There are musical practices that go beyond the category of musical genres. The terms used to talk about these forms lead to a constellation of other pre-existing and co-existing genres. The genesis and development of these forms are the products of various shared processes. They also have characteristics of assimilation: different ways of performing the same musical form and generic derivations that are the product of parallel development and cross-pollination of genres and media.

The characteristics shared by the various genres point out certain universal conventions that may be the product of the common colonial tradition and globalization. That is why in this article they are called metagenres, as they present a complex of musical practices instead of a unique and distinct way of making music.

The representative metagenres addressed here are the contradanza, the bolero, calypso, salsa, zouk and reggaeton. All have the colonial historical context of massive mobilization of regional populations in intra-Caribbean migratory patterns and emigration to the urban centers of the colonizing powers.

During the 19th century, the contradanza emerged as the music of the European and American social elites. It was a privileged form of expression on both sides of the Atlantic. In the first half of the 20th century, Caribbean singers made the Cuban bolero their cultural merchandise through records that standardized its form and opened it to transformative influences from Latin American music.

Meanwhile, calypso developed from the diverse musical traditions of Trinidad and Tobago. It became international through the Trinidadian diaspora in New York, the Carnival and the invention of the steel pan band. Globalization of local music made salsa a metagenre par excellence. Both forms represent a synergy of the Afro-Caribbean music that grew around the commercial popularity of Cuban music, especially the son.

In the French Caribbean, zouk was the synthesis of various traditions among the Caribbean Creole-speaking populations. In another case, the post-modern condition of privileging transnational trends is shown in the example of reggaeton. This Puerto Rican music represents the migratory processes between countries in the Caribbean and New York City.

These metagenres not only cover a wide variety of musical practices, but are also evidence of dynamic, complex and adaptive human processes.

The contradanza

The contradanza is a trans-Atlantic musical metagenre that developed in the late 18th century and during the 19th century as a kind of national music. The rhythm, English in origin, went through adaptations first in Europe and later in the American colonies. Its popularization throughout all spheres and strata of society was due to its ability to adapt to various local and popular forms.

The music of the contradanza had a binary pattern of 2/4 or 6/8 time. The piece began with an introduction that was sometimes called the paseo. The composition adopted a form of repeating sections that used structures such as AABB, ABCC, ABCA or ABCD.

Figure dances were done to this music in which the dancing couples interacted with other couples. In society dances, this meant there was a pre-established choreography led by a caller. The danza used the same format as the contradanza, but was a dance of pairs.

The choreography of the contradanza group dancing was adapted by the people of African descent, who created the tumba dances of Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, which also had their counterpart in the Puerto Rican southern bomba. During the late 19th century, the drum rhythms of the bomba and bamboula were clearly used in the melodic base of the ballroom dances and in the most popular forms of street dances.

The cinquillo cell, the so-called elastic tresillo and the simultaneous or combined use of ternary or binary subdivisions of the eighth notes established the bases for the development of the danzón, the danzonetes and the more elaborate forms of the popular guarachas. While the contradanza became the dance music of popular celebrations of a civic nature, the danza, being a dance by couples, was the music of the middle class, based on musical nationalism pushed by the class of professional musicians with training in the new local or European conservatories.

In the Caribbean, the contradanza developed first and the danza arose later. In the hands of musicians with formal education, it was transformed into danceable instrumental music, songs without lyrics, rhapsodies for piano and the local versions. Professional musicians with formal training performed them. Most outstanding among them were Louis Moreau Gottschalk of the United States; Manuel Gregorio Tavárez, Juan Morel Campos and José Quintón of Puerto Rico; Jan Gerard Palm of Curacao; Manuel Samuell and Ignacio Cervantes of Cuba; Ludovic Lamothe of Haiti; Tomás León, Felipe Villanueva, Ernesto Elorduy and Manuel M. Ponce of Mexico; Henry Price and José María Ponce de León of Colombia; Máximo Herculano Arrates Boza of Panama; and the Dominicans Juan Bautista Alfonseca, Pablo Claudio and José Dolores Cerón.


The bolero is a musical phenomenon of the 20th century, though it has its roots in musical practices from the late 19th century. This metagenre contains a constellation of Caribbean popular forms. In Cuba, its origin is traced to the composition of “Tristezas” by José “Pepe” Sánchez in 1886. The Cuban bolero is one of the forms of Caribbean music that was transformed by the U.S. recording industry. Its standardization as a commercial and tourism genre made it an emblem of regional identity.

The Cuban bolero also passed through the transformative process of cross-pollination, however, and it was affected by the Caribbean forms of music from Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the ballads of the French- and English-speaking Caribbean.

Among the most recognized composers and performers were Agustín Lara (Mexico); Rafael Hernández and Pedro Flores (Puerto Rico) and Ernesto Lecuona and Miguel Matamoros (Cuba).


Calypso is a musical phenomenon that emerged from the interaction of popular forms of African descent and European forms of entertainment such as the carnival. Its local origins in a small instrumental format, consisting of string instruments, various percussion and woodwind instruments did not have a trans-Caribbean impact until the appearance of the big band format and the invention of the steel pan band after 1945.

What made this music a metagenre was its diffusion and the fact that it became a local musical form in Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Venezuela and Puerto Rico and in the islands of the Lesser Antilles and Providencia Island of Colombia.

The music is made using metallic drums fabricated from recycled oil barrels, called steel drums. The steel drum groups have an important presence in the carnivals. In Callao, Venezuela, it is known by the name bum-bac. The calypso singers are called calypsonians.

Among the most famous calypso singers were Lord Kitchener, Roaring Lion, Lord Invader and Mighty Sparrow in Trinidad and Tobago, and Walter Ferguson of Panama, among others.


Salsa is a metagenre that emerged in the 1970s. Its immediate antecedent was the popularization of the cha-cha-chá, the mambo, the rumba and particularly the son, through the commercial networks of radio, cinema, the tourism industry and the nightclub culture. Between the 1930s and the 1950s, the big band orchestra format had a huge impact on Caribbean music. This included the Cuban music that was marketed at a global level.

It was the Caribbean brass band, however, that was the favored instrumental format for festivities in the Puerto Rican neighborhoods of New York, especially the new migration after World War II. This form produced the instrumental format that still characterizes salsa today: the combo. These changes closely followed the demographic changes of the public who danced at the nightclubs, such as the Palladium in the Barrio in Harlem.

In the 1960s, the commercial musical stars of Cuba, such as Dámaso Pérez Prado, Arsenio Rodríguez, Benny Moré, Gilberto Valdés, Mongo Santamaría and Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo (Machito) shared popularity with Puerto Ricans such as Tito Puente (the King of the Timbales), Charlie and Eddie Palmieri, Tito Rodríguez, Ray Barretto and Joe Quijano. It was during the 1970s that a qualitative change began among the Cuban genres. The Puerto Ricans, both in New York and on the island of Puerto Rico, fueled this change.

The development of the music that would come to be known as salsa is the juncture of various musical traditions. In Puerto Rico, performances of plena and bomba in combo format by Ismael Rivera and Rafael Cortijo established a musical form that had a direct impact on the performances of Cuban genres. In New York City, the creation of the recording house Fania Records by Johnny Pacheco and Jerry Massucci, and the creative work of artists such as Ismael Miranda, Willie Colón, Héctor “Lavoe” Pérez, Roberto Roena, Bobby Valentín, and Willie Rosario, generated a series of new musical styles such as the boogaloo, jala-jalashingalínpata-pata and the mazucamba. These rhythms established salsa as a metagenre because of their musical synergy. In that respect, Puerto Rican plena and bomba, Dominican merengue and the urban music of Panama took on a formative surge they did not have before.


Zouk is a musical metagenre that synthesizes various French-speaking musical currents and reformulates them into a commercial musical format with a strong globalist accent. Zouk is a musical style that synthesizes previous musical traditions such as the gwo ka and biguine (bidgin bélè, or drum biguine, and the orchestra biguine) from the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. A huge migration of Haitians to these islands put their local musical styles into contact with kompakadans and Haitian mini-jazz.

Zouk emerged in the middle 1980s as a combination of the musical elements mentioned above, gwo katambourti bwa and biguine vidé. Like other metagenres of the 20th century, its genesis and development are associated with singers and celebrities and the recording studios and record labels. A unifying element of this music is the exclusive use of French Creole, which has ensured its popularity and broad dissemination in the French-speaking countries. Musicians in Cape Verde have created their own style of zouk and the music is also very popular in France, the United States and Canada, especially in the province of Quebec.

Kassav was the musical group that launched and popularized this form. The group was founded in 1981 by Pierre-édouard Décimus, Freddy Marshall, Jacob Desvarieux and Jorge Décimus. As a form of dance music, zouk drew on already established traditions such as balakadribal gramounbiguine and the island mazurka, as well as pan-Caribbean influences such as reggae, soca, salsa, and even rock. Like socalambada and kompazouk is used as the music of competitions during carnival. Its use in the French-speaking and Creole-speaking world and in Brazil has led to the development of new traditions, such as zouk-lovekizomba and the so-called cabo-love.


Reggaeton is a musical metagenre that is the result of various trends. First was the evolution of reggae music in Jamaica toward the dancehall reggae formwhich was played over a sound system handled by a deejay who kept the music flowing while speaking in a rhyming and tuneful manner (called toasting). Later, through the Jamaican migration to Panama during the construction of the canal, reggae was introduced to the Spanish-speaking population of African descent, creating the basis for the raggamuffin in Spanish. Another influence was the genesis and development of hip-hop and rap in New York City as an emerging phenomenon in the African-American communities in the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. Finally, there was the marketing of Panamanian reggae in Spanish-speaking countries, and the massive return migration in the 1980s of Puerto Ricans who were consumers and players of New York’s hip-hop and found a common aesthetic in Spanish reggae. Musically, this metagenre shows influences of other Caribbean music such as the bomba, salsa, champetacumbiavallenato and house merengue.

Raggamuffin spread from Panama broadly through the Spanish Caribbean. It was in Puerto Rico in the 1990s that it was given the name reggaeton. Its success did not displace rap or hip-hop, genres popular in Puerto Rico since the middle 1980s. In the beginning, reggae in Spanish, performed by El General, Chicho Man, Nando Boom, Renato, Apache Ness, Lisa M and Francheska, coexisted with the pioneering work of Vico C, Rubén DJ, Mey Vidal and others.

During that decade, artists such as Vico C, Wiso G, Tego Calderón, Ivy Queen, Don Chezina, Daddy Yankee, Master Joe and OG Black established reggaeton as Puerto Rican music. The Puerto Rican diaspora in New York, which was part of the east coast creation of hip-hop, claimed for itself the melting pot that made its existence possible, thus making a debate about the origins of the history of reggaeton.

Reggaeton is based on the rhythm of the Jamaican dembow. It has much in common with other Caribbean music of the African diaspora such as the plena, house merenguekompasoca, Cuban rumbas, cumbia and the punta, among others. The lyrics typically talk about sexual exploits, the movement of the female body in dance, hypereroticized tales of love, bling (jewelry used as accessories by youths), the exaltation of the rapper or reggaeton singer’s life, etc. There is also an underlying social and political commentary. The dancing associated with reggaeton developed under a mutual influence between hip-hop and reggaeton itself.

Today, reggaeton coexists with Spanish rap, in many cases melding with it. As a Caribbean metagenre, its adaptability has led to the development of other rhythms, such as the bachatón, urban salsa, merenguetónmalianteocubatónromantiqueocumbiatón, electric flow and reggaeton rock.


Author: Noel Allende-Goitía
Published: April 25, 2012.

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