Music lessons from our Caribbean neighbours


This article by Shereen Ali appeared in Trinidad and Tobago’s Guardian.

One of the most moving aspects of Caribbean culture is its music. And this music is richly diverse, with Cuba and Haiti being especially vibrant in music genres and styles.

Santeria drumming, rumba, son, salsa, mambo, Afro-Cuban jazz and classical music rub shoulders with contemporary hip hop-salsa-rock fusions and many other eclectic contemporary mixes in Cuba; Haiti has its carnival rara music, compas dance music, voudoun music, rap, ragga, hip hop kewyol, and many more; you can find merengue and bachata in the Dominican Republic; dance to calypso, soca, rapso, tassa, pan and chutney music in Trinidad; and enjoy  kumina, ska, reggae, ragga, and dancehall in Jamaica. And that’s just grazing the surface. So amidst this musical feast, what music industry lessons can we learn from our Caribbean neighbours?

Taking tourism—and our        cultural products—seriously

Singer/songwriter and calypsonian David Rudder thinks music from other Caribbean islands, such as Jamaica and Cuba, have a greater impact outside the Caribbean than Trinidad’s music because “they’re hungrier, they have huge tourist markets, and we (Trinis) tend to ofttimes stay out of the limelight. There is no ‘Brand T&T’.”

Electronic DJ mixer Chris Leacock, speaking from a party/dance music perspective, thinks we can learn a lot from collaborations with other artists and styles, and admits that some kinds of TT soca dance music may remain incomprehensible to some foreign audiences who don’t understand the TT party scene. He says:

“For a long time, Trinidadian music required context—it would be difficult to comprehend 160bpm ‘wave yuh rag’ songs without coming to Carnival and seeing 10,000 people lose their minds at a fete. But the music we’re making (in the DJ band Major Lazer) is more akin to the pop music on the radio—130bpms, with more universal lyrical content.” So he hints at the need to consider foreign audiences if you want to sell them music, and adapt to suit.

“Jamaica has always been a hotbed of cultural activity,” says Leacock, “but since the success of Differentology and collaborations between local soca stars (like Machel Montano & Bunji Garlin) and international producers, more and more folks are becoming interested in the sound of T&T.”

“I think it’s important for TT artists to make themselves accessible, and not to pigeonhole themselves into a ‘soca’ mindset,” says Leacock.

Caribbean music hotspots: Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica

Meanwhile, music writer Simon Lee addresses cultural strengths within the Caribbean region from which we here in T&T can learn a lot. He observes that the Cuban music scene is strong because they have actively researched and nurtured their own distinctive music forms:

“The Cubans created wonderful music out of necessity—the embargo and isolation forced them to look inward. And the Cuban state initiated a whole research effort into folkloric regional forms of music.”

He refers to the roots music of Haiti, Jamaican ska and reggae, and the Garifuna music of Belize as different examples of cultures valuing their own traditions to create truly unique sounds that crossed over, at different levels, into mass music markets.

“Look at Haiti in the 1980s. The popular music under Duvalier, compas (konpa), was stigmatised. Young people looked to the voudoun roots of their own tradition—either sacred music, which became zouk, or secular music, like the rara band. These were roots music or ‘misik rasin’. They went to ceremonies, learned the voudoun rhythm, even sang traditional voudin songs, played the sacred drum with electronic amplified instruments—an example is Boukman Eksperyans.

“Jamaica has had the most success with reggae, which became linked with nationalism and emerged with Jamaican independence … Early musicians like Ska trombonist and composer Don Drummond of the Skatalites were all people who were highly competent jazz musicians, session musicians who put down the first ska tracks. But too many of today’s TT musicians feel if they can put down two chords and a synthesised drum beat, they’re good!”

Zeroing in on the importance of music artistry and competence, Lee cites Jesús Valdés Rodríguez, better known as Chucho Valdés, the internationally acclaimed Cuban pianist, bandleader, composer and arranger whose career spans over 50 years. An original member of the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna, in 1973 Valdés founded the group Irakere, one of Cuba’s best-known Latin jazz bands. He has won five Grammy Awards and three Latin Grammy Awards. Says Lee:

“Chucho Valdés founded the first Afro-Cuban Latin group; he can play classical music, North American jazz, his own Santeria music, even creolized versions of Chopin! Music training in Cuba is very, very rigorous. I have never met a bad Cuban musician yet!”

He next turns to the skill of Haitian musicians:

“In Haiti, every song can have a different rhythm. There are several thousand rhythms, so to call yourself a master drummer in Haiti means you can play them all. If you can’t play the rhythms but pretend to … it is a form of supreme disrespect to show poor musicianship when you are playing sacred music and trying to invoke a loa…That form of music is involved in a mutual relationship where the player is soliciting help, in a cyclical tradition of honour and respect to the gods.

“This applies to music—because essentially music is sacred. Whether it is religious or dancehall, what is music? It is a celebration and exploration of life. Many have lost that concept of music. Andre Tanker was rooted in that.

Need to ‘listen to ourselves’

“Here, we don’t listen to ourselves, to the region’s music. So what too many people play is very restricted and too easily influenced by global pressures,” believes Lee.

“Of course you can compete in the global music market, but you also have to be real, see the music from its own place…You have to work from where you are, and who you are, before you can take on the world,” believes Lee.

For the original report go to

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