The cultural Caribbean extends beyond the geographic limits of the Caribbean to include areas where people from the region or their cultures exist. These places are sometimes far from the Caribbean geographically and are like certain kinds of plants called rhizomes that send out roots underground to emerge far from the original plant and become new plants.

Diaspora is the dispersion or displacement of human beings from their place of origin. Diaspora has always been part of the Caribbean. The first people to live in the Caribbean, the indigenous people from the continental areas who settled on the Lesser Antilles and then reached the Greater Antilles, came from across the sea. This was the beginning of Caribbean culture. The first example of music we know of was the areito, a ceremony in which the tribe would gather to dance and sing, recalling the history and important events of the community, such as the passage of hurricanes, for example. This was a way to transmit elements of their culture, since they did not use the written word.

With the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors at the end of the 15th century, other cultural elements began to be added to the mix, including music. In reality, the Spanish culture was still forming and encompassed elements of cultures of other peoples who had settled in Spain. This included the eight centuries of rule by Arabs who came from Africa. Also, almost immediately, beginning in the 16th century, the slave trade began to bring Africans to the Americas and many of them ended up in the Caribbean. In the 17th century, other European countries also occupied Caribbean islands. The English, French, Dutch and Portuguese settled the islands and established various linguistic areas in the Caribbean. In the 19th century, large numbers of Hindus were brought by the British from India to work in the colonies and the Spanish brought in Asians for the same purpose. All of these elements are reflected, to greater or lesser measure, in Caribbean music.

Because the original inhabitants of the Caribbean were almost completely eliminated by the conquistadors, their contributions to music are few, except for some musical instruments. In the Caribbean, European and African music were the essential elements in what gradually developed as Caribbean music. Caribbean music has three basic characteristics: First, it is mostly popular, folk and religious music, with a smaller presence of classical music, as was the case on all of the continents except Europe. Second, the presence of European and African elements is nearly equal. Third, there has been an incessant creation of new musical forms over the centuries. It is a music that is in a constant creative process. And finally, the exchange of musical influences between the islands and their export to the rest of the world is irreversible. These internal and trans-Caribbean diasporas are the topic of this article, with examples of some of the most important trends.

Perhaps the first internal Caribbean diaspora originated in Haiti. In the late 18th century, the Haitian Revolution against French rule led to an exodus of French colonists — many of them with their slaves — to New Orleans (which was considered part of the Caribbean) and to Santiago, Cuba. Thus the African influence on the music of New Orleans increased and in Santiago the process of the creation of the Cuban contradanza and the use of the cinquillo rhythm accelerated. The exiles also took all of their French ceremonial dances with them. It is also possible that this influence somehow came to Puerto Rico, as some of the danceable forms of the bomba have French names.

Cuba, meanwhile, with its intense trade with the city of New Orleans and the presence of African-American troops from the United States during the Spanish-American War (1898-1900), created the influence called Latin tinge by Jelly Roll Morton, influenced the creation of American jazz and possibly influenced the wind instrument groups known as Dixieland jazz. In Mexico, the presence of Cuban comedy companies in the late 19th century took the Cuban danzón and the bolero to Veracruz, where they took root in the new country. Much earlier, the ships that left the port of Havana took with them the genre of music known as habanera to Mexico and Venezuela, where they became popular.

In approximately 1842, Cuban danza arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where it was also known as upa or merengue, and Puerto Rican danza was soon created. A branch of this music, which kept the name merengue, became known in the Dominican Republic and is the beginnings of the genre that still carries that name. Jamaica, Haiti and other islands in the English-speaking Caribbean provided thousands of construction workers to build the Panama Canal in the early 20th century, and they took with them musical styles that fed the folklore of Panama. In Puerto Rico, the plena is said to have originated from the presence in the city of Ponce of two immigrants from some of the small British islands, and the name of the genre came from the phrase the man would say to the woman to tell her to play the tambourine: “Play, Ann.” This story has not been confirmed, however.

These exchanges due to the internal diaspora were continued by three inventions in the 20th century. The first was the record, which was circulating in the Caribbean in the early part of the century. The U.S. record companies brought their recording equipment to Cuba as early as 1904 and spread that music to other countries, including the Caribbean. They made recordings in Puerto Rico in 1907 with the same result.

The second great force in disseminating music in the Caribbean would be radio, which began broadcasting in the Caribbean basin in 1922. By the 1930s, powerful broadcasters such as XEW in Mexico, whose signal reached much of the Caribbean, brought Mexican music to Cuba and Puerto Rico. The same happened with the radio station Atlántico in Barranquilla, which exposed all of the Caribbean to the music of its country. Soon, Cuban radio stations CMQ, RHC and others were doing the same, along with the powerful Voz del Yuna in the Dominican Republic. Artists also made appearances on programs of radio stations in other countries, thus adding to the interaction. It was an effective and intense exchange within the internal diaspora.

These inventions spread Caribbean music, but not dance. Although movies arose in the early 20th century, talking pictures did not arrive until 1927. By 1937, Mexican cinema was strong, with films that initially used country music, some of which could be considered Caribbean, such as songs from the Yucatan and dance songs. But the Mexican cinema was soon full of Caribbean rhythms: boleros, guarachas, sones, danzones, etc. that came from throughout the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. These movies were the most effective means of spreading the music, especially in the 1940s and 1950s.

The Caribbean soon surpassed its geographic confines. Just as in the early centuries it had been mainly an area of immigration, after the end of World War II it became an area of emigration. But earlier, a curious experiment was conducted. In the early 20th century, the United States sent hundreds of Puerto Ricans to the islands of Hawaii as settlers, where they dedicated themselves to raising pineapples. Descendants of these emigrants still remain, and though many of them do not speak Spanish, they continue to play Puerto Rican traditional folk music, play the cuatro and dance to traditional rhythms. That’s how strong this little rhizome is. The huge exodus from Puerto Rico to the United States began in 1901 for economic reasons, due to the poverty on the island. It is the biggest rhizome in the Caribbean. This was especially so after 1917, when U.S. citizenship was given to Puerto Ricans. While initially the migration was almost totally to New York, it extended to other states, creating large communities in New Jersey, Miami, Chicago, Atlanta, Orlando, etc. Nearly half of the Puerto Rican population lives in these many rhizomes.

In the 20th century, the New York rhizome produced a unique phenomenon: the growth of Puerto Rican music from one that was completely local and insular — as it was at the beginning of the century — to becoming, after the 1930s, one of the three great musical traditions of the Caribbean, along with those of Cuba and Mexico. Results of this growth were musical phenomena such as the Nueva Canción and Nueva Ola trends, the rise of salsa in Puerto Rico and especially in New York, and the emergence of international stars (such as Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, etc.). This is the phenomenon that led to the Gran Combo having an ongoing presence in Colombia and to the spread of salsa throughout the Caribbean and later throughout the world.

An exodus from the Dominican Republic to the United States began in more recent years when, after the fall of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, the government began allowing Dominicans to travel freely outside the country, something they could not do before. This migration, especially to New York, has grown to the point that today the Dominican population in New York is greater than the Puerto Rican population. They took with them merengue and bachata, two musical genres of their country that have become accepted worldwide. Juan Luis Guerra is one of the Dominican artists known worldwide.

A significant migration from Cuba to the United States, especially Miami, began after the revolution that took power on January 1, 1959. But even before that, although the numbers of people moving to the United States were small, Cuban music had made a mark in New York. After the revolution, the flow of people continued, including musicians who had a lot of influence in the development of Latin jazz. Cuban communities also formed in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico after 1959, which would be part of the internal diaspora, and had influence on the local musical scene, especially in Puerto Rico. Cuba also has internationally famous stars such as Celia Cruz and, in Latin jazz, Bebo Valdes and Paquito D’Rivera.

Many Mexicans live in the United States but few of them are Caribbean. Most of them are from the northern and central parts of the country and migrate to the states that were formerly part of Mexico, such as California, Texas, New Mexico and others. The immigrants from states such as Veracruz and Merida can be considered Caribbean.

The coastal area of Colombia and its music are represented by two worldwide stars, Shakira and Carlos Vives.

Looking at the English-speaking Caribbean, the most outstanding country is Jamaica, which has undoubtedly had the greatest musical impact for its size and population. Jamaica has at least two rhizomes in New York and London and most of its fame is based on one man, Bob Marley, and reggae.

In the 1940s, an even smaller island, Trinidad, launched a new kind of music that achieved great success in the United States and even spread around the world: calypso. Trinidad and Tobago also created a new kind of band that has become very popular, the steel band. Steel drum bands have caught on in many other countries, such as Puerto Rico, where bands such as Jack Warren’s exist.

In the 1930s, the small French-speaking island of Martinique popularized a new musical genre, especially in France, called beguine, which later made it to the United States.

In summary, the Caribbean is a unique place, musically speaking. With just an infinitesimal part of the world’s population, and covering just a small part of the earth’s surface, it has produced folk and popular musical genres that have spread around the world. This is despite the fact that in a world that has civilizations that are many centuries old, it is only since the 17th century that the Caribbean has been producing and exporting musical genres, almost always accompanied by dances.


Author: Cristobal Diaz Ayala
Published: December 22, 2011.

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