Musics of the Caribbean

The pre-historic inhabitants of the islands of the Caribbean were all but extirpated in the first hundred years of European activities in the region, and all of the surrounding continental coasts were deeply and permanently affected by exploration, slavery, colonial exploitation, and the boiling stew of cultures and civilizations that ensued. The main ethnic components in most areas were Hispanic and African, but other Europeans (French, English, Dutch... even Danish) were locally important, and American influences have also been an important part of the mix for more than 200 years.

Most of the islands had slave-based plantation economies well into the 19th century, and most continued to be primary-commodity producers after slavery ended --so they were tied into export trade, and linked in various ways (including migration streams and cultural connections) to metropolitan centers outside the Caribbean. A few islands developed large urban centers (Kingston Jamaica, Port-au-Prince Haiti, Port-of-Spain Trinidad), but most of the populations of most islands were predominantly rural until quite recently.

Some of the types of music associated with particular places in the Caribbean are widely known --Reggae, Calypso-- and others have been in vogue in the past, often as specific dances and/or rhythms --Rumba, Meringue, Cha Cha Cha, Salsa. Each such name represents a florescence, and an evolution from earlier styles. The musical landscape is exceedingly complex, and has been very influential on musics in far-away places (thus, Cuban music greatly influenced the development of Congolese pop music; and Reggae fed into developments in several European countries... and influences went back and forth between New Orleans and several Caribbean islands). And it could be said that Reggae is the most influential music of the Caribbean... and that music is and has long been an important export commodity for the Caribbean.

Many of the musical forms are examples of Creolization, a term most often used for linguistic evolution (but equally applicable to other syncretic genres, including musical...) as a consequence of prolonged encounter of two (or more...) civilizations. And here's a course I'd love to take: Routes, Rap, Reggae: Hearing the Histories of Hip-hop and Reggae Together...

To which of the many musics should we direct our attention? I've put together a collection of 25+ musical examples (W&L access only), to which I could easily add at least as many again, without being in any danger of running short... and here are some considerations on various genres and resources.

The Smithsonian/Folkways Caribbean collection has all sorts of musical evidence in its more than 100 disks. These are also sold in digital form via