change the chorus, or in other words, “call a new chorus.” In turn, this often extends the group interaction, making the communal experience, whether religious or secular, even more exciting. Such is the case with merengue ripia’o (Cibao merengue) in the Dominican Republic and the street rumbas of Cuba. This dynamic interaction is also seen in the rest of the Caribbean, in the previously mentioned gwoka of Guadeloupe, in the Afro-Colombian music of Colombia’s Pacific coast, the gaita of the state of Zulia and the drums of Barlovento in Venezuela, the calypso of Trinidad and St. Croix, the samba of Brazil and the candomblé of Uruguay (to mention a few), which are evidence of a broad Caribbean culture. This energy extends to North America, running through New Orleans to the Georgia Islands (Georgia Sea Islands Singers), with their handclaps and body sounds. It continued and emerged in the form of the blues or the gospel hymns in the African-American Baptist churches, leaving clear evidence of an African America.

Dance: the perfect lace

Add to this musical fabric another form of expression, the dance, or synchronized movements. But this is not the “unchecked” dance described by early European observers in letters and documents that have been used as primary sources in research. Both the dance and the music have structure, rules and modifications. For example in Puerto Rico the variations of the Dutch bomba, the yubá and the sicá have their distinctive differences. In Cuba, meanwhile, the variations of the rumba are known as yambúguaguancó, and columbia and have their own forms of dance that distinguish one from the others. In the Dominican Republic, merengue ripia’o is an earlier form of the merengue that is now known worldwide. It is widely recognized that dancing is mainly done in pairs. This sets the mangulina or the carabiné apart, as they are more group or collective dance.

Categorizing Afro-Caribbean dances as cultural expressions makes it easier to discover similarities that are found in the contributions by the African diaspora in the Caribbean region. This includes the hundreds of cultural or ethnic groups of Caribbean ancestors that were dispersed or mixed on each of the islands or regions of the Caribbean. For example, the basis of the movement of the majority of Afro-Caribbean dance is the African “twist,” which was known in 1920 as “balling the jack” and later as “race.” Puerto Rican bomba, Dominican merengue, Haitian compa, Brazilian samba, the rumba, conga, changüí, Cuban son or the salsa derived from these, all have this body movement at their center.

To reaffirm and recognize the positive value of the growth and evolution of the African contribution to Caribbean culture, the subjective language of the conquistadors must be set aside. Caribbean people must also be recognized as part of a rich heritage that makes them participants, not objects of exploitation, in modern society. Unfortunately, cultural domination and exploitation remain and have forged contradictory and subliminal feelings of self-denial. This feeling has been superimposed on the Caribbean heritage, making the presence, validity and magnitude of the Caribbean’s rich musical-cultural heritage invisible.


Author: Jorge Santiago Arce
Published: December 22, 2011.

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