The English-speaking Caribbean consists of two large island nations, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, that have a central influence on the entire region and have been the birthplace of the most important musical genres in the English-speaking part of the region. Their range of influence extends to several smaller islands such as Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Turks and Caicos and both the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as continental areas of Guyana, French Guyana and Suriname. Dominica and St. Lucia, because of their proximity to the French islands of St. Martin and Guadeloupe, also have strong influences from the French Caribbean musical traditions.

Trinidad and Tobago is the birthplace of musical genres such as calypso, soca and steel pan music. Although calypso originated in Trinidad and Tobago, its origins are often attributed to the French islands and some have tried to establish a distant influence from the music of French troubadours in the Middle Ages. In Trinidad and Tobago, the calypso tradition dates back to at least the 18th century. In general terms, it is a musical genre used as a kind of oral newspaper in which the most important political and social events are reported to the public. But in doing so, calypso singers adopt a sarcastic tone, make humorous comments and take critical views of important figures, often using crude and rude language. Although the British censored calypso during much of the colonial era, it continued informally.

Although calypso historians date its origins to the 18th century, popular calypso emerged in the early 20th century with the appearance of calypso performers such as Atilla the Hun and Roaring Lion. The first recording of calypso music dates to 1912. Among the best known calypso performers of the era were figures such as Lord Kitchener, Roaring Lion and Mighty Sparrow. Among the calypso songs that are best known internationally are Rum and Coca-Cola, written by Lord Invader and Lionel Belasco and made popular in the United States by the Andrews Sisters, and Banana Boat Song, sung by Harry Belafonte, which also became very popular in the United States in the 1950s.

Other musical traditions related to calypso can be found in the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean, such as mento in Jamaica, benna in Antigua and Grenadine calypso on the island of Carriacou. The genre also spread to various continental Caribbean countries and regions of the Atlantic or Caribbean coasts of Central America that were colonized by the British, such as Venezuela, Costa Rica, the Nicaraguan city of Bluefields, the Guatemalan city of Livingston, Honduras, Belize and the San Andrés archipelago of Colombia.

Other musical genres from Trinidad and Tobago that are derived from calypso are soca (also known as soul calypso), rapso and chutney. Soca emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like calypso, soca includes social commentary using picaresque humor and a sexual tone. Lord Shorty is generally recognized as the father of soca, although some of the best soca musicians of all time are Mighty Shadow, Lord Kitchener and Mighty Sparrow.

The steel drum is a traditional musical instrument in Trinidad and Tobago that is closely tied to carnival music. Ellie Mannette is credited with inventing this instrument during the 1930s.

Beyond calypso, the other musical genre from Trinidad and Tobago that is widespread in the Caribbean is steel drum music, also called steel pan or pan. The pan is an acoustic instrument that originated in Trinidad and Tobago. In this case, the word drum, as in steel drum, comes not from the musical instrument but from the barrel, or steel storage drum, which was used to store petroleum. When they were discarded, local residents converted them into musical instruments. Steel drum bands are groups that play this form of music and incorporate at least ten different kinds of pans. The oldest and best known steel band is Neal & Massy Trinidad All Stars, which has nearly 80 uninterrupted years of history.

Calypso, soca and steel drum music are all closely identified with carnivals, the cultural events that are of great importance to the inhabitants of both the English and French islands. These musical genres have also spread their influence to other regions where carnivals are also held, such as the carnivals of Notting Hill in London or in Brooklyn in New York.

Other traditional musical forms from the British islands of the Lesser Antilles (and also Guyana and Suriname, but not Jamaica, which is part of the Greater Antilles) include canboulay, picong, parang, pichakaree, saraca music of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and kaseko of Suriname and Guyana. The music of this region also shows a strong influence from Hindu musical traditions, given the numbers of immigrants from India who came to work on these islands after the abolition of slavery.

The island of Jamaica, also colonized by the British but geographically distant from Trinidad and Tobago and the British islands of the Lesser Antilles has evolved musically in different directions from those described above. The most prominent musical genres of Jamaica are reggae and ska. Ska is a musical genre that emerged in the late 1950s from the fusion of popular Jamaican music (mainly mento) and elements of black music of the United States, particularly jazz, soul and rhythm and blues. Ideologically, it was closely associated with anti-colonial and pro-independence sentiments among Jamaican youth, particularly the pro-independence group known as the Rude Boys. The music was accompanied by a dance called skanking.

According to some ska historians, the music evolved from the musical theme songs of movies and U.S. television series related to police and crime, and youths adopted and emulated the behavior of the “bad guys” in those movies and televisions shows. This was the source of the name “rude boys.” In fact, within the ska category, many themes came from movies and television, such as The James Bond Theme or The Untouchables.

After Jamaica achieved independence in 1962, many of the “rudies” (as the rude boy youths were known) emigrated to Britain and took ska with them. In that setting, ska mixed with punk rock, resulting in a faster and more forceful sound, but maintaining its upbeat, danceable style. From this mix emerged the youth movements of Britain such as “mobs” or “skinheads” that shared an antiestablishment and nonconformist attitude with the “rudies” and added a racist ideology to the equation that was proposed by the growing extreme right of the country.

In Jamaica, meanwhile, ska was influenced by new trends from the United States that were slower and smoother and it evolved into what was known as rocksteady. Rocksteady, in turn, was the precursor for reggae. The musical tempo of reggae is slower than that of ska and is characterized by an offbeat emphasis. In the late 1960s, some “rudies” began to play ska records at half speed, which allowed them to dance to the music more slowly. This slower sound was called rocksteady. Later, some musicians began to quicken the beat of rocksteady and add influences from traditional African music, U.S. jazz and rhythm and blues to create reggae.

The origin of the term reggae is the subject of wide debate. Some associate it with the word “ragged.” In this theory, reggae is a local variation on the word ragged as used to describe unkempt or poorly dressed people. Another variation is the local slang word “streggae,” which was used to refer to a prostitute or promiscuous woman.

Reggae later became the music of a religious movement, Rastafarianism, although it was also linked (like ska) to the black civil rights struggles that developed in the United States. From this fusion emerged what was known as roots reggae, in which the lyrics expressed reverence to Jah, or God. Many of the best known reggae artists internationally, such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh or Bunny Wailer, have performed roots reggae songs. But the religious aspect did not change the antiestablishment and nonconformist attitude that prevailed among the “rudies,” “mobs” or “skinheads.” On the contrary, it increased. The anti-racist ideology also continued, tied to the civil rights struggles of blacks and based on the belief stated by Marcus Garvey in 1927 when he said, “Look to Africa, for there a king shall be crowned.” The Rastafarians interpret that as a prophecy that a black king will emerge in Africa and lead the black people, including all the descendants of African slaves in the Caribbean, to return to Africa. When Haile Selassie I was crowned emperor of Ethiopia on November 2, 1930, the Rastafarians believed that Garvey’s prophecy had come true and called their movement “rastafari,” which comes from Selassie’s common name, Ras Tafari Makonnen. Under these religious beliefs, which are also based on Christianity, Garvey is considered a reincarnation of John the Baptist and Selassie is considered divine and immortal. The Rastafarian movement was part of the Back to Africa movement led by Marcus Garvey of Jamaica and was therefore a messianic, religious and political movement, all at the same time.

Rastafarianism thus became an antiestablishment religion, which is reflected in the Rastafarian lifestyle: communal life, vegetarianism, abstinence from alcohol, ritual use of marijuana as a means of coming closer to God, singing reggae as a way of praying to Jah, and wearing hair in dreadlocks and never cutting it. Further, the lyrics of roots reggae songs retain their social criticism and criticize the state and racial oppression, with the songs to Jah including calls for justice.

Reggae music is undoubtedly one of the most widespread forms of music at the international level and performers are treated like rock stars by young people. Reggae has also had an important influence on other musical genres or subgenres that followed it, such as dancehall, reggaeton, reggae fusion or reggae dub. Reggaeton is a genre that evolved in Puerto Rico during the 1980s that mixes reggae with elements of Latino music. It is a genre that exalts the lead singer above the musical group. Its lyrics condemn society and promote popular values of masculine virility and a life of delinquency. Reggae dub (also known as dub), meanwhile, is a reggae genre in which the disc jockey (DJ) is the central figure and takes original recordings by reggae singers and alters them to produce dub. The vocals are usually eliminated from the music, or only fragments of the vocals (usually the chorus) are left, and electronic effects are added along with other sounds, such as sirens, alarms, etc.


Author: Luis Galanes
Published: May 23, 2012.

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