Being a descendant or native of the Caribbean, as is for many other nations, is equivalent to embracing the history, customs and culture of the region. Much is learnt about the Caribbean through its people. The manner in which a person talks or the facial and body gestures which they make, the demeanor in which they walk or dance, all portray their cultural identity. Music has been shown to be a form of expression of oneself, which in the Caribbean region may be traced back to its roots in Africa (Gittens, 2010). In this paper I will attempt to introduce the reader to various genres of music in different Caribbean islands. Some of the music styles to gain wide popularity outside of the Caribbean include Reggae, Zouk, Salsa, Calypso, Reggaeton and Punta.I will focus however on popular music of today's youth in the English speaking Caribbean, making sure to state examples and describe the usage of Soca, Calypso, Dancehall and Reggae music genres.
I would like to commence by briefly taking a tour, on paper, to the Caribbean, as I introduce to you some members of the Caribbean archipelago, and some of the plethora of music genres present in each island or region. These examples are by no means a complete or exclusive list of the genres in each island, they are however, indicative of the types of music available in the "West Indies". Upon leaving Miami, Florida we approach the Bahamas and Turks & Caicos where Junkanoo, which is a type of music comprised of frantic beating of drums and random whistle blowing, and steel pan music are popular. The name "Junkanoo" was said to be derived from an African slave master and trader named "John Canoe" in the 17th century (Thompson, 1976). Just like many others throughout the world, slaves in the Caribbean were not allowed much freedom and would hide in the bushes whenever the opportunity arose. While in the bushes, they would dance and make music while covered in costumes made from various paints and leaves that they had found. Junkanoo, as a festival, represented the slave's freedom from slavery.
The US & British Virgin Islands and most of the English speaking Caribbean, such as the Cayman Islands , Jamaica, Anguilla, St.Martin, St.Kitts & Nevis, Antigua, Dominica, St.Lucia, Barbados, St.Vincent, Grenada, and Trinidad & Tobago, appreciate Soca, Calypso, Steel pan, Reggae and Dancehall. Guyana and Trinidad, because of their high Indian population, enjoy a unique style of music called Chutney. These countries derived elements from traditional Indian music due to their isolation within the islands. It is evident here that being remote has encouraged the Indians to retain their ancestral homeland culture of India (Ramnarine, 1996). The Spanish speaking Caribbean such as Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Belize, and Colombia tend to also entertain the above mentioned genres but are more uniquely categorized with Salsa, Punta, Reggaeton and Merengue. Haiti, Guadeloupe and Martinique, are French speaking islands in which upbeat genres such as Zouk, Compa and Kassav are popular. Calypso music festivals are celebratory in nature and at times may use satire or make fun of politicians, social issues, or any other subject matter of concern to the general public (Riggio,2004). The official birth of calypso was 1912, when Lovey's String Band recorded the first identifiably calypso genre song while visiting New York City. In 1914, the second calypso song was recorded, this time in Trinidad, by Julian Whiterose. The majority of these calypsos of World War I era were instrumentals by Lovey. It is thought that due to the constraints of the wartime economy, no recordings were produced until the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the "golden era" of calypso would cement the style, form, and phrasing of the music (Gittens, 2010).
Calypso evolved into a way of spreading news around the Caribbean. Politicians, journalists and public figures often debated the content of each song, and many islanders considered these songs the most reliable news source. Calypsonians, the musicians who sang Calypso, pushed the boundaries of free speech as their lyrics spread news of any topic relevant to island life, including speaking out against political corruption. Because of the freedom of speech presented by Calypso in the English speaking Caribbean, British rule enforced censorship on the lyrics and police began to scan these songs for damaging content. Censorship however, was not enough to deter these talented artist and song writers, for even with this censorship, they continued to find ways to slip satire in songs past the scrutinizing eyes of the editor. Sex, scandal, gossip, and insulting other calypsonians were the order of the day in classic calypso, shocking and outraging the moral sections of society, just as it is today in the Americas with hip hop (Gittens, 2010).
Calypso became a worldwide craze with the release of the "Banana Boat Song", or "Day-O", a traditional Jamaican folk song. 1956 also saw the massive international hit "Jean and Dinah" by Mighty Sparrow. This song too was a sly commentary as a "plan of action" for the calypsonian on the widespread prostitution and the prostitutes' desperation after the closing of the U.S. naval base on Trinidad at Chaguaramas (Hill, 1993).
Soca is a modern form of calypso with an up-tempo beat. There is a popular misconception that Soca is a fusion of American soul music and traditional calypso. Hence the name "so-ca," derived from soul and calypso. Though this sounds plausible, it is simply not true. Soca music originated as a fusion of calypso with Indian rhythms, thus combining the musical traditions to the two major ethnic groups of Trinidad and Tobago.
Garfield Blackman of Trinidad and Tobago was known as the King and creator of soca. Blackman began singing calypso at the tender age of seven. Performing under the name Lord Shorty, he rose to fame in 1963 with his recording of Clock and Dagger. Talk that calypso was dying, and reggae was the new thing, prompted Lord Shorty to experiment with the calypso rhythm for nearly a decade. He did so by combined Indian rhythm instruments with traditional calypso music. The result was a new energetic musical hybrid called soca. The addition of Indian music to calypso brought together the musical traditions of Trinidad and Tobago's two major ethnic groups, the descendants of African slaves and of indentured laborers from India. The name was later changed to "soca" by a music journalist. By the turn of the 1980s, Blackman had become disenchanted with music he had created, saying that soca was being used to "celebrate the female bottom, rather than uplift the spirits of the people". Around 1981, Lord Shorty converted to Rastafarianism, changed his name to Ras Shorty I, and moved into the Piparo forest in southern Trinidad, 50 miles from Port of Spain. There the musician, composer, and innovator continued to explore new musical frontiers while devoting himself to writing songs about spiritual matters and the dangers of hedonism. He formed the group Love Circle with his wife Claudette and several of their children (Riggio, 2004).
Soca music is based on a strong rhythmic section done by a drum set. Like many other styles of music today, Soca drum sections are recorded using synthesized drum sounds and then sequenced inside computers. Like Calypso, Soca was used for both social commentary and humor. Lord Shorty was disillusioned with the genre by the 1980s because Soca was being used to express courtships and sexual interests. Like all things related to sexual freedom, it was embraced because of its ability to reflect the desires of a society that was sexually repressed. Soca music became an expression of sexuality through metaphors, which usually pertained to female body parts in the West Indies (Hill, 1993).
Reggae music was first developed in Jamaica in the late 1960s. Reggae is based on a rhythmic style characterized by accents on the off-beat, known as the skank. Reggae had branch off of ska and rock-steady. It was said that Bob Marley claimed that the word reggae came from a Spanish term for "the king's music". (Reggae, 2011)
Although strongly influenced by traditional African, American jazz and old-time rhythm and blues, reggae even thought its origins from ska and rock-steady. The shift to reggae was illustrated by the organ shuffle, which was pioneered by Bunny Lee and was featured in the transitional singles "Say What You're Saying" (1967) by Clancy Eccles, and "People Funny Boy" (1968) by Lee "Scratch" Perry. The Wailers, a band started by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer in 1963, are perhaps the most recognized band that made the transition through all three stages of early Jamaican popular music of ska, rock-steady and reggae. (Reggae, 2011)
Reggae is noted for its tradition of social criticism in its lyrics, although many reggae songs discuss lighter, more personal subjects, such as love and socializing. Some reggae lyrics attempt to raise the political consciousness of the audience, such as by criticizing materialism, or by informing the listener about controversial subjects. There are many artists who utilize religious themes in their music whether it was discussing a specific religious topic, or simply giving praise to Jah (God) (Reggae, 2011).
Reggae music is also known for promoting the use of cannabis also known as herb, or ganja. Some popular artist such as Buju Banton and Capleton, began the Rastafari movement their lyrics and music was more conscious and root direct. Socio-political topics that reggae music touched on was Black Nationalism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism, criticism of political systems and "Babylon". There was a generation of musical artists and deejays that had emerged back to the roots of reggae era such as Garnett Silk, Rocker T, Tony Rebel, Sanchez, Luciano, Anthony B and Sizzla. (Reggae, 2011)
Dancehall music had originated during the late 1970s. Dancehall music owes its moniker to the Jamaican dance halls in which popular Jamaican recordings were played by local deejays. It began in the late 1940s among people from the inner city of Kingston, Jamaica who were not able to participate in dances uptown. Social and political changes in late-1970s Jamaica were reflected in the shift away from the more internationally oriented roots reggae towards a style geared more towards local consumption. Musical themes of social injustice, repatriation and the Rastafari movement were overtaken by lyrics about dancing, violence, and sexuality (Dancehall, 2011).
A trend that was rising in dancehall was sound clash albums which feature rival deejays or artists competing head-to-head for the appreciation of the audience. With sound clashes rivalries started to grow and the violence came. Two of the biggest artists of the early dancehall era were Yellow-man and Eek-a-Mouse but instead of giving into violence they chose humor. Yellowman was the first Jamaican artist to sign to a major American record label. Follow that emergence of female artists in dancehall music, including: Sister Charmaine, Lady G, Lady Junie, Junie Ranks, Lady Saw, Sister Nancy and Shelly Thunder. (Dancehall, 2011)
Dancehall artists have been criticized for their violence, sexual and homophobia lyrics. Artists targeted by the homophobia group including Beenie Man, Elephant Man, TOK, Bounty Killa, Vybz Kartel and Buju Banton. Buju Banton's song "Boom Bye-Bye" states that gays "haffi dead". The controversy surrounding homophobia lyrics has led to the cancellation of tours due to artists refusing to conform to censorship pressures. After lobbying from the Stop Murder Music coalition, the dancehall music industry agreed in 2005 to stop releasing songs that promote hatred and violence against gay people (Dancehall, 2011).
During the mid-twentieth century, the immigration of Caribbean inhabitants to large cities played a major role in spreading the music of the region. New-York City and Miami in particular, emerged as large centers for Latin and West Indian popular music. The music of the Caribbean is a diverse grouping of musical genres synthesized from African, European, Indian and native influences, created by the descendants of African slaves. Such variety and diversity depicts the talent of Caribbean ancestors, and the melting pot of cultures which make up the Caribbean today. Caribbean music moves the spirit, releases tension, influences nations and can either calm or excite masses. In my Caribbean island of St.Lucia and many others, music tells a story. I believe that we live for the music, through the music and by the music.