When travelers think of Caribbean music, in more instances than not, they think “reggae.” This isn’t surprising considering that reggae music – a bass and drum-driven style of music that follows steady beats and an “island vibe” – originated in the Caribbean, Jamaica specifically, in the 1960s. Reggae certainly is the soundtrack to many a Caribbean vacation; however, the island music scene extends far beyond Bob Marley and incorporates a variety of genres, even including rock, jazz, and blues.
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Calypso and Steel Pan
Calypso music’s history traces all the way back to the 1700s and continues to be seen as a way of projecting the voice of African, French, and Caribbean peoples around the world. The Calypso style of music incorporates many different instruments as well as vocals to create a harmonized melody, with soulful intonations similar to those of the African spirituals sung during the days of African slavery. In fact, Calypso music has always been identified as the music of the oppressed – in the 18th century, it was performed by the slaves of French planters in the French Antilles.
Today, Calypso music is praised and loved for combining spiritual elements with familiar Caribbean instruments such as bongos, Spanish guitar, bottle/spoon, maracas, and trumpets, as well as bands that perform calypso music on drums traditionally made from steel oil drums – thus the name, “Steelpan.” Calypso music can be heard all across the Caribbean, from Anguilla to Barbados to Saint Kitts and Nevis, and everywhere in between. Popular Calypso artists include Lord Kitchener, Bunji Garlin, Jolly Boys, Machel Montano, Harry Belafonte, and Wilmoth Houdini, among many other local celebrities and favorites.
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Originating in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1970s, Soca music combines funk, soul, and calypso to create a style of music that’s both soulful and catchy. Credited with the inspiration for Soca is Trinidadian-native Garfield Blackman, who combined traditional calypso music with Indo-Caribbean music in the 1960s, a fusion that led to the Soca style nearly a decade later.
Soca is characterized by the use of Indian instruments such as the dholak, table, and dhantal (three types of percussion instruments), as well as trombones, trumpets, and of course, Trinidadian lyrics and vocals. Some popular Soca musical groups include El-A-Kru, D’Enforcas, Krosfyah, and Xtatik, all formed on different islands around the Caribbean (including Antigua, Barbados, and Trinidad).
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In the mid-1980s, the Zouk style of music was introduced and made popular by the French Antilles band Kassav’, sending the quick-paced, Carnival-style music into the Caribbean jam scene, especially in the islands of Guadaloupe and Martinique. The Zouk style of music incorporates a traditional rhythm section of drums and bass with synthesizers and “shakers,” making the music more fun, upbeat, and celebratory – after all, “Zouk” means “party” in Creole French, the language predominantly spoken in the French Antilles.
Some other popular Zouk artists aside from Kassav’ include Malavoi, Franky Vincent, Perle Lama, and Edith Lefel, though Zouk music is commonly played by local artists throughout the French Antilles, including Guadeloupe, Martinique, and other Caribbean islands.
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Salsa, a popular form of music as well as dance, originated in Cuba in the 1970s and gained popularity in Cuban and Puerto Rican expatriate communities in New York. Salsa combines congos, maracas, saxophones, and other instruments to create a fast-paced, quick-stepping style of music and dance that has enjoyed a revival in the last decade with the popularity of Zumba, a type of “dancercise” based on salsa dance moves. A night of salsa dancing in s San Juan nightclub remains an essential part of any visit to Puerto Rico.
Salsa translates to “spice,” speaking to music and dance’s “spiciness” – quick steps, passionate movements, and an all-around excited feel. With its Latin and Caribbean roots, salsa music and dance a cultural phenomenon, with performers spreading its good-natured fun and rhythm around the world. Some popular salsa artists include La India, Oscar D’Leon, Joe Arroyo, Frankie Ruiz, and Marc Anthony.
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When getting your Caribbean groove on, there may be no better place to start than with Dancehall music, a form of high-energy reggae that originated in Jamaica in the 1970s. This style of music is characterized by quick rhythms, synthesizers, and drums, making for a combination of sounds that are guaranteed to get your feet tapping, arms swinging, and head bopping.
Dancehall music is considered a cultural representation for Jamaica, with its fast pace and shifting melodies symbolizing the ever-changing and evolving Jamaican society. For some, Dancehall music is considered radical for its political message and its somewhat uncontrolled rhythms, but no matter where you land on its social significance, one thing in for certain: when the Dancehall beats start bumping, you’re going to want to get your dancing shoes on.
Some popular Dancehall artists include Sean Paul, Dawn Penn, Shabba Ranks, Patra, and Chaka Demus and Pliers, many of whom reached the peak of their fame in the mid- to late-1990s. Dancehall and traditional reggae influences can also be found in the music of pop star (and Barbados native) Rihanna, particularly in songs like “Rude Boy.”
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Though now highly popular around the world, especially in the United States and British alternative music scenes, ska originated in Jamaica in the 1950s and was the precursor to modern reggae, mashing up elements from American jazz, blues, and traditional Calypso music.
Inspired by the rhythm and blues music scene in the U.S., Jamaican musicians created ska by combining choppy guitar riffs, horns, drums, and sometimes piano, all played at some point in the music in the style of the “skank,” an upstroke off-beat. By integrating jazz, blues, calypso, and Caribbean styles of music, these artists created a genre of music that would not only dominate the Caribbean music scene but spread into the U.S. and U.K. music scenes as well, influencing everyone from The Police to Sublime.
Some popular Caribbean ska bands and artists (often also considered reggae musicians) include Jimmy Cliff, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Millie, Count Machuki, the Skatalites, and Jackie Mittoo. International ska bands run from the Beat and the Specials out of the U.K. to Reel Big Fish, Fishbone, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones from the U.S.