Stretching from Cuba, located only 90 miles south of Florida, east and south to Trinidad, just off the coast of South America, the Caribbean is one of the most culturally diverse and musically rich regions of the world. Spanish conquest and settlement in the 17th century wiped out most of the native Carib people. English, French, and Dutch settlement followed and sugar production became the primary industry of the area. In order to operate the labor-intensive sugar plantations, millions of African slaves were imported during the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. When slavery was abolished, large numbers of East Indians came to English-speaking islands to work the sugar plantations. Today each island has its own mix of European, African, and Asian populations. Haiti, for example, is predominantly African, while Puerto Rico boasts a mix of African and Spanish people, and Trinidad is nearly evenly split between citizens of African and East Indian ancestry. Reflecting this diverse population, the islands have developed a wide range of distinctive linguistic, religious, culinary, and musical traditions.
The concept of creolization is essential to understand the music and culture of the Caribbean. Creolization refers to the development of a distinctive new cultural form resulting from contact between two or more different cultures. Throughout the Caribbean, the blending of African and European (and occasionally East Indian) cultures has led to the emergence of new forms of language, religion, food, and of course music. With regard to music, African concepts of polyrhythm, call-and-response singing, repetition and subtle variation, along with use of percussion instruments (particularly skin drums) have blended with European melodies, harmonic accompaniment, verse/chorus song structure, and use of string and brass instruments. The diversity of Caribbean folk musical styles may be organized on a stylistic continuum, with neo-African drumming and ritual song/chant on one end, and European sounding hymn singing, military marches, social dance music, and lyrical ballads on the other. In between lie an array of truly mixed, creolized song/dance forms including the son of Cuba, the plena of Puerto Rico, the meringue of the Dominican, the mento of Jamaica, and the calypso of Trinidad.
During the 20th century independence, urbanization, and emigration, along with a decline in the sugar industry and the rise of tourism, have brought sweeping changes to the Caribbean cultural landscape. The rise of mass media and international travel resulted in further mixing of Caribbean music with American and African popular styles, resulting in modern pop dance forms such as the Cuban/Puerto Rican/NYC salsa, Trinidadian socca, Jamaican reggae, Haitian konpa, and zouk from Martanique and Guadeloupe. Many of these styles have become popular in urban centers outside of the Caribbean with large populations of Island immigrants such as New York, Miami, and London. Today New York City’s dance and concert halls feature the top salsa, meringue, reggae, konpa, and socca stars, and Brooklyn’s Labor Day West Indian Carnival has grown into the largest ethnic outdoor festival in the United States.