Styles & Forms | Caribbean | World

From Port of Spain on Trinidad to Nassau in the Bahamas, from Miami through to Port-au-Prince: you are never far from a great rhythm in the Caribbean. While Jamaican reggae and Cuba’s son, mambo and salsa have been exported to the world, there is a wealth of great music on the other islands, from calypso and zouk to plena and chutney.

From the moment Christopher Columbus set foot on Cuba in 1492, the Caribbean has seen settlers arrive, usually to the detriment of the indigenous population. Slaves from Africa, colonists from Britain, America, Spain, France and beyond: all have brought their own music, making Havana, Kingston, Fort-de-France and San Juan among the most fertile cities for musicians, particularly if you are around during the Easter carnival season.


Primarily influenced by the French and Africans, the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe are strongholds of zouk, a mix of Haitian compas, brought by musicians fleeing that island’s poverty and repression; and the beguine, a dance dating back to the 1920s, when visitors to Martinique even introduced it to Europe. The undoubted stars are Kassav’, led by Jocelyne Beroard, a forceful presence both musically and culturally.


On the surface, the islands are a mix of Africans (proximity to America making them a favoured bolthole for runaway slaves) and strict English Protestantism (although obeah, African witchcraft, is also strong). The current music scene on the islands is less inspiring, but Joseph Spence (1910–84), a self-taught guitarist who always sounded precisely out of tune to other ears, remains a towering presence. Often compared to Thelonious Monk, Spence was a notable influence on Ry Cooder, The Grateful Dead, Taj Mahal and other modern slide players.

Dominican Republic

The further north you get, the more Latin the sound. The eastern half of the island of Hispaniola (which it shares with Haiti) has always been overshadowed by Cuba, but merengue has been around for hundreds of years and always comes back stronger whenever it feels that salsa has been stealing the limelight. When disco was beamed in by US radio stations, an entrepreneur-musician such as Johnny Ventura would co-opt the instruments and arrangements. In the 1980s, Juan Luis Guerra added sweet, Motown-style harmonies; thus the music kept moving.

This was originally the music of the plantations, where workers would sit and play drums, accordions and box bass. Today, however, the modern band has adopted the horn section from Cuba and pushed the African percussion and indigenous guira to the front. The latest unlikely development is merenhouse, particularly among the immigrant population in New York.


Despite being the poorest country in the western hemisphere, Haiti was once the region’s only rival to Havana for the richness of its nightlife. Unsurprisingly, there is a close relationship with the Dominican Republic’s music: in the Spanish neighbour, they have merengue, in Haiti, meringue, with guitars rather than accordions. Other outside influences include Cuban son and Congolese rumba. When...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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