Music of the Caribbean

Several genres of music got their start in the Caribbean

The sounds of the Caribbean are as varied as the islands themselves; from the tinkling of steel pan drums that immediately puts you in a tropical frame of mind, to reggae beats that tell the story of the hardships the islands have endured. Music has always played an important part of life in the Caribbean, providing islanders with a meaningful art form, a method of escape, and of course, a means of entertainment.

Perhaps the genre most associated with the Caribbean is reggae, but before reggae came ska and rocksteady. Ska music came into being as African music and American blues and jazz met in Jamaica. As these styles began to blend, musicians discovered that the upbeat, tropical sounds mixed with enthusiastic horns and the low notes of the bass guitar were not contradictory at all, but actually sounded great together. As this style of music took off around to world, ska continued to evolve in Jamaica. Ska music began to be produced at a slower tempo, with the focus being on the bass, and guitar solos were added. This music became rocksteady.

Not long after rocksteady evolved, it was the political unrest of Jamaica in the 1960s that spawned reggae. The island's youth needed an outlet to vent their frustrations, and found it in music. These young Rastafarians created music rooted in the soul genre, but the focus here was on unaccented beats and meaningful lyrics. To people from other parts of the world, reggae is known today as the music of the islands, and indeed it is still a popular genre in Jamaica.

Jamaica was not the only Caribbean nation creating music, however. Latin music is also popular throughout the islands. Much of the Caribbean's Latin styles have their roots in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. Musical styles such as the rumba, meringue, mambo, and salsa originated on these islands. Latin music is all about feeling the rhythms and allowing them to take over and move your body in dance, and to the untrained ear the different styles can sound similar. Little nuances give each type of music its own uniqueness.

If it was the Caribbean's Latin people that brought the danceable salsa and meringue music to life, it was the islands' African roots that played a part in the development of calypso and steel pan. Calypso music developed in a similar fashion to blues music in the United States. Calypso originated as slave songs, sung by plantation workers who were not allowed to speak to one another, in order to communicate. In recent years, the tempo of Calypso has sped up and blended with Indian melodies to create the currently popular soca music.

Steel pan music is another style developed out of necessity to overcome oppression. The drums have always been an important part of African rituals, but when both cloth and bamboo drums were banned by the government of Trinidad in the 1930s, the people on the island improvised, banging their traditional rhythms out on steel oil drums. By the 1940s, a steel drum specifically for making music was developed, and steel pan music has been evolving ever since.

You don't have to try and find a place to listen to the music of the islands on your Caribbean vacation; most likely the music will find you. Musicians playing on street corners, beats pulsating out of local shops, and nightly performances by professional entertainers hired by your resort or hotel will allow you to listen to local sounds without any effort. Spending the night on the town, checking out various bars and night clubs is another great way to experience whatever specific genre of music is popular during your stay. To really celebrate and pay tribute to the music of the islands, make sure to attend an event or festival during your stay. Carnaval Festival, which is celebrated on nearly every Caribbean island, really pays homage to calypso music, there always seems to be a jazz festival going on somewhere or another, and Jamaica hosts several reggae festivals each year as well.

It has often been said that it is not math that is the universal language, but music. What better way to experience the culture of the Caribbean islands than swaying to the beat of the music created there. Whether you seek it out, or notice an unfamiliar tune as you are exploring the island you're staying on, the music of the Caribbean will surely add another layer to the memories of your island vacation.

Read more about the music of the Caribbean in these detailed articles:


Help us improve! We welcome your corrections and suggestions.