One of the experiences that define the Caribbean as a region is the African diaspora. The impact that this process had on the music of the Americas in general, and the Caribbean region specifically, established the basis for the commonalities found in music from New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, the Antilles, the Orinoco region of Venezuela, in Buenaventura on the Pacific coast of Colombia, Veracruz in Mexico, Suriname and the Guianas. The arc of African influence has expanded to the current and former colonial centers, enclaves of authentic musical production such as the United States and Canada. Additionally, it has also led to a process of cross-pollination among the local intra-Caribbean diasporas.

The development of Afro-Caribbean rhythms has been the product of various human movements. The first was the combination of the experiences of the Africans and their descendants on the Iberian Peninsula beginning in 711. Their occupation of that region of Europe and the establishment of a North African population there brought them into contact with such distant populations as Central Europeans and West Africans. From the Afro-Arabic traditions came string instruments such as the as oud (an Arabic lute) or the durbaka and the rebab viola (rebec), which is played in a vertical position on the legs; percussion instruments such as drums in the form of cups, the daf and the qanun salterio; and wind instruments such as the ney flute. Musical improvisation is one of the most important contributions to this process of cultural interaction.

The most profound impact on the music of the Caribbean from this first experience was that of the West Africans. The development of the slave trade from that region of Africa fed the neo-African and mixed-race cultures that were born and developed simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic. The first music of these mixed-race people, the Afro-Andalusian songbook, developed on the Iberian Peninsula and was brought to the Americas after 1492 by the sailors and the first settlers. Over the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the active participation of Africans and African descendents has been documented in the cathedral dances in Seville, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in Santo Domingo on Hispaniola, Havana, Cuba, Mexico City and New Spain. The names of the groups participating in these dances are very significant: “The Blacks,” “The Blacks of Guinea,” “The Black Circle,” “The Black Kings,” “The Battle of Guinea.”

Christmas caroling and collecting money appear as practices of Africans and descendents of Africans in texts by Diego Sánchez de Badajoz, Lope de Rueda, Andrés de Claramonte, and others. These celebrations were the context for the African, neo-African and mixed-race dances that arose and developed on both sides of the Atlantic, associated with celebrations and festivals both civic and religious. These kinds of social events were a space in which new forms of dance emerged, such as the portorrico, the gurrumé, the galumpé, the zarambeque (also known as the cumbé), the zarabanda, the chacona and the gurujú from Guinea.

In the Americas, in general, and in the Caribbean, specifically, the festivals of The Three Kings, Christmas Eve, the feast of Corpus Christi, the sung rosaries (from popular religion) and the celebrations of the days of the saints, such as St. Michael, St. John and St. James, came to be associated with Africans and their descendents. This mixing and coexistence of civil celebrations and displays of popular Christianity and neo-African religions persisted in the Americas, reinforced by the importation of great numbers of slaves from West Africa.

Neo-African festive practices today show the ability of African diaspora practices to survive and adapt. The neo-African influence can be seen in celebrations such as the Rará in Haiti, and the Gagá in the Dominican Republic, in which popular Christian religion and the African religion of the ancestors are assimilated. The Rará celebrations connect the carnival time with Holy Week under the umbrella of the Vodou celebrations. The Santiago Apóstol festival in Loíza, Puerto Rico and the dancing devils of Venezuela during the feast of Corpus Christi – with those of the Yare being the best known – also present the co-existence of the religious and the carnivalesque.

Additionally, similar forms of musical groups, community gathering and a strong connection to popular commercial music continue in the carnivals of Trinidad and Tobago, St. Thomas, Santiago de Cuba and the Bahamas. Examples are calypso and soca in Trinidad and Tobago and the Virgin Islands, the conga in Santiago de Cuba and the junkanoo music of the Bahamas. At these festivals, and at Caribbean carnivals, the singers of the Santiago carnival and the steel drum bands of Trinidad and Tobago, as well as other rhythms, are played over large sound systems that broadcast Dominican meringues, Jamaican raga and raggamuffins, and the latest form of African diaspora music, Puerto Rican reggaeton.

Neo-African religious music in the Caribbean and Christian religious music have strongly influenced the formation of Caribbean music. The drum plays a central role as seen in the rhythms of the Bushee Negro (descendents of escaped African slaves) of French Guiana, the Regla de Ocha (Santeria) of Cuba, the religion of the Orishas or Chango in Trinidad and Tobago, the Revival Zion and Pocomania of Jamaica, up to the Garifunas of Guatemala, Honduras and Belize. The similarities and differences are obvious when these traditional forms of music are compared. For example, we see that in the kumina music of Jamaica the group uses the kbandu (bass drum made with the skin of a male goat) and the kyas (high-pitched drum made of goat skin). They are played while sitting astride them. The kbandu provides the basic rhythm and the kyas depart from the basic patter with improvisation. The group is completed by a guayo, which is used as a scratching instrument (a metal guiro), shakas (maracas made from the fig plant) and katta sticks (sticks used to hit the back of the drums, as in the Puerto Rican bomba).

In Regla de Ocha, or Lucumí, ceremonies, a trio of drums is used. They are known as the batá and are called, from high-pitched to low-pitched, the iyá, the itótele, and the okónkol. In Guadalupe and Martinique, the Gwo Ka drums are used: the boula, which establishes the rhythmic base and the markeur (or maké) that is used for improvisation. The drums and sticks of the Dominican Republic are used to play a musical repertoire for a series of dances. This genre is known for the name of the drum, Palo, and is part of the Congo tradition that is found in most of the Caribbean. The drum culture comes together with dancing and singing, a combination present in contemporary genres such as kompa, zouck, salsa, merengue, punta, raggamuffin, Caribbean jazz, soca and reggaeton.

The drum culture can create the false impression that it is the only important musical form among Africans and their descendents in the region. Caribbean African diaspora music also includes musical traditions based on string instruments such as the harp in the jarocho music of Veracruz in Mexico, the Central American marimba tradition that extends to the currulao music of Buenaventura on the Pacific coast of Colombia and to concert music, which codified in musical notation the conventional rhythms, melodies and harmonic forms of oral tradition, popular practices and the creative appropriations of European forms. The latter was produced by professional musicians of African descent such as, for example, Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) and Scott Joplin (1867-1917) of the United States; Juan Morel Campos (1857-1896) from Puerto Rico; Jan Gerard Palm (1831-1906) from Curacao; Ludovic Lamothe (1882-1953) from Haiti; and Alton Augustus Adams (1889-1987) from the U.S. Virgin Islands. The guarachas and the seis of Puerto Rican bomba, the tumba of Curacao, Haitian vodou music, ragtime and bambula rhythms of New Orleans and the U.S. Virgin Islands survive in the form of concert music, reformulated as contradanzas, danzas, waltzes, mazurkas, merengue and other forms of European descent.

During the 20th century, music of African descent dominated the region’s music. This music became the basis for popular and commercial genres promoted by the mass media and the entertainment industry. It developed as a framework of identity because it was adopted and appropriated by the entire population, sometimes without knowledge of its origins in the African diaspora.

Although the bolero takes its name from a Cuban genre and its beginnings are attributed to José ‘Pepe’ Sánchez and his song, “Tristezas” (Santiago de Cuba in 1886), it developed from a broad repertoire of Caribbean and Latin American songs (known in Puerto Rico as criolla or serenata songs). This type of song is a genre that emerged from various processes: the development of a guitar culture by the Africans and African descendents in urban and rural areas, the development of traditions among the urban working class (especially the tobacco workers) of solo, duo and trio singing with accompaniment by string instruments, and the genesis of the recording industry and radio, and the related beginnings of the entertainment industry.

Between 1900 and 1965, composers such as Felipe Rosario Goyco, Rafael Hernández and Pedro Flores of Puerto Rico; the Cubans Ernesto Lecuona, César Portillo de la Luz, Benny Moré and Oswaldo Farrés; the Mexicans Juan Arvizú, Agustín Lara, José Mojica, Néstor Chayres and “Toña La Negra” María Antonieta Peregrino, produced a broad repertoire of songs sung by groups such as the Trío Borinquen and Trío Vegabajeño (Puerto Rico), Los Matamoros (Cuba), Los Naipes and the Trío Venezuela (Venezuela) and Los Panchos (Mexican and Puerto Rican).

African diaspora musical genres that structure the Caribbean repertoire of the 20th and 21st centuries have the common characteristic of the mobility of the region’s population in interregional migrations to Latin American capital and metropolitan centers. The genesis and development of musical genres such as calypso, son and the plena, as well as biguine and kompa, ska and rocksteady, share the effects of internal and inter-island migration. The dissemination of Caribbean music through local, international and transnational recording houses, and the increase of the Caribbean diaspora to cities such as New York, Paris, Mexico City, London, Amsterdam, Madrid, etc., have fed this process.

In addition to the cultural industry and the mass media, tourism from the colonizing countries to the Caribbean, since 1880, has had a formative impact on the development of the genres mentioned: the nightclub culture, the hotel casinos and concert halls. All of these factors create the conditions for standardization of practices: the instrumental format of Big Band music – very similar to the existing civic and military bands – led to various musical formats such as calypso, son and the plena, creating versions of dance music different from the popular versions.

These genres have also been affected by the Caribbean diaspora, particularly to New York City, and by the continuous movement of professional musicians among the islands and the region’s urban centers. This continuous movement led to the transformation of calypso, the son and the plena, which were genres originally associated with rural areas or underprivileged urban areas, into dance music in nightclubs and ballrooms in New York as well as the largest cities on the islands of their origin. Similarly, zouck, salsa, champeta, ragamuffin (variation of dance hall reggae) hip-hop, rap, popular rock and reggaeton, during the 20th century, show the same characteristics of transformation.

Salsa, for example, emerged from musical processes such as the globalization of Cuban African diaspora musical genres, the mobilization of Caribbean music through the archipelago and the migration of a Caribbean population, especially Puerto Ricans, to New York City. Zouck, on the other hand, presents a different case as it emerged from the development of musical genres associated with creole, the language of the French-speaking Caribbean, and the diaspora from the English-speaking Caribbean to metropolitan centers such as New York, Montreal and Paris.

Reggaeton represents the most contemporary form of the African diaspora genres. Musical traditions as disparate and geographically distant as Panama, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and the United States are part of its birth and development. The history of reggaeton is linked to the movement of the Caribbean population, to the globalization of local music and the creation of a musical culture focused on youth. Its lyrics mainly focus on criticism of social and political realities from the perspective of historically marginalized sectors. It uses hypersexuality, criminal lifestyle, obscene words, exaltation of extreme machismo and the objectification of the female body as its raw materials.

Today, the African diaspora music of the Caribbean has, as a starting point, the contact among its various practices via the Internet and the mobility of the population both within the region and beyond it.


Author: Dr. Noel Allende Goitía
Published: December 22, 2011.

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