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7 Top Types of Caribbean Music

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Calypso and Soca are part of the music at Crop Over Festival. Barbados Tourist Board
Calypso and Soca are part of the music at Crop Over Festival. Barbados Tourist Board

If music makes the world go round, nowhere might that be truer than in the Caribbean. From lyrical reggae and calypso, to dance favorites like merengue and fungi, and toe-tapping zouk, steel pan, and tambu, there’s something to love.

Here is a sampling of some of the most popular Caribbean Music:

1. Reggae.

No one is perhaps more synonymous with a musical style than Jamaica’s Bob Marley is with reggae. Rooted in the 1960s and led by Rastafarian artists like Marley, reggae became a global phenomenon with a worldwide following within a decade. Today, you’ll hear reggae, often Marley classics played in beach bars, clubs, and providing the mood-setting background sound on day sail charters. The 1980 published Dictionary of Jamaican English notes that reggae is based on an earlier type of popular Jamaican music called ska. Ska uses a heavy four-beat rhythm driven by drums and bass guitar. This duo of instruments served as the foundation for reggae. Also common is a ‘scraper’ or smooth stick rubbed on one that is corrugated. Lyrics today, as at the start, often tell of bad-boy gangster and ghetto life.

Jamaica Reggae
Jamaica Reggae

2. Merengue.

This is the national music and dance of the Dominican Republic. In 2016, merengue was recognized as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The merengue’s beat comes from Spanish, African, and the island’s indigenous cultures. Key is a repeating five-beat rhythmic pattern called a quintillo. The guitar-like ‘cuatro’ was a key instrument to merengue in the 1800s, later replaced by the accordion. Today, guitar, tambourine, saxophone, bass, and piano are among the instruments. The annual Santo Domingo Merengue Festival takes place from late July to August. Restaurants and clubs, especially those with dance floors, cultural events and concerts, and local radio stations are all places to hear merengue. 

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Dominican Republic Reggae
Dominican Republic Reggae

3. Scratch or Fungi Music.

Like Merengue is linked with dance in the Dominican Republic, scratch bands (as they are called in the U.S. Virgin Islands), or fungi bands (name in the British Virgin Islands) provide the beat for quadrille dancers. Local history tells that fungi music arrived in the Virgin Islands from its African ancestors. Gourds, washboards, and drums were among the first instruments. Nowadays, bands include a banjo, conga drum, and triangle, as well as saxophone, bass, and guitar. Popular bands include Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights and The Lashing Dogs. Carnival celebrations, local festivals, and public holidays are popular times to hear these bands. So are weekends at local bars and restaurants and Sunday afternoon beach parties.

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Stanley and The Ten Sleepless Knights
Stanley and The Ten Sleepless Knights

4. Zouk.

This musical movement was born in the French Caribbean islands over four decades ago. It was a band called Kassav’, which formed in Guadeloupe in 1979, that made this musical genre known worldwide with hits such as Zouk la sé sèl médikaman nou ni (translated: Zouk is the only medicine we have). Jocelyne Béroard, born in Martinique, is one of the group’s lead singers. In 1986, she earned Gold by having the biggest selling album by a woman in the West Indies. As a side note, Béroard helped Jimmy Buffett write ‘Love and Luck’. The song mentions the Kassav’ song Kolé Sére (translated: Love and luck). Zouk music is played year-round in Martinique. Good places to hear it live include the Batelière Beach Club (Schoelcher), Sunset 972 (Fort-de-France), and the Rooftop FWI (Le Lamentin).

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Zouk music dance feature. © nevoux - archipels
Zouk music dance feature. © nevoux – archipels

5. Calypso.

Story-telling lyrics, often with satirical social commentary, and a body-moving beat thanks to drums, bass guitars, and trumpets are hallmarks of this musical form. Its origins trace back to Africa, with its present-day form developed in Trinidad & Tobago. Calypso is one of the most popular genera of music at annual events like Trinidad & Tobago’s Carnival, Barbados’ Crop Over Festival, and other Carnival celebrations throughout the Caribbean. At these events, there are calypso competitions. These often span several days through semi-finals and finals, featuring junior calypsonians and adults, until calypso royalty is crowned. Famous names from the past include the Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener, and the Duke of Iron. 

6. Steel Pan.

One of the musical instruments synonymous with the Caribbean is steel pans, and they make up steel pan bands and orchestras. Trinidad & Tobago is the home of the steel pan, where in the 1930s the prototypes were made of frying pans, dustbin lids, and oil drums. Today, bands feature over a dozen pans, which vary in size and sound from soprano to baritone and bass. Pan bands often play calypso, but the possibilities are endless including Latin, jazz, an island’s national anthem, and pop. For example, US singer Nick Jonas’ song, Close, features a steelpan. 

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Pan player, Trinidad & Tobago
Pan player, Trinidad & Tobago

7. Tambu.

See the history of this music and dance, which developed in the 1800s on plantations on Dutch islands like Curacao, at the Tambu Shon Cola Museum. It’s located south of Willemstad and north of Santa Barbara. The museum features six rooms and on the walls are traditional instruments. Though its roots are old, tambu music and dancing were forbidden for many years and up until 2012. Three years later, tambu was formally included in the Dutch National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Tambu comes from the Spanish word for drum. Other instruments include the wiri (metal scraper) and triangle. 

Tambu Shon Cola Museum
Tambu Shon Cola Museum
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Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.

So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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