Caribbean Beat Magazine

Mizik A Nou — the Caribbean music scene

If you think that Caribbean music means just Buju Banton and Machel Montano, read on. Simon Lee surveys the real contemporary Caribbean music scene

  • The Mighty Sparrow. Photograph by Robert Smith
  • Joycelyn Beroard from the band Kassav. Photograph by Robert Smith
  • Kali. Photograph by Robert Smith
  • Boukman Eksperyans. Photograph by Robert Smith
  • Los Van Van. Photograph by Robert Smith
  • Cubanismo. Photograph by Robert Smith
  • Photograph by Robert Smith
  • Brother Resistance. Photograph by Robert Smith

On a July night, while darkness stalks New York’s Central Park, 12 men dressed in black shackle their hands with silver manacles. They converge on the Lincoln Center, the city’s proud arts complex. The music starts – By The Rivers of Babylon. And they shuffle from the backstage darkness onto the stage and into the spotlight.

The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, a group of Nyabinghi ceremonial drummers from Jamaica, are opening the Lincoln Center’s festival of Caribbean music. Dedicated to both “roots and routes”, this is the American cultural establishment’s endorsement of the region’s music. It’s not surprising that Mystic Revelation should play curtain-raiser. Founded by Count Ossie in the 1950s, drawing on the African-derived rhythms of kumina and burru, the Nyabinghi drummers were a seminal influence on early roots reggae, and reggae is still the best-known Caribbean music.

Just as Cuban music swept Africa and America in the 1940s and 1950s, reggae has swept the world. It has travelled back to Africa (inspiring artists like South African Lucky Dube and lvorian Alpha Blondy), and to Brazil, where reggae samba has supplanted both bossa nova and MPB (Brazilian popular or new-wave music). Reggae has travelled everywhere, from Azerbaijan to Zanzibar.

It’s not just that reggae is perceived outside the Caribbean as the music of the region; it seems as though this perception has taken hold in the islands too. You’ll hear dancehall in the styling of Beenie Man, Buju Banton, Mr Vegas, Lady Saw and Scare Dem Crew all the way from Cuba to Suriname, sung in Spanish, French Kwéyol, Papiamento and Sranam Tongo; there are even imitations of the virtually impenetrable downtown Kingston talk which is dancehall’s lingua franca.

At last summer’s Carifesta, the regional arts festival, which was held in St Kitts and Nevis, reggae held pride of place at the three-night Super Concerts. Veterans Jimmy Cliff and Bunnie Wailer, along with “lovers rock” Sanchez and dancehall’s “de gyal dem sugar” Beenie Man, were all headliners.

Yet the Caribbean has so much more to offer musically besides reggae. Cuba has son, rumba, bolero, trova, timba and some of the world’s best Latin jazz, to name only a few styles from the most musical island on the planet. Haiti offers konpas, vaudou-inspired rara and mizik rasin. The Dominican Republic has fiery merengue and lachrymose bachata. Puerto Rico brings bomba, plena and salsa to the mix. There’s gwo ka from Guadeloupe, biguine and chouval bwa from Martinique, zouk in many forms from all over the French Antilles, paranda and punta from Belize, tambu and tumba from Curacao, jing ping, kadans and bouyon from Dominica, Tuk and ringbang come from Barbados, calypso, soca, chutney, rapso and parang from Trinidad, kawina, kaseko and kaskawi from Suriname. And that’ s just some.

With selective eavesdropping at regional festivals, and a bit of further sampling, we can assemble a contemporary Caribbean music soundscape. Since you’re reading this in print, rather than interactively on the internet with CD-ROM blasting, hopefully this will inspire you to sample the music for yourself.


When the new millennium got under way in Jamaica last January with the Ocho Rios Jazz Festival, North American artists like Kenny G, Gladys Knight, Al Jarreau and Mary J. Blige topped the bill. But the undisputed stars were Cuba’s senior citizen phenomenon, The Buena Vista Social Club.

The Buena Vistas have become a postmodern myth, partly the creation of American guitarist RyCooder, aided and abetted by German film-maker Wim Wenders and his excellent documentary. Throw in a couple of Grammy awards and you have a story to match the music.

Originally assembled by Ry Cooder in 1996 to make a fusion album in Havana with some African musicians who never arrived, the Buena Vistas represent the cream of Cuban traditional 20th-century music. Their repertoire ranges from son to bolero, mambo to cha cha cha. Among their members are 93-year-old Company Segundoon tres (Cuban-style guitar), 82-year-old Ruben Gonzalez on piano, with 72-year-old Ibrahim Ferrer and 70-year-old Omara Portuondo as vocalists (Ferrer was the winner of last year’s best vocalist category in the newly created Latin Grammys, and was rescued from shoe-shining obscurity to record).

Buena Vista’s success happened for a number of reasons – American exposure, the increasing Latin presence in mainstream pop, world music’s 1990s swing towards authenticity – but mostly because these men are consummate musicians. They literally left the Ocho Rios audience slack-jawed in amazement. The youngest musician onstage must have been in his mid-50s, and yet the music had all the energy of a scorching soca band, and the rhythmic complexity which defines Cuban music, along with irresistible melodic lyricism. The only other performance at Ocho Rios to touch them came from their younger compatriots, Cubanismo.

But the Buena Vistas are only the tip of the daiquiri, as a short stroll in Havana, Matanzas, Cienfuegos or Santiago will prove. Cuba is saturated in music. If Caribbean music is founded on African (in some instances, Asian) rhythms and European instrumentation, “the strings and hide”, then Cuba represents the widest-ranging expression of this fusion. Violin, tres, guitar, laud (based on the old Spanish lute), flute, brass, piano and double bass all figure prominently, along with a variety of drums (including the little bongo and the larger tumbadora or conga which Cuba has given to the world) and percussion instruments (clave sticks, chekere gourd) unknown outside the island.

Both colonial and more recent history are responsible for Cuba’s musical pre-eminence. The Spanish, unlike other European colonisers in the Caribbean, allowed their slaves relative freedom to maintain their culture and religion, and to form cabildos (self-help societies). Slavery was not abolished until 1888; large numbers of Yorubans entered the island between 1820 and 1840. Consequently, as in Haiti (which contributed the tumba francesa style of eastern Cuba and heavily influenced early danzon and son), African polyrhythms have survived in Cuba to a degree unparalleled in the rest of the region, with the possible exception of the Surinamese Bush Negroes, descendants of runaway slaves who have lived in isolated Amazon villages for the past 300 years.

The Cuban revolution, both deliberately and unwittingly, has been responsible for the resurgence of Cuban music. It created an islandwide infrastructure for researching and maintaining folk music and dance; conservatories and schools were established, offering a level and range of music  education unavailable in the rest of the region (especially as it includes the study of classical music); and musicians were guaranteed a state salary. American-ordained isolation has had the effect of focusing musicians on developing their own heritage, with the incredible results the outside world is now sharing.

It’s impossible to cover Cuba adequately here, but mention has to made of Chucho Valdes, the virtuoso pianist (one of the top three Latin jazz exponents in the world), also a composer and arranger. He’s the founder of Irakere, the Latin jazz supergroup and breeding ground for most of Cuba’s best musicians in the last two decades (Arturo Sandoval, Paquito d’Rivera and a fast-rising star, flautist Orlando “Maraca” Valle, are just a few).

Chucho is as familiar with traditional genres as he is with classical and jazz idioms; his driving inspiration is the polyrhythms of Santeria, around which he is now composing an opera. Soloing at a recent Martinique Jazz Festival, he mixed classical with jazz motifs effortlessly, spanning the centuries in a few bars. Back in Havana for the jazz festival he directs there, he mixed it in Latin style with Panamanian Danilo Perez and Dominican Michel Camilo, world-class Caribbean jazz pianists in a cadre which includes the younger Cubans Gonzalo Rupalcaba, Ernan Lopez-Nussa and Guadeloupean Alain Jean-Marie (who won the 1999 prize for best jazz album in France).

It’s worth noting that in live performances in the Caribbean, soca bands (Trinidad’s Machel Montano and Xtatik, Barbados’s Square One or krosfyah, Dominica’s WCK, Antigua’s Burning Flames) can inspire a jump-up frenzy in a carnival context, but it’s the Cubans who elicit standing ovations and dance delirium. Los Van Van galvanised the Pigeon Island crowd at the 2000 St Lucia Jazz Festival; and after years of attending Martinique’s jazz festival, last December was the first time I’d ever seen the chic Fort-de-France audience rise spontaneously from their seats in the multimillion-franc arts centre to dance to the descarga total (total jam session) of young flute virtuoso Maraca.

Those who’ve developed a taste for la musica Cubana could listen out for son from Orquesta Aragon and Charanga Rupalcaba’s danzon; rumba by Clave y Guaguanco, Elio Reve’s changui, salsa by Isaac Delgado and Adalbert Alvarez, and timba (the latest spin on son) from Bamboleo.


Significantly (or obviously) Cuba did not feature at the Lincoln Center Caribbean festival, but Kweyol music from Haiti and the French Antilles did. Boukman Eksperyans, Haiti’s leading mizik rasin band, appeared as representatives of African roots, while the rising stars of Creole song were Haiti’s engage twoubado Beethova-Obas, Martinique’s Kali and Chris Combette from French Guiana.

Haiti is unique. A political pariah ever since it dared to rebel against France and become the world’s first independent black republic in 1804, it remains politically, economically and ecologically scarred but culturally and spiritually resilient. Vaudou, the African-derived spirit and ancestor worship, like the other neo-African belief systems in the Caribbean, is only now emerging from centuries of misconception, oppression and sensationalism, although its been recognised as the state religion since 1987.

It was the black consciousness movement of the 1970s, sweeping across the Caribbean, which spawned Haiti’s “roots music” movement, spearheaded by Boukman Eksperyans. Konpas, the immensely popular dance music of the Duvalier era, gave way to a return to roots, specifically vaudou rhythms, and traditional songs fused with electric instruments and transnational styles, everything from rock, funk and reggae to jazz.

Konpas bands in exile in Miami or New York-like Tabou Combo, Skah Shah, Shleu Shleu, Magnum and Zin – are still popular (especially in the nostalgic diaspora). But the contemporary sound in Haiti has been dominated by misik rasin since the mid 1980s. Just as Cubans experimented with the sacred Santeria bata drums, Haitian bands like Boukan Guinen, Kampech, Ram and Koudjay have used ceremonial vaudou drums and their rhythms as the basis for a dynamic new sound.

Beethova Obas represents another innovative take on traditional troubador style – the singer/songwriter as social commentator, very much in the protest song mode of Cuba’s nueva trova which emerged in the 1960s and 70s. A former mayor of Port-au-Prince, Manno Charlemagne, is another of the famous engage troubadors, while the younger “queen of Haitian song” Emeline Michel further explores the genre in her latest album Chordes et Ame. Listen out too for the instrumental group Strings, a trio of gifted guitarists playing a tropical (samba, cumbia, soukous, zouk) flamenco fusion over Caribbean percussion.


Haiti’s Hispaniolan neighbour, the Dominican Republic, has the distinction of producing the fastest music in the Caribbean, manic merengue, which managed to eclipse salsa as the Latino dance music of the 1980s, led by the bandleaders like Johnny Ventura and Wilfrido Vargas. It’s still enormously popular as far south as Venezuela; back home, the less frenetic accordion-led perico ripiao version has long outlasted the infamous dictator Trujillo who made it the national music.

Less well known is the far slower bachata, emerging from stigmatisation as lowlife music, the theme music of brothels the length and breadth of the Caribbean, where impoverished Dominican women work to support families back home. Bachata is instantly recognisable, with its plangent tumbling guitar, Afro percussion and melancholic lyrics. Juan Luis Guerra, who like Panamanian Ruben Blades is a highly gifted composer and imaginative songwriter, has done much to make bachata respectable.

The music of Cuba and Puerto Rico has long been referred to as “two wings of the same bird”. Cuban forms like son, rumba and bolero have been great influences, and son was one of the major ingredients in salsa, Puerto Rico’s greatest musical export, which originated in New York’s Latin barrios during the 1970s with such Newyoricans as Willie Colon and Eddie Palmieri.

Many may not realise it, but the current trio of Latin pop stars _ Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez – all have Puerto Rican roots. So did the late great timbal king Tito Puente.

Traditional island forms like the Afro percussive call-and-response bomba and plena are being revitalised by dynamic groups like Plena Libre and young trombonist Jimmy Bosch. while cuatro maestro Edwin Colon keeps the jibaro country music very much alive.


Zouk shows no sign of loosening its grip on the French Antillies, and the wider Creole world. Kassav – the group who introduced the style in 1979 – demonstrated that at last October World Creole Music Festival in Dominica, playing a classic set dominated by the soukous-inspired guitar and strangled, rasping vocals of founder-member Jacob Desvarieux.

While purists dismiss zouk (as betraying traditional music it’s one of the best examples of Caribbean musical cross-fertilization and certainly one of the most commercially successful genres to have emerged from the region. Drawing on Antilles rhythms – Guadeloupe’s gwo ka, mas a Sen Jan, biguine Martinique’s carnival chouval bwa- it has roots both in Haitin konpas and Dominican kadans, and is influenced by American funk, rock and a variety of West African and more recently Cuban styles.

Part of zouk’s success can be attributed to a growing sense of Kweyol (Caribbean as opposed to imposed or imitated metropolitan) identity in the French Antilles, which Kassav articulated with their huge 1984 hit Zouk-la sa sel medikaman nou ni (zouk is our only medicine). Kassav was the first group in the French Antilles to make singing in Kweyol the norm, ironically following the example set by Dominica’s kadans bands of the 1970s. Recent artists like Eric Virgal and Tanya St Val show that zouk is still very much open to creative interpretation.

Champions of traditional Antillean music can be proud of Guadeloupe’s 23-strong Akiyo who, armed with drums and percussion like a Bahian bloco afro, utilise island rhythms as an incendiary accompaniment to their powerful lyrics. In Martinique, banjo-playing Kali has given a new lease of life to folk songs and forms like biguine, mazouk and chouval bwa carnival music by mixing in elements from Cuban music, jazz and reggae. A former Kali sidesman, Guyana-based Chris Combette, is making a name for himself with his gentle fusion of samba, bossa nova, zouk, reggae and calypso. Dede St Prix is the acknowledged chouval bwa maestro, while the group Malavoi playa sophisticated jazz interpretation of traditional forms like biguine.

Martinique is also home to one of the Caribbean’s most gifted jazz composers, St Lucian-born saxophonist Luther Francois who, besides composing, teaching and playing as sidesman for every Antillean artist of note, runs the hottest salsaband outside Puerto Rico. Francois is also musical director of the West Indies Jazz Band, which after a period of dormancy resumes an active role this year.

Dominica, by virtue of its dual French Kwevol and English heritage, has strong Kweyol affiliations. Its cadence-lypso (a fusion of Haitian konpas and calypso), originated with bands like Exile One, Grammacks and Midnight Groovers in the 1970s, and is regarded as a formative influence on both zouk and soca.

But Dominica’s best-kept musical secret is jingo ping, a mesmerising syncopated accordion-led folk music, featuring metal scraper, shallow drum and boom boom, the distinctive bamboo bass instrument which is blown. Synthesised elements of jing ping and lapo kabwit, Dominica’s raucous carnival music, have been incorporated in a new fusion, bouyon, as played by the leading band WCK. Dominica showcases some of the best Creole music from around the world at its annual World Creole Music festival in late October.


In the English-speaking eastern Caribbean, calypso and its modern version soca still rule, although it seems that Trinidad – “the home of calypso” – may be ceding its place as musical leader.

Since the mid-1990s, Barbadians with their slower ragga soca and reggae/soca fusion have proved enormously popular at Trinidad and Trinidad-style carnivals, both in the region and beyond. Bajan bands like Square One (fronted by soca’s latest diva Alison Hinds), krosfyah and Coalishun, aided by the composing and arranging skills of Nicholas Brancker, have challenged Trinidadian supremacy, even dominating last August’s Miami’s carnival.

Soca’s leading star may be Trinidadian Machel Montano, but the musical development of the form, which is essentially party music with lyrics to suit, has passed to musicians outside Trinidad. With the recent deaths of Roaring Lion, Lord Kitchener and Ras Shorty, traditional calypso now has to rely on the Mighty Sparrow, the unique Shadow and new-age griot David Rudder, all of whom are lyrically gifted.

Ironically, in terms of creative soca, Trinidad may be paying the price of being the most developed island in the southern Caribbean, neglecting to draw on its incredibly rich rhythmic heritage for inspiration. In the attempt to make soca the next crossover music after reggae, the rhythm has been simplified to allow for a faster tempo, and musical ideas are kept to a minimal three chords.

Significantly, the two biggest soca hits to date have originated outside Trinidad: Arrow from tiny Montserrat with his 1980s monster Hot Hot Hot, and the current Who Let the Dogs Out, a Bahamian junkanoo version of a song written by Trinidadian Anslem Douglas, now a sports stadium anthem in America. The success of Grenadian Talpree at Trinidad’s last carnival, along with that of the Bajans and Antiguan bands like Burning Flames and Dread and the Baldhead, may give Trinidadian soca food for musical thought.

While a younger generation of Trinis (notably Ataklan and the carnival performance group 3 Canal) experiment with rapso-chanting over digitalised rhythms, Andre Tanker continues to play his own Caribbean-style “world music”, heavily influenced by the rhythms of Trinidad orisha ceremonies. And while soca was represented at the Lincoln Center in its most conscious form by David Rudder, Trini musical diversity got play from sitarist Mungal Patasar and his steelpan-driven Indo-calypso jazz fusion, and from the San Jose serenaders, exponents of the little-known Hispanic-derived parang music, a feature of the Trinidad Christmas season.


Some of the best-kept secrets of Caribbean music can be found in Belize and Suriname – mainland countries at opposite ends of the Caribbean – and the Netherlands Antilles island of Curacao.

Suriname’s cosmopolitan mix includes a little-known Javanese culture (with traditional gamelan gong music) and some of the region’s oldest African retentions (the ancestor-worship Winti with its accompanying drumming, and traditional songs and dances of the “bush negroes”), which have fed into creole forms and a new Afro-Caribbean style, kaskawi. It was a blend of two Saramakan (bush negro) traditional songs by kaskawi band Ai Sa Si which gave Alison Hinds of Square One her Faluma hit, which was played at carnivals throughout the region and the diaspora in 1997.

Curacao, meanwhile, has blended a banned African rhythm, the tambu, with influences from neighbouring Colombia, Cuban son montuno and calypso, to produce its carnival music, tumba.

But perhaps the most significant emerging Caribbean music is Belize’s punta, which raised the curtain on the Carifesta Super Concerts last August. Young punta star Andy Palacio looks every inch a Caribbean icon with his swinging dreads – and so he is.

Andy’s a Garifuna, descended from the Black Caribs of St Vincent (shipwrecked African slaves who intermarried with island Caribs), and the driving punta he’s done so much to create is founded on traditional Garifuna rhythms and modern instrumentation. Sung in Garifuna, Spanish, English and Belizean Creole, punta is truly popular indigenous music, an Afro-Caribbean dance music which has given pride and identity to young Garifuna. It exemplifies the best in Caribbean music – the continual drive to reinterpret the region’s many roots.