Music of the Caribbean Islands

The Caribbean is the fatherland to a variety of distinct musical traditions and celebrated musicians. In fact, the sounds of the Caribbean are considered to be just as varied as the islands themselves, starting from the tinkling reverberations of the steel drums that overpower the listener’s mind to the reggae beats that convey the scuffles the island has withstood over the course of time. The presence of this diversity can be traced to the synthesis of many cultures, including African, European, Latin, Indian, and indigenous ethnicities, their chronicles of life, and their means of entertainment. However, in addition to recreation, the other two noteworthy foundations of music to the inhabitants of the Caribbean are to give them a form of meaningful art and a sense of emotional escape. This paper explores some of the genres that make up this type of music, the type of musical instruments that it uses, its history, what it seeks to impart, as well as how the elements reflect the culture of the people and their everyday life. Reggae, Calypso, Compass, Salsa, and Bachata are some of the established genres, with reggae being the most widespread and distinguished. A masterpiece in the Reggae genre is Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, which seeks to communicate the need to relax and free oneself of life’s worries.

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Caribbean Music

            Broadly, Caribbean music refers to a collection of many varied genres of music including Baithak, Ragga, Gana, Bouyon, Compas, Parang, Cadence-Lypso, Salsa, Chutney-Soca, Calypso, Chutney, Dancehall, Reggaeton, Jing Ping, Pichakaree, Punta, Soca, Reggae, and Zouk. Each of these styles of music is unique to the culture of individual tribes although some ethnicities have developed a group of genres that are diverse in nature through the course of history. Due to these cultural affiliations, particular styles can be linked to specific geographic locations and especially to individual countries. For example, Calypso, Cariso, chutney, and Soca are linked to Trinidad and Tobago in the same way that Reggae, Ska, and Mento are associated with Jamaica. Other major geographical contributors to the Caribbean music comprise the Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Dutch West Indies, Guyana, Colombia, and the Virgin Islands among others.

Trinidad’s most prominent musical contributions to the global soundscape include calypso and pan. The latter refers to the variety of steel drums, made from 55-gallon oil barrels that have become a trademark of Caribbean music. Pan orchestras have great community support throughout the island and play a variety of musical styles, including classical, jazz, rock, and popular song. The international promotion of pan has encouraged the popularity of Calypso in its original format as a popular song genre. Calypso’s origin can be traced to the call-and-response form singing of African-descended slaves in Trinidad (Boonyaprasop 21). “English in Reggae Music.” (2008).. Typical instruments in this genre include clarinet, trombone, flute, classical guitar, bass guitar, claves, steelpan, bongos, bamboo, congas, sticks, jug, violin, saxophone, cuatro, concertina, spoons, maracas, and jawbone. The musical developments of Calypso which resulted from increased festivities and improved economic situation toward the end of mid-1970 gave rise to the Soca genre. The term Soca means the “Soul of Calypso,” and as a genre, it is characterized by the use of drums and percussions (Manuel 216). Common instruments include acoustic guitars, bass guitars, drum machines, trumpet, samplers, synthesizers, trombones, and drums.

 Jamaica’s Reggae is the most popular style of Caribbean music, and represents a combination of traditional Rock steady, Ska, and Mento. It is typified by its use of spiritual and sentient lyrics. The sound comes from a blend of the piano, organ, guitar, drums, brass instruments, percussion, and melodica, and can be distinguished by a one-drop rhythm (Boonyaprasop 21). The tempo is normally slow compared to that of Ska but faster than that of RockSteady. Through history, reggae has had a major influence on other music genres across the world including rock, soul, and hip-hop.  

Although Haiti’s Compas music is not as popular as Jamaica’s Reggae, it is one of the popular genres in the island. It is similar to other genres of Caribbean music owing to its blend of African rhythms with the native styles of music, including European and indigenous Caribbean styles. Typical instruments that are used include synthesizers, keyboard, drums, conga, guitars, bass, cowbell, and horn section. It is also attributed to Soca, Reggaeton, Chmpeta, and Kuduro fusion genres. Other major styles that are found in Haiti are kadans, mizik rasin, rara, and meringue.

Salsa leads other genres of internationally recognized Cuban music. It is most known for its incorporation of high-drama dance and heavy use of percussion instruments such as Maracas, Tambora, Bongo, Clave, Conga, and cowell. Another thing that distinguishes this genre is the use of call-and-response patterns of traditional African songs, segue in the chorus, a fast tempo, and a 1-2-3, 1-2 rhythm.  Other instruments that are regularly used include vibraphone, accordion, flute and a brass section of trombone, marimba, guitar, violin, bass, piano, trumpet and saxophone. Nevertheless, Salsa has incorporated modern electronic instruments in the recent past.

Bachata is another internationally acclaimed Caribbean music genre. It has its roots among the people of the Dominican Republic and the fusion of Indigenous, European, and African elements. An archetypical Bachata band consists of seven instruments including Requinto (lead guitar), bass guitar, Segunda (rhythm guitar), bongos, guitar, electric guitar, and güira. The lead guitar instrumentation follows arpeggiated repetitive chords while the Segunda is used as a source of syncopation to the style. Today, Bachata is one of the most popular genres of Caribbean music and is even accompanied by a dance that is emblematic of its name.


 Reggae music has gained international acclaim since the 1970s. The roots of Reggae music can be traced in the Jamaica’s rural folk genre known as Mento. Just like Trinidadian Calypso, this genre focuses on bawdy, witty and lyrical content and a set of improvised acoustic instruments, usually small hand drums, banjo and a bass lamellophone. Sometimes, other instruments like a fife, bamboo saxophone and handmade flute are included as well. The replacement of those instruments with other modern ones like drum sets, pianos, acoustic bass, electric guitars, saxophones, and brass instruments further led to the development of Ska style. Ska is a dance-oriented popular genre with repetitive improvisational solos and repetitive themes that became popular in Jamaica in the 1960s. A perfect example of sounds in the Ska repertoire is Gunns of Navarane, which earns a special place in the heritage of the Ska-lites.

The exclusion of vocal lines on Ska recordings and the inclusion of political commentaries by new artists fueled the birth of Rock Steady, another genre that grew in line with the progression of the Rudeboy culture (Boonyaprasop 21). Commonly known as rude boys by the time, musicians used Rock Steady as a musical outlet to express their rebel image and civil discontent. Thus, musical qualities shifted to emphasize a more relaxed rhythm and streamlined instrumentations because it was seen as a symbolism of confidence and courage. Like Ska, the genre was also characterized by a skank syncopation that sounded on every pulse. Nevertheless, the tempo of rock steady slowed to a walking pace in order to make it easier to “groove,” which means to dance.

The musical elements of Rocksteady contributed immensely to the conception of Reggae music. Reggae’s international appeal surfaced after the airing of the Jamaican cult film the Harder They Come. By this time, it had emerged as the new sound of the island and continued to portray the musical progression from Mento, Ska to Rock Steady (Boonyaprasop 22). Reggae artists advanced the ideas that initiated with the rock-steady style, such as soulful singing and slower tempo, which were inspired by American soul and R&B music (Chang and Wayne 2). As a result, they also added a collection of new instruments like the electric organ. Symbolised by the hard economic times of 1970,’s reggae lyrics alleviated the feelings of the economic and social discrimination among the populations of major Jamaican cities. Later, Reggae/ Rocksteady singers started gravitating toward more socially conscious lyrics that expressed frustrations with the worsening living conditions. Today, reggae continues to incorporate some aspects of Mento, Jaz, African, Latin, and Calypso music, among other genres.

Bob Marley: Three Little Birds

            Bob Marley, one of the best-renowned musicians of the 1970s era, has written many songs through the course of his music career. Among them, I find Three Little Birds as one of the best pieces in all his albums. The song is characterized by a drum roll at the beginning and an organ feature that endures for the rest of its length. Almost certainly, the organ is a Hammond and tends to follow a repetitive do-re-do-sol-mi-re-do rhythm with the accompaniment of percussion, a bass guitar, and a piano that produces straight chords. Marley begins to sing just about when the little organ line plays for four consecutive patterns, “Don’t worry about a thing” (Marley et al., 4). This phrase probably follows the rhythm of “mi rei do mi sol mi.” Then, he proceeds to the next stanza “cause every little thing is gonna-be-all-right,” which seems to follow the pattern of “do la – ti la sol.” Notably, this is very Marleyesque rhythmically although it spears to be simple outwardly. The first verse ends after the repetition of these aforementioned lines.

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             I find Three Little Birds a little confusing when it comes to the chorus because it is comprised of one more verse. The second verse contains the phrase of the song’s title and is sang twice. Assuredly, it is not the chorus because the first verse I have mentioned is repeated more times.  I find the absence of the organ in the second verse fascinating. It is replaced by a lead guitar, which serves as a perfect alternative. Soon after the end of the second phrase, The Wailers step in with their impeccably-crafted backup as the song progresses to the chorus. The fame of Three Little Birds around the world is rooted in its integration in many film soundtracks. It is, therefore, common for people to say that they have heard it before. Unlike other songs that attempt to mimic this song, Marley’s original version continues to stand out as the best. It reminds me of my past experiences with nature and the beautiful sounds of the birds during my countryside trips. Overall, I find Jamaican music soothing, both to the soul and to the ear.

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