Songs of the drum: Caribbean music

Brukdown, kaseko, bouyon, tumba — Caribbean music contains dozens of genres you probably haven’t heard of. Simon Lee explains what they have in common

  • Andy Palacio. Photo by Tony Rath courtesy Stonetree Records
  • Andy Palacio & the Garifuna Collective
  • The Garifuna Collective
  • Tabou Combo in 1968
  • Tabou Combo de Petion-Ville
  • Boukman Eksperyans
  • Exile One. Photo courtesy Gordon Henderson
  • Los Mu–equitos de Matanzas
  • Los Papines
  • Clave y Guaguanco
  • Kaseko singer Lieve Hugo (centre) with Orchestra Washboard
  • Izaline Calister. Photo courtesy Izaline Calister

Heading to Dominica’s inaugural World Creole Music Festival in 1997, I was anticipating a reunion with zouk superstars Kassav, live introductions to Tabou Combo, the kings of Haitian kompa, and side dishes of Congolese rumba — better known now as soukous — and Louisiana zydeco. My first morning back in the “Nature Island,” happily wandering the streets of Roseau, above the constant murmur of Kwéyòl voices my ears caught the syncopated rhythms of gwaj (metal scraper) and tambou (shallow tambourine-like drum), interlocking with the jumpy melodies of an accordion, riding the bass hoots of a bamboo boom boom.

Rounding a corner a few dance steps from the birthplace of writer Jean Rhys, I met my first jing ping band. It was love at first hearing and sight, and although I hadn’t a clue what the correct accompanying dance might be, this couldn’t stop my feet from weaving with the syncopation — to the amused encouragement of passersby — until I collapsed exhausted several hours later.

Like a greedy gourmet or a fully sated lover I downed refreshing draughts of Kubuli beer, alternately shaking my head in disbelief at the joyful rumbuction and roaring “Jing Ping!” — which seemed the rightest way to express my delight at stumbling on this totally infectious folk form. I didn’t even pause to feel fraudulent that in my supposed capacity as Caribbean music specialist I’d never heard of jing ping before.

Caribbean music is continually surprising, not least because so much of it remains unknown outside its home territory. While some genres — reggae, dancehall, calypso, soca, zouk, salsa, reggaeton, merengue — have crossed popular culture borders to reach international audiences, far more remain well-kept secrets.

Geographic, linguistic, sociological, and historical constraints, along with the vagaries of mass culture, commercial music, and globalisation, have conspired to keep string, scratch, or fungi bands — which still play from one end of the Caribbean to the other — off the airwaves. Folk forms like jing ping, Tobagonian tambrin, Barbadian tuk, and Kittitian Big Drum remain mysteries beyond their islands. Still other genres, like Cuban rumba, Curaçaon tambu, and Haitian vodou-inspired mizik rasin still labour under the after-effects of colonial and western stigmatisation of African cultural expressions.

So it’s time to invoke Papa Legba, Ellegua, Eshu, the gatekeeper of the crossroads, to open the barrier, so that we can better hear the many songs of the drum which constitute our Caribbean soundscape. Creole variations on the African drum, along with Amerindian and Creole percussion, provide common roots for virtually all Caribbean song, dance, and accompanying music — including the genres featured in the following pages.


Punta • Paranda • Brukdown

It is to the Caribbean’s collective shame that the music of the Garinagu — better known as the Garifuna, or the Black Caribs — still remains below the regional radar, despite the popularity of punta rock in the 1990s, UNESCO’s 2001 recognition of Garifuna language, music, and dance as among the “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Mankind”, and the fact that Watina, an album of traditional Garifuna songs with modern arrangements and traditional rhythms, was overwhelmingly voted best world music album of 2007.

The Garifuna are quintessential Creoles, the descendants of survivors of two slave ships wrecked off St Vincent in the early seventeenth century who intermarried with the island’s Kalinago, or Caribs. Exiled from St Vincent in 1797 by the land-grabbing British, survivors of the last Carib Wars were dumped on Roatán Island off the coast of Honduras. Subsequently, some made the crossing to the Central American mainland, fanning out along the coasts of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. They took with them their language and culture, rooted in the ancestral Dugu ceremony (which shares much in common with other Afro-Creole religions).

Traditionally played to the accompaniment of hardwood and animal skin primero (tenor) and larger segunda drums, backed by conch trumpet, sisira scraper, and turtleshell drum set, many of the sacred Dugu rhythms have been secularised, forming the basis of popular dances and songs. The most popular is punta, originally danced at the Beluria or nine-night wake to aid the deceased on their journey to the ancestors. First popularised by Pen Cayetano and his Turtle Shell Band, sped-up punta, with electric instrumentation augmenting traditional drums and percussion, became the core of punta rock, an upbeat dance fusion incorporating pan-Caribbean influences from soca and zouk to merengue, Haitian konpa, and Cuban son. Fronted by charismatic singer–teacher–cultural activist Andy Palacio, singing in Garifuna, English, and Spanish, punta rock was crucial in reaffirming identity among Garifuna youth, and became a hit on the regional Carnival and festival circuit.

Pre-dating punta in popularity is paranda, again based on a traditional rhythm, but influenced by the Spanish guitar and some of the Latin rhythms the Garifuna encountered when they arrived on the mainland. The late, great Paul Nabor of Punta Gorda, Belize, still revered as the greatest parandero of all time, can be heard along with a younger generation (including Palacio, whose premature death in 2008, aged only forty-seven, robbed the Garifuna of a visionary hero) on the seminal Watina album.

Enslaved Africans coming via Jamaica and Barbados brought both African and Creole rhythms with them to Belize during the eighteenth century. In the logging camps of the interior, the meeting of these influences and western instruments and musical traditions (church and military music, formal dances) combined to produce a uniquely Belizean Creole music: brukdown. Played on accordion, accompanied by guitar, banjo, drums, dingaling (bell), and ass jawbone (for real!), its jumpy syncopated energy is reminiscent of Dominica’s jing ping.


Kompa • Kadans • Mizik Rasin • Twoubadou

Modern Haitian kompa, with its sinuous repetitive guitar grooves and rocking beat, derives from kompa dirèk (direct rhythm) and kadans rampa (rampart rhythm), two intense rivals which emerged on the dance floors of the 1950s, introduced respectively by bandleader Nemours Jean-Baptiste and his former sax player Weber Sicot. Konpa epitomises one end of the spectrum of Caribbean music, the continuous creolisation of European dance forms (quadrille, contredanse, waltz, polka, mazurka) further cross-fertilised by successions of Creole influences. Initially introduced by white planters, the dances were adapted by enslaved African musicians — co-opted to play at formal balls — for their own entertainment.

While controversy surrounds the genesis of the merengue — with both Haiti and its Hispaniolan neighbour the Dominican Republic claiming it for its own — it’s long been considered the Haitian national dance. In Haiti, the elite nineteenth-century ballroom version was complemented by a rootsy Carnival picong song-style ridiculing the powers that be. But it was the popularity of Dominican merengue, accorded status as the national music by dictator Rafael Trujillo in the 1950s, which prompted Nemours and Sicot to create their new rhythms. Other influences on early kompa include North American jazz and swing, Cuban son, mambo and bolero, and calypso.

With the advent of 1960s rock, the kompa big bands were superseded by emerging youthful yé-yé and mini-djazz bands, who incorporated kompa into their repertoires. Los Incognitos de Pétionville transformed from teenage mini-djazzers into Tabou Combo, arguably Haiti’s most famous band, who have taken kompa to an international audience, and for more than forty years been reinventing both themselves and the genre. American funk, zouk, soca, soukous, salsa, electronica, and more recently rap and hip hop (à la the Fugees) have all been embraced by several generations of kompa bands, many now based in the United States. A measure of kompa’s enduring popularity is the current presidency of Michel Martelly, stage name Sweet Micky.

At the other end of the spectrum is mizik rasin (vodou roots music), inspired by the rhythms and worldview of Haiti’s Afro-Creole religion. Vodou rhythms have found their way into secular music since the days of the American Occupation, from 1915 to 1934, when the Haitian intelligentsia, prompted by ethnographer Jean Price-Mars’s book So Spoke the Uncle (1927), advocated the creation of an indigenous cultural identity founded on vodou folk culture. Drums, percussion instrument rhythms, and melodies were incorporated in vodou-jazz groups, notably the Jazz des Jeunes of the 1950s.

A similar return to roots was prompted by the excesses of the Duvaliers and the military juntas led by a mulatto elite which followed them. Pioneering roots band Boukman Eksperyans named themselves for the slave leader who in 1791 initiated the insurrection which led to the War of Haitian Independence. Krèyol consciousness and pride feature equally in mizik rasin, while musical influences range from psychedelic rock to rap.

Then there’s twoubadou. Once you’ve braved the gauntlet of hustlers at the Port-au-Prince airport, it’s likely your musical introduction to Haiti will be a small twoubadou ensemble (guitar, maracas, scraper, and malimba). The genre, derived from the guajiro and jibaro country music of Cuba and Puerto Rico, was brought back by Haitians who worked as seasonal cane-cutters in Cuba. Modern exponents include Coupé Cloué, chanteuse Emeline Michel, and Beethova Obas.


Cadence-lypso • Bouyon

A fusion of Haitian kadans rampa and Trinidadian calypso, cadence-lypso, (or, more simply, cadence) created by Dominica’s Exile One in 1973, has also been cited variously as the kickstart for other genres: zouk, soca, and Dominican bouyon. Based in Guadeloupe and heavily influenced by Haitian and French Antillean popular styles, under Gordon Henderson’s direction, Exile One successfully merged the musics of the Francophone and Anglophone Caribbean.

While the horns used to bridge chorus and verse are common to both kadans rampa and cadence, the distinctive calypso guitar beat of cadence makes it more aggressive and uptempo than kadans rampa — although, as bands like Gramacks and Midnight Groovers demonstrated, it can be slowed down. Much of cadence’s lyrical style of social commentary (mostly in Kwéyòl) was influenced by Black Power ideology, the spread of Rastafarianism, the break from colonial dependency, and an emerging Kwéyòl consciousness.

Bouyon (Kwéyòl for “soup”) mixes some of Dominica’s traditional folk forms (jing ping, lapo kabwit) with modern cadence. Initiated by Windward Caribbean Kulture (WCK) in 1988, it transposes some of the traditional instruments (accordion, boom boom) to synthesiser, and marks the increasing use of digital technology in Caribbean musical genres. By incorporating motifs from folk dances like the bélé, quadrille, and chanté mas, bouyon ensures their survival in the living tradition of Dominican music. A much more recent offshoot of bouyon is reketeng, a remixing of bouyon, hip hop, and dancehall.



Cuban music has successfully defied decades of American-imposed isolation, building on an international profile maintained with periodic injections of the latest Cuban craze, from the nineteenth-century habanera, through 1920s son, chachacha, mambo, and eventually salsa (which in fact owes more to Puerto Ricans in New York City). Although son and subsequent genres were mistakenly labeled as “rhumba” abroad, the authentic rumba still remains largely unknown outside Cuba, probably because of its African and working-class roots, and its lack of commercialisation. The dockyard communities of Matanzas are regarded as the birthplace of rumba, which is essentially a series of highly creolised, secular, recreational dances to drums and percussion, with call-and-response vocals, drawing on the Congo baile yuka, the ceremonial processions of the Abakua secret societies.

Spurned by high society and the middle class, rumba developed in the early twentieth century when the African drum was banned. Consequently, accompaniment for the three dances (guaguanco, yambu, and columbia) was played on reassembled wooden cajones: deep bacalao crates (for shipping salt cod) and smaller high-pitched candle crates. These were augmented by the cata (a slit cane played with sticks), maraga (iron rattle), and a wood block played with spoons. The cajones were later replaced with tumbadoras, which the world now knows as conga drums — the quinto, or lead improvising drum, being the most important.

The columbia is the oldest form of rumba, dating from the late eighteenth century. It is a solo virtuoso dance for men, in which dancers balance beer glasses on their head, or attach knives to their ankles to emphasise machismo. The yambu is a couple’s dance, whose slow movements mimic those of old people. The most popular form is the guaguanco, another couple’s dance, this time sexually charged, with the male dancer’s pelvic thrusts symbolising possession of the female, who eludes these advances with graceful turns, holding her skirt over her groin. The climax of the dance comes with the consummating vacuano, or “vaccination” of the woman.

Rumba has long been included in Cuban cabaret and nightclub repertoires, and has its own stars, like Los Munequitos de Matanzas and Los Papines and the more recent Clave y Guaguanco.


Aleke • Kaseko • Kawina • Kaskawi

Language barriers have conspired to keep the vibrant traditional and popular music genres of Suriname virtually unknown beyond its borders, except for audiences in the Netherlands diaspora. Suriname is probably the most ethnically diverse territory in the wider Caribbean, with a unique and sizeable Javanese community (whose traditional gamelan orchestras are as capable of belting out a scorching soca as they are of performing traditional Indonesian compositions) alongside Hindustani (i.e. South Asian), European, Brazilian, and indigenous Amerindian communities. However, it is the majority Afro-Surinamese, including the Maroons (who escaped slavery for the dense rainforest interior, where they maintained the communal village lifestyle of their homelands), who dominate the music scene, and whose foremost instrument remains the drum.

Kawina is the drum-based dance music of descendants of enslaved Africans from the coastal region. It evolved from the interaction of Creoles, Maroons, and migrant gold prospectors towards the end of the nineteenth century. Two varieties developed: prisiri kawina, played at social occasions, and winti kawina, which is affiliated to the Afro-Surninamese Winti religion. Typically, the kawina band uses a small wooden bench beaten with sticks, rattles, large standing drums, and two double-headed drums (koti and hari kawina) held on the lap. The hari kawina leads over a solid rhythm provided by the other drums. Topical and traditional call-and-response songs still bear traces of European melodies.

Kaseko, which resembles calypso, may have taken its name from the exhaustingly exuberant cassé co (literally “break your body”) dance from neighbouring French Guiana. It evolved in the 1940s as bigi poku, adding the skratji bass drum and horns to the kawina lineup. Initially influenced by calypso, Afro-Cuban son, and Guyanese badji, by the 1970s it had assumed the status of the national music, with distinctive Sranan Tongo lyrics and electric instruments. At the end of the 1970s, young Maroons who’d migrated to the coast added songs in Saramakan and Ndjuka, contributing a profoundly African sensibility drawn from their sacred kumanti, vodu, and ampuku possession rites.

Modern kaseko draws widely on regional influences, from soca reggae and dancehall to zouk, as well as Congolese soukous. Kaskawi, a 1990s fusion of kaseko and kawina, proved so popular that the slow-paced hit “Faluma” by Ai Sa Si was reworked by the Bajan band Square One to become a regional Carnival anthem, making vocalist Alison Hinds an overnight soca diva.

Although the most recent genre to emerge, aleke is in some ways the most rooted in the African drum. A derivative of Ndjuka Maroon lonsei possession music, it was brought to the coast by young Maroons in the 1960s and quickly creolised. By the 1980s, it had absorbed such diverse influences as Pentecostal church melodies and French Antillean Carnival songs, and traditional Ndjuka drums were replaced with conga-like aleke drums, bass drum, and the high-hat djas set. Lyrics reflect contemporary issues, and political commentary figured prominently during Suriname’s 1980s civil war. Aleke is an excellent example of ancient roots informing vibrant contemporary styles, probably the best benchmark we have for assessing Caribbean music.


Tambú • Tumba • Musik di Zumbi

Despite its relatively small size, Curaçao has an extremely rich musical heritage, which can be attributed to both its proximity to South America and its function as an entrepôt for enslaved Africans, brought directly from Africa or from the Caribbean itself under the illicit asiento trade, the majority of whom were sold on to other territories. From the sophisticated creolised European Antillean waltzes to the drum, percussion, and call-and-response tambú music of the early enslaved Africans, Curaçao covers the entire spectrum of Creole music. The nineteenth-century composer Chopin was a model and an inspiration to many of Curaçao’s surprisingly large number of both concert and dance composers, while African drum and percussion traditions often retained African instruments like the benta, or mouth bow, and the ubiquitous chapi, the iron hoe head.

Enslaved Africans from Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad, Jamaica, and Brazil brought both their Afro-Creole religions and music with them to Curaçao, further creolising the existing indigenous Montamentu ancestor worship. Montamentu’s origins lie in the tradition of Angolan stickfighting — an acrobatic sparring ritual, very similar to Trinidadian kalenda and the Brazilian maculele. In kokomakaku (named for the coco maque shrub, from whose trunks the sticks were fashioned), two contestants, surrounded by a ring of spectators, danced and jumped to the accompaniment of a single tambu drum. Preceding the contest (won by drawing blood from an opponent’s head), a lead vocalist would chronicle the fighters’ achievements, while during the contest the audience joined with the lead singer to spur on the battle.

A sacred form of tambú developed from kokomakaku, in which the opening section — the habri — praised the ancestors (rather than the stickfighters), while the second section — the sera — led by a drummer, invited the audience to dance and be possessed and guided by the spirits of the ancestors. The cylindrical tambú or bari drum was eventually driven underground by colonial and Catholic oppression, and alternatives like the kalbas den tobo (a washing tub of water, with half a calabash floating on top, struck with pieces of cloth-covered wood) with its muffled sound, or even adapted tables and chairs, were used. In addition to the single bari, there were many herú or iron instruments, again reflecting an African heritage, including the agan di tres pida, agan di dos pida, triangle, and wiri (a serrated piece of iron scraped with a thin iron bar), which also traditionally accompanies the Antillean waltz.

Stigmatised (as “a dance of the devil”) and banned by the colonial government as late as 1936, tambú survives in sacred and secular forms, its association with the last months of the year leading to its reputation, among a young generation unaware of its roots, as Christmas party music.

Tumba is a secular offshoot of the forbidden tambú, similar to calypso in content and multiple function, which came to prominence following the black rebellion of 1969. Opening the six-week Carnival season, the tumba festival runs for three days and nights, during which singers compete for the title of King or Queen of Tumba.

Admired by American jazz pianist Chick Corea (who composed his own tumba), modern tumba embraces regional influences from neighbouring Colombia and the French Antilles, as well as calypso and soca. Oswin “Chin” Behilia has fused Cuban son with tumba to create beautiful ballads of everyday life, while Izaline Calister, Tumba Queen of 2001, has given the genre an international profile with her distinctive voice. Classically trained Calister, who is adept at all her island musical forms, from the seu harvest festival music to the creolised mazurka, has also drawn inspiration from the ethereal muzik di zumbi, or music of the spirits, played on the benta (bow harp), gogorobi (rattlers), and flute.

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