Reggae Caribbean Music

Think of Caribbean music, and what do you come up with? Reggae would be an obvious first choice. Almost everybody can recognize the sound that took the world by storm in the 1970s with artists like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh and which is still a force to be reckoned with. And then what? Salsa became a phenomenon in the 1990s, with Cubans, Puerto Ricans and mainland Latin Americans setting the pace. Then there’s calypso and steel-band, the infectious good-time music that seems to evoke the region in its every note.

But these three totally different types of music are just the tip of an ever-growing musical iceberg. Leaving aside the bigger islands, such as Jamaica, Cuba and Puerto Rico, even the smaller territories of the Lesser Antilles reveal an extraordinary diversity of styles and sounds that literally stretches from A to Z. In between Trinidad’s Aguinaldo and Martinizue’s zouk, you will find genres such as bele (Frensh islands), jing ping (Dominica), raggasoca (Barbados) and tambu (Dutch islands). And that is not to mention bouyon, parang and soukous.

Steel pan – a by product of oil

You will hear steel pan throughout the region, but Trinidad claims not just to have invented it, but to be world leader in playing it. There are still arguments over who it was who first realized the musical potential of a discarded oil drum in the 1930s. But there is no dispute that rhythm and percussion where already well established on the island. Predecessors included the tamboo bamboo orchestras, which beat bamboo tubes with sticks (used instead of drums banned by the British colonials as they thought it would encourage rioting) at folk dances, funeral wakes and of course, Carnival. Other percussionists resorted to biscuit tins, dustbins and kitchen pots until the imported oil drum, a feature of Trinidad’s booming petroleum industry, was converted into the versatile instrument we know today.

Ceremonial tuk

One thriving aspect of Barbados’s annual Crop Over festival (historically held to mark the end of the cane-cutting season) is the tuk band. These percussive outfits are believed to date from as far back as the 17th century and later accompanied the island’s local friendly societies, known as ‘landships’, in ceremonies and outings. They are also thought to have modeled themselves on the marching bands of 18th century British regiments.

Today’s tuk band is made up of bass, snare and kettle drums, a penny whistle or flute and usually a triangle. Despite what might seem at first to be a limited musical range, the bands’ versatility is amazing and is often shown off in a wide repertoire of songs, covering the spectrum from European classical pieces to Negro spirituals and current Billboard (Top Ten) hits.

But it is always the performance of original, Caribbean-flavored material that brings out the best in the musicians, and thanks to the efforts of calypsonian Wayne ‘Poonka’ Willcock and his group Ruk-a-Tuk International, tuk music is staging something of a comeback in the mushrooming local festivals.

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