Posted by: Reginald Cyntje | December 4, 2009

Caribbean Music – Your Music?

The history of Caribbean Music also includes the history of American Music. We have been connected for a long time.

We were part of the daily music activities in Africa where we shared messages and news through music from village to village. Call and response, Improvisation (Spontaneous Composition) were prevalent in our communities.

The Slave trade brought many of us over to the Western Hemisphere. Our ancestors traveled to this region under better circumstances. They explored and shared their knowledge with many prior to the Europeans. You can find Egyptian pyramids, Ethiopian statues and other historical artifacts in the western hemisphere pre-dating Christopher’s self claimed discovery.

During the trip from Africa to the West there was some dilution in culture, religion and music. The africans that came to the Caribbean maintained more of their culture than those that went to America.

Slave Revolts in the Caribbean were prevalent. They used music to document or protest the conditions of the African experience in the West. Due to the large number of sugar cane crops the amount of blacks surpassed the whites in the region. Many of the slaves taken from the Gold Coast were warriors and they did not lose their leadership skills when they were brought to the Caribbean.

The Haitian Slave revolt was the first successful one in the west but Africans were revolting frequently long before this. One of the first slave revolts took place on St. John now one of the US Virgin Islands. In addition, during war times the French were known to encourage British slaves to revolt in the Caribbean.

Since the Africans in the Caribbean maintained a large portion of their culture the music was not as diluted as the slaves that came to America. Many of the slave masters in America took measures to avoid the same thing that was happening in the Caribbean. One critical difference was the removal of the “drum.” The caribbean slaves never lost their “drum.”

Carisoo is folk music found in the Virgin Islands and Trinidad in the 18 century. Since the Africans maintained their culture the name is probably a derivative of “Carissa” – a tiny shrub found in tropical Africa or “Kaiso” – African Dance.

The Negro Spiritual was very different from Caribbean folk music. Since there was more dilution and fear in America, the Negro Spirituals were coded – slick. The American Slaves would emphasize certain words to pass on a message to other slaves that the slave masters did not understand. This smooth coded approach to music influenced the nature of American music to follow.

Congo Square (New Orleans) was a place where African (slaves)families unite and caught up on news, slave masters examined new slaves and on certain occasions a mecca for African music.

Since Congo Square was a major port, you could hear african drumming, caribbean music and the development of what we know as American music.

The rhythms in what became American music sounded very familiar to musicians in the Caribbean. The influence began.

As time passed, American music turned around and influenced Caribbean music. Calypso eventually replaced earlier forms of Caribbean music.

In America there was a Calypso Explosion in the 1940s and 1950s. Many Calypsonians were backed by Bebop Jazz musicians. “Lord Kitchener” was considered the greatest composer in the history of Calypso. He was greatly influenced by jazz and composed a tribute to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie entitled “Bebop Calypso.”

Lots of Jazz musicians were influenced by caribbean music.

One of the most direct examples was Sonny Rollins who parents were native of the Virgin Islands. Listening to his earliest contributions, many Caribbean musicians can hear “island melodies” inserted into his style.

Wynton Kelly-pianist, Fats Navarro-trumpet and many others expressed their Caribbean Heritage musically. Blue Mitchell (Bahamian) composed a song called “Fungi Mama” that combined Caribbean melodies with jazz song form.

As a musician, I like many other musicians leaving the Caribbean pursing a career in music performance, went through a period where we had to figure out a way to understand how to communicate musically to the musicians in America especially when playing certain styles. Once I understood our similarities and our past I became comfortable with my approach to the expression of music.



  1. Fascinating have you ever read “They Came Before Columbus” by Ivan Van Sertima ? You would enjoy it. One thing I would like to caution all those who want to talk about the glories of Africa in the Western Hemisphere. More focus has to be placed on understanding the cultures of Western Bantus because that is our most direct ancestry.

    Africans that came over in the slave trade came from places like Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia, WEST African countries. While wearing Ankhs and speaking Swahili is great we are not culturally linked to Tanzania and Egypt any more than Arabs. Africa is a very vast continent with diverse cultures.
    Egyptians and East Africans don’t use alot of drumming in their music like West Africans.

    Even though I am American I don’t really have a direct cultural connection to Blue Grass Music. Why is this important ? Because it gives musicians and scholars a better focused study, as well as gives respect to the proper African roots that really did contribute to jazz music.

    Art Blakely is a fine example of a jazz musician who really understood the link between West Africa and jazz. His African Beat Album is stellar.

    My question for the Caribbean musician is how do you express your Caribbeaness or specifically St. Thomasness in jazz music ? I am not a huge fan of full assimilation and I like distinct expression. The Caribbean is as a diverse as Africa or America. A New Yorker is very distinct from a Southern and you see that in rap music. This lack of distinctness is what I think is missing or feared in jazz music. The devil is in the details. When you hear Cannonball Adderely or Wynton you hear Southerness.

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