From its formation in 1954 until its dissolution in October of 2010, the Netherlands Antilles was an autonomous country that was part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. This federation consisted of six Caribbean islands until 1986 when Aruba separated from the federation and it continued with five members. Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao are located south of the Lesser Antilles, near Venezuela, while St. Maarten (the southern half of the island belongs to the Netherlands, the northern half to France), St. Eustatius and Saba are located to the north.

Between 1634 and 1792, all of these islands were under the control of the Dutch West India Company, a business consisting of Dutch businessmen. Once it dissolved, the Dutch Colonial Council governed these possessions until 1800. During the Napoleonic Era, there were few changes and when the islands returned to Dutch rule from 1828 to 1845, all of the western Dutch colonies (Suriname and the Dutch Antilles) were united under a single governor who lived in Suriname.

Despite the fact that these six islands have been and continue to be politically tied to the Kingdom of the Netherlands, each island has its own particular territory and history. Their differences go beyond flags, as they also have different ethnic heritages. For example, half of the population of Saba is of western European descent, while the residents of Curaçao, Bonaire and the other half of the population of Saba are mainly of African descent. St. Maarten, meanwhile, shows a mixture of African and European heritages. Distinctively, Arubans have a population majority of European and American Indian descent.

Curaçao and Bonaire

The Spanish captured most of the indigenous people on these islands and transported them to work on the island of Hispaniola, today the Dominican Republic and Haiti. By 1525, many of these indigenous people had returned to Curaçao, where they settled and subsisted on agriculture and raising livestock for food.

The territory attracted Portuguese, Sephardic traders from Brazil and immigrants from Western Europe. They brought Africans, and as a result 80% of the population is of African descent. Today, Curaçao is home to more than fifty nationalities, mainly Venezuelans, and in recent years Colombians and Dominicans and descendants of Surinamese, Chinese and Indonesians. It is also home to various religious groups, such as Sephardic Jews and Dutch Protestants.

Curaçao and Bonaire are both the products of constant migrations and socio-musical contacts and share much of their musical traditions with the Spanish and American Indian populations of the nearly South American coastal areas. Three major influences can be seen in the musical forms of the two islands: that of western Africa, European (especially Spain) and indigenous.

During the slavery era, African singing and dancing adapted to the cultural influences of the New World. The simadan and bari dances are the best known. These dances and songs evolved until they became festivals that survived and became an important part of Bonaire’s life and culture. Simadan is a festival with African roots that incorporates traditional foods, songs and dances. Until the 19th century, simadan was celebrated with a procession through the fields while the songs known as seú were sung. The dancers’ steps were called wapa and imitated the movements used to plant and harvest crops on the plantation. The songs are sung in the old language of the slaves, a form of papiamento that is known as guene. The singers are accompanied by music played with the tambu drum, interspersed with sounds from instruments made from tools, such as the chapi (hoe) and a cachu (a trumpet made from a bull horn).

In Curaçao, the seú is no longer tied to working the land and folk dancers perform versions of the dance for tourists in hotels. It is also displayed during the annual folk parade held by the government in the capital, Willemstad, the Monday morning of Holy Week. Along with these variants, Bonaire also holds an annual festival with music called the Mascarada from January 1 through 6.

Tambu is the most important and significant tradition shared by Curaçao and Bonaire. It is also known as the blues of Curaçao. In the 19th century, tambu was recognized as a folk dance. This rhythm has clear African roots. The word tambu is used to refer to the rhythm, the song, the dance, the drum, the chapi and the calco/carco, a trumpet made from a conch shell. The tambu is accompanied by rhythmic clapping and a style of dancing called “baila-bari,” which literally means “to dance the drum.” The dance includes strong erotic movements and the feet hardly move. The songs were a way of criticizing the slave owners and everything related to the plantation system. Over time, tambu has become commercialized and has come to occupy an important place in the culture of these islands, especially in Curaçao.

Another important musical form in Curaçao and Bonaire is the tumba, which has a different tempo. The tumba originally came from the west coast of Africa. Under the influence of other popular Caribbean music, the tumba has developed a number of variants or styles: tumba guaracha, tumba pregona, tumba calypso, tumba cumbia and tumba di karnaval. It is generally accompanied by a song that has similar content to the calypso of Trinidad and the tambu, in that it is about a rumor, a criticism of the owner or a socio-political commentary. In Curaçao and Bonaire, the tumba is also used as a march, or the tumba di karnaval, and has a rhythm influenced by merengue. This rhythm, which has been separated from its original context, has now been spread more widely through recordings and performances on radio and television.

The immigrants of the 19th century also brought merengue, calypso, reggae, salsa, cha-cha-chá and other Afro-Caribbean rhythms from Cuba, Panama, Hispaniola, Suriname and other territories. These influences intensified with the introduction of radio in 1930, and in the 1960s television provided the opportunity to enjoy jazz and other popular music from the United States.

St. Maarten

St. Maarten’s music is fed by influences both old and new. Its musical tradition includes songs that accompanied daily work and were common in the past and now are part of a tradition that has been kept alive over the years. These songs were sung in the African call-and-response style, composed and sung as part of the field work, house building, and other forms of labor, which were done to a musical beat. This collective singing was known as “jollification.”

The island’s traditional dance is the ponum, which is believed to have originated among the slave population on the island. It was originally accompanied by the “pump drum,” but by the late 19th century, other drums, the triangle, the fife (a flute similar to a piccolo) and string instruments such as the violin were added to the instrumental support for the dance. Over time, it has also undergone changes such as the addition of various European influences, such as the polka, for example. These dances led to the creation of countless songs, some called brim and others known as quimbe. The quimbe is a derivation of tropical Caribbean songs such as calypso.

In 1920, the workers who returned to the islands brought new musical influences with them. The accordion, marimba and tambora drum came from the Dominican Republic. The rhythms of the merengue, bolero and the guaracha arrived from Cuba and Dominica. The waltz, the tumba and the mazurka came from Curaçao, Aruba, Anguilla and St. Kitts. Other instruments were also introduced, such as the mandolin, the tres guitar, the flute, etc. All of these elements melded with St. Maarten’s ponum and quimbe.

St. Eustatius

Very little is known about the musical traditions of St. Eustatius. The islanders have adopted many of the musical traditions of the other Dutch Antilles islands and other Caribbean islands, notably soca and steel drum bands.


Similar to the situation in St. Eustatius, there has been little research about the music of Saba, which consists of music from the other Netherlands Antilles and Caribbean islands. Despite this, Saba has maintained some old cultural traditions. For example, various social events include dances, typically the meringue and local versions of the waltz and the rumba. There is also an annual carnival held in the month of July.


The introduction of instruments and music from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Colombia and other Caribbean regions to the Netherlands Antilles began between 1930 and 1940. During the rest of the 20th century, popular music was imported from North and South America, influenced and inspired to a significant extent by Antillean musicians. First radio, and then television, spread the sounds of international popular music across the Antilles, infiltrating the daily lives of island residents and promoting the exchange of music and culture among the Dutch islands in the Caribbean.


Author: Luis Galanes
Published: April 25, 2012.

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