Listen to the Storm Songs of the Caribbean

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When hurricanes are a part of life, people cope and quell their anxiety through their music.

Every island in the Caribbean has one, if not many: Popular songs inspired by the awful storms that have always been at once facts of life and shapers of history. In this region, from whose indigenous people we got our word — “huracan” — for the fierce tempests that swirl off the Atlantic in late summer and early fall, hurricanes have long been key to culture.

And hurricane songs — mournful, brave, witty or sad — are everywhere. Even before 1953, when the United States National Hurricane Center’s move to give storms human names provided clever lyricists with new ways to decry those storms’ capriciousness, iconic songs and singers in the Caribbean were hymning the power of hurricanes — to make or break leaders, to wreck industries, to force the vulnerable or devastated, at a weekend’s notice, to flee their homes and hunt new ones.

When Hurricane Dorian brought this fate to the poor people of the Bahamas, many across that sandy archipelago were no doubt reminded of a famous Bahamian folk song, “Run, Come See Jerusalem,” that a Bahamian calypso singer known as Blind Blake Higgs wrote to recall a harsh storm there in 1929.

In the ’50s, the Weavers and other American folkies covered Blake Higgs’s tune. But here on the mainland, hurricanes haven’t historically featured as strongly in our cultural memory. Yes, they’ve marked our past and our cities. But in the American songbook, even our best-known songs about climactic disasters — from Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl ballads to the blues songs about rivers rising and levees breaking — have tended to be less about storms, per se, than about water.

This may soon change: Ever since 2005, when the levees did break in New Orleans and the city was drowned not by one of the Mississippi’s periodic floods but by Hurricane Katrina, Americans have begun learning to scan the horizon and the forecasts for whatever atmospheric doom approaches next. With what feels like ever-worsening storms being fed by warming seas, and every hurricane season seeming worse than the last, the names of hurricanes — Katrina, Harvey, Maria, Matthew — have come to function here much as they have in the Caribbean: as markers in time, and moments of collective trauma, that both occasion and demand a response that’s as much cultural as it is economic or social.

Unfortunately, there will be plenty of “extreme weather events” to write and sing about in coming years. As we look to the Caribbean to see what these storms may bring, and what they may leave behind, we can also catch glimpse of one powerful way people deal with these storms — by writing great songs about them. Here are a few.

When two years ago Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Lin Manuel Miranda and friends recorded a “West Side Story”-themed ode to his island that was also, in the manner of modern benefit records, a cry for help. But an older classic was at least as much in evidence on the social media pages and in the memories of Puerto Ricans who call their island by the same name, Borinquen, its native Taíno did. “Que sera,” it asks, “de mi Borinquen cuando llegue el temporal?” What will become, when the storm lands, of my dear Boriniquen?

The best-known version of “Temporal” was recorded by the singer Tony Croatto in the 1970s. The tune may date from the turn of the last century, when Puerto Rico was becoming a de facto colony of the United States and its folk music — called “plena” — was taking shape in the southern city of Ponce. But the hurricane with which it’s most identified occurred in 1928. Known as San Felipe Segundo in Puerto Rico (and in the United States as the Okeechobee Hurricane), the hurricane was named for the feast day of the Catholic saint on whose week it blew ashore; it remains the only hurricane on record to make landfall in Puerto Rico as a Category 5. Its sustained 160 mile-per-hour winds scythed across the island and left half a million homeless.

 

It also ruined the livelihoods of thousands of Puerto Rican coffee farmers, cementing the grip of United States sugar companies on the island’s economy and pushing a sizable early wave of what would become a sea of migrants north.

Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean with 3,500 miles of coastline, offers a big target for hurricanes. Not a few of these have acted as fulcrums in its history — among them Hurricane Flora in 1963, whose deft handling by a young Fidel Castro helped secure his grip on power. But this most musical of islands won its best-known song about the weather from a storm that didn’t touch it at all.

Trio Matamoros was a seminal group in the rise of “son,” the lilting style born in an eastern province, Oriente (and later made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club). It became a musical lingua franca not merely for Cuba but across the Americas in the 20th century. The members of Trio Matamoros were experiencing their first blush of fame when they traveled to the Dominican Republic, where their music was hugely popular, in the summer of 1930. It was a fateful time to visit Santo Domingo. An army colonel named Rafael Trujillo had just seized power by coup d’état — and a historic cyclone was soon to strike.

The San Zenon Hurricane was small but powerful; it scored a direct hit on the Dominican capital. The stone buildings of Santo Domingo’s colonial center survived its fierce winds, but the city’s outskirts and flimsier dwellings didn’t. Estimates vary, but at least 2,000 people died. Many more were injured. And Trujillo, mobilizing the army to clean up the wreckage, used the storm to unleash a vile dictatorship that would last 30 years.

None of this, though, is what’s recalled in Cuba about the San Zenon storm. There it matters because of the song it inspired Miguel Matamoros to write about surviving its winds. “Every time I remember the ‘ciclon,’ my heart gets sick,” it goes. “The most ‘sabroso’ thing” about the experience, it goes on, was getting on an airplane to return to Cuban soil. “That’s how the story ends,” it concludes. “The dead go to glory / and the living dance the ‘son.’”

Trinidad is tucked away in the southern Caribbean, just a few miles from South America’s coast. It hasn’t dealt with nearly as many hurricanes, lying below their usual path, as its peers. But as the source for two of the English Caribbean’s essential musical forms — calypso and steel bands — Trinidad’s cultural sway in the region has been outsized. So it’s hardly surprising that a calypso from Trinidad became perhaps the first great song to make use, in 1955, of the still-novel practice of naming hurricanes for women. (Men’s names joined the parade in 1978.)

In September 1955, Hurricane Janet ripped through the Lesser Antilles before becoming, when it slammed into Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, the first Atlantic hurricane to strike a continental mainland as a Category 5. Wrecking Grenada’s nutmeg crop, Janet visited havoc on Barbados, the Grenadines and St. Vincent, too. Then it inspired the great calypsonian Lord Melody (né Fitzroy Alexander) to cut a tune in which he described Janet’s attributes (“silky hair / about six foot”) and capacities (“Janet lick down a million buildings”) before imploring her, having seen the suffering she’d caused on other islands, to spare his own. By the time he did so (“Janet, I beg you hard! Janet, not Trinidad!), she’d dissipated into air. Two years later, Lord Melody’s peer Christo recorded a lovely version.

Haiti, as the first Caribbean nation to win its freedom from colonial rule and a country whose modern poverty has made it especially vulnerable to disasters, has long been seen as a source — as countless songs from across the Caribbean and beyond show — of both inspiration and pity for its neighbors. Which is one reason it feels like poetic justice that the most enduring song to come from the worst hurricane to strike the region in the 1970s — a hurricane that did more damage to several of Haiti’s neighbors, for a change, than it did to Haiti — was Haitian.

In August 1979, David formed in the Atlantic off Cape Verde and rumbled west toward Barbados before taking a sharp turn to catch Dominica, in the Windward Antilles, flush in the face. The island’s people were caught almost completely unaware by David, which rendered 80 percent of them homeless. The world learned of the devastation’s extent, the following day, from a local ham radio operator whose reports amplified a sense in the Dominican Republic — situated on the eastern half of Hispaniola, the island it shares with Haiti, and so next in line — that this was a horrific storm. So it proved, killing 2,000 people. By the time it traversed Hispaniola’s central mountains to hit Haiti, David had weakened. But not so much that it didn’t cause sufficient mudslides and suffering to inspire one of Haiti’s most beloved musicians, then a New York resident, to record a song about watching from afar as “a great water flooded the sun” over his homeland and about worrying, after it did so and with phone lines knocked out, whether everyone there was dead.

Ti Manno was a sublime singer of “Kompa,” the dominant pop style in Haiti since the ’60s. He recorded “David” with his Brooklyn-based band, DP Express, to describe how, after finally learning that his family was O.K., he realized he needed to to return to Haiti (which he did, staying for a few years before returning to New York to die, before his time, in 1985).

Lovindeer isn’t the best-known reggae singer outside Jamaica. But he became one of its best-loved in the 1980s when he released this classic track about the most destructive hurricane to ever strike the island. Gilbert ranks among the largest hurricanes ever recorded — its tropical storm-force winds measured 500 feet in diameter — and it remains the most intense storm in the history of Mexico, where it drowned Cancun and the larger Yucatán Peninsula under 23-foot waves and a storm surge that extended three miles inland.

Before that, though, it ransacked Jamaica. There, Prime Minister Edward Seaga compared the storm’s effects — where amid flash floods, mudslides and destruction of property, 49 people died — to “Hiroshima after the atom bomb.”

But none of this kept Lovindeer from laughing in Gilbert’s face. Older Jamaican storm songs, like the folk tune “Dry Weather Houses,” sang of mortal danger in a similarly playful tone. And Lovindeer, rap-singing in local dialect over a bouncy backing track that sounded as if it was made with a simple synthesizer in his bedroom, mourned the bits of domestic equipment, like his satellite dish, the storm had claimed. He lamented the now high cost of beer and food spoiled in his freezer. And he expressed sympathy for those affected in more dire ways.

But the song’s overall tone mimicked its nursery rhyme chorus (“Water come inna mi room / Mi sweep out some with mi broom / Di likkle dog laugh to see such fun / And di dish run away with the spoon!”). After this storm, many Jamaicans sought to gain visas that would allow them to leave the island for the United States or England. Some got them, some didn’t. And some, no doubt, wished they could follow the model of a key part of the singer’s house: “Mi roof migrate without a visa.”

One thought on “Listen to the Storm Songs of the Caribbean

  1. I love this post, so educational. As a person who loves Caribbean music and history, it come at the right time. I collect all kinds of pictures, and pay attention to mother nature distractions.
    Thanks for posting, now I’ll go listen to some hurricanes music.

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