Caribbean Music, diverse variety of musical styles and traditions from the islands of the Caribbean Sea. It ranges from traditional folk genres, such as the Puerto Rican aguinaldo and Jamaican mento, to contemporary popular idioms such as salsa and reggae. Caribbean music encompasses the music of the English-speaking Caribbean (formerly the British West Indies), the Hispanic Caribbean (primarily Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic), and the French Caribbean (primarily Haiti, Martinique, and Guadeloupe). Music of mainland countries bordering the Caribbean Sea is sometimes classified as Caribbean as well. These regions include the country of Guyana, the former Dutch colony Suriname, and coastal regions of Mexico, Central America, Columbia, and Venezuela. See also Latin American Music.
In many respects, the diversity of Caribbean music is more marked than its unity, although some generalizations about common traits can be made. Most kinds of music in the region combine features originally derived from Africa with features derived from the West; this synthesis started with European colonization and the importation of African slaves and continues into the present. Such music styles are sometimes described as creole, or more generally as syncretic, indicating a blend of African-derived and Western-derived elements to produce new, distinctively Caribbean entities. The African influence constitutes a stylistic common denominator throughout most kinds of Caribbean music, manifesting itself in the form of lively syncopations (rhythms emphasizing offbeats), call-and-response vocal formats, and ostinatos (repeated musical phrases), which are often based on simple chords.
Most Caribbean music may be grouped into folk, classical, or commercially popular categories. Some folk styles are derived primarily from African music and tend to be dominated by percussion instruments and call-and-response vocals. This category includes the Cuban traditional rumba, Puerto Rican bomba, and music associated with Afro-Caribbean religions such as Haitian Vodun and Cuban Santería. Other kinds of folk music reflect more European ancestry, including Puerto Rican jíbaro music and Cuban punto. Both styles employ a verse form derived from Spanish music and feature guitars or guitarlike instruments. In a distinct category are the musical practices associated with ethnic East Indians, the descendants of indentured laborers who immigrated from India to the Caribbean during the colonial period. Indo-Caribbeans, who constitute the largest ethnic group in Trinidad and Guyana, have their own rich musical heritage, including traditional folk songs and modern pop styles such as chutney.
In 19th-century Cuba and Puerto Rico, formally trained composers came to create distinctively local forms of light classical music. The most prominent styles in this category are the Cuban contradanza (also known outside Cuba as the habanera); the danzón, a lighter, more rhythmic Cuban style; and the danza, a related style from Puerto Rico. In the early 20th century, Cuba produced several distinguished classical composers, including Ernesto Lecuona, Alejandro García Caturla, and Amadeo Roldan. The best-known forms of Caribbean music are the modern popular genres. In the Hispanic Caribbean, the most prominent of these styles come from Cuba. They include the son, the most popular style of Cuban dance music; the chachachá, a medium-tempo dance form; the bolero, a languid, romantic style; and the mambo, a predominantly instrumental big-band style (see Jazz: The Big-Band Era). Since the mid-1960s, the genre known as salsa, generally performed by Puerto Ricans and other Latinos, has flourished internationally as an updated version of the Cuban son and related styles.
Since the 1970s, the merengue, a fast-paced dance music, has become widely popular, especially in Puerto Rico, New York City, and its homeland, the Dominican Republic. Perhaps the most internationally famous style of Caribbean music is reggae, which emerged in the late 1960s in Jamaica as a local reinterpretation of American rhythm-and-blues music. Its widespread popularity, especially in the United States and urban centers in Africa, stems from its infectious rhythms, the brilliance of such performers as Jamaican singer Bob Marley, and the compelling nature of its calls for social justice. Calypso, a style of music from Trinidad, and soca, a lighter, dance-oriented variant of calypso, have also achieved some international renown. Both styles help attract thousands of tourists to Trinidad each year for the carnival season. The French Caribbean has also produced its own syncretic musical styles, notably compas, the popular music of Haiti, and zouk, a danceable style from Guadeloupe and Martinique that incorporates elements of funk music.
Caribbean music history begins with the Native Americans who inhabited the islands before the arrival of Europeans. Spanish chronicles describe some of the musical practices of the indigenous peoples, including a ceremony known as areito, in which participants sang and danced in circles around an ensemble playing slit-drums (made from hollowed logs), rattles, and other percussion instruments. By 1600, however, most Native Americans of the Caribbean had perished, along with their music and culture. Subsequent Caribbean music emerged as products of the interactions between African slaves and European settlers. Scholars draw distinctions between settler colonies, such as Cuba and Puerto Rico, and plantation colonies, such as those in the British West Indies.
The settler colonies attracted large numbers of Europeans and hosted lively creole music cultures. And with their large free black populations and relatively late ongoing imports of slaves, the settler colonies tended to allow for the preservation and continued vitality of neo-African music practices. In the 19th century, the local bourgeoisie in these colonies cultivated lively, nationalistic creole music cultures, encompassing such genres as the habanera and danzón. In the British plantation colonies, cultural repression appears to have been more severe, and the slave trade ended earlier, so that neo-African traditions declined. At the same time, creole bourgeois music failed to evolve in plantation colonies because of the small number of European residents. In the 20th century, the advent of the mass media—particularly phonograph records and radio broadcasts—stimulated the emergence of commercial popular dance music styles, often at the expense of traditional folk music. While these new pop styles were influenced by and, to some extent, were in competition with popular music from the United States, they nevertheless flourished by combining North American music with local traditions.
By the 1920s, the Cuban son, Trinidadian calypso, Dominican merengue, and Haitian méringue were thriving as distinctly local pop idioms. The Cuban-derived bolero became popular throughout much of Latin America by the 1940s. In the 1950s the big-band format was adapted from American jazz to the Cuban mambo, the Dominican merengue, and the Puerto Rican plena, another distinctive creole style. By the 1960s, smaller ensembles became more common as amplifiers and electric instruments became widely available and bandleaders sought to avoid the high cost of maintaining big bands. During this period, communities of Caribbean immigrants in North American cities came to play crucial roles in creating and spreading Caribbean popular music. In particular, New York City emerged as a dynamic center for the production and consumption of Latin and West Indian popular music.
In the 1960s and 1970s, salsa emerged as a highly popular reinterpretation of Cuban dance music, while Jamaican reggae took the world by storm. Leading performers of both genres, including salsa singer Rubén Blades and reggae singer Bob Marley, promoted a sense of socio-political idealism, optimism, and activism. However by the 1990s, the dominant Latin music genres in the region were the more sentimental, apolitical salsa romántica and the generally light-hearted merengue. Similarly, the 1970s style of “roots reggae,” or “foundation reggae,” gave way in the 1980s to a new style called dance-hall, which featured boasting, erotic, or topical lyrics rapped in a semimelodic style over driving, repetitive rhythms. During the 1990s, a new generation of talented performers emerged from the Caribbean, including Jamaican dance-hall artist Buju Banton and Dominican singer Juan Luis Guerra.