Está en la página 1de 16
1 Introduction: The Caribbean Crucible In his 1962 book The Middle Passage, a caustic and dourly Eurocentric V. S. Naipaul wrote, “History is built around achievement and creation, and nothing was created in the West Indies.” Naipaul’s disparagement of his homeland—and by unspoken extension, of the region as a whole—has of- ten been quoted and debated. His cut evidently touched a nerve, perhaps because of the persistence of its implicit colonial concepts of “history,” in- volving great European kings, wars, artworks, and inventions. Yer, leaving aside the Cuban Revolution, which constitutes “history” by any standard, by 1962 the Caribbean people had already made cultural history in creating, a set of original and dynamic musical genres. An archipelago populated mostly by descendants of slaves might seem an unlikely site for cultural vitality, but by Naipaul’s time, the Caribbean had become a crucible for some of the most unique musical developments of the century. Indeed, when elitist neoconservatives derisively issue the challenge to find a Zulu Tolstoy or a Haitian Mozart, they, like the early Naipaul, may be blinded by their narrow conception of art, for popular and folk music styles, as much as fetishized individual classical pieces, can constitute “Great Works” of art, and the Caribbean has been a remarkably fertile source for music genres. As styles like reggae and Cuban dance music achieve international popu larity, they become part of world cultural history as well as that of the Caribbean. Ultimately, Caribbean music can scarcely be compartmentalized as a local, regional entity, when over four million people of Caribbean de scent populate the cities of North America and Great Britain, and when the world is united as never before by the mass media and international capital In a global village where Sri Lankan schoolboys sing Bob Marley tunes, Hawaiian cowboys sing Puerto Rican aguinaldes, Congolese bands play mambos, and Victnam truly become world music and, in its own way, world history as well urbanites dance the bolero, Caribbean music has 2 Caribbean Currents Some of the vitality of Caribbean music seems to derive from its impor- tance within Caribbean society and the sheer amount of attention and cre- ative energy it commands. Caribbeans are well aware of the international prominence of their music, and they accord it a preeminent symbolic status at home. Cubans readily cite music, health, and education as the three arenas in which their Revolution has excelled. Similarly, though we may smile at the way Jamaicans made pop singer Millie Small a national hero for her 1964 ditty “My Boy Lollipop,” we can nevertheless appreciate how Bob Marley’s fame has far outstripped that of any of his fellow citizens. Like- wise, in Trinidad, calypso not only spreads news, it is the news, with politi- cians, journalists, and other public figures endlessly debating and denounc- ing the latest songs. Indeed, when Muslim militant Abu Bakr attempted to seize power in a 1990 coup, one of his first acts was to set up an all-calypso radio station. Music, in a word, is the most visible, popular, and dynamic aspect of Caribbean expressive culture, With music so beloved by Caribbeans of all stripes and persuasions, it is not surprising that the region’s ethnic and class variety has generated an extraordin- ary degree of musical diversity. Caribbean music has long offered something to practically everyone, from the nineteenth-century Parisian aristocrat dancing a genteel habanera to the Jamaican peasant finding release in an ecstatic Kumina dance. Accordingly, Caribbean people have always been divided by linguistic, political, ethnic, and geographical barriers and by the legacy of colonialism in general. Nevertheless, Caribbean musical cultures have been shaped by many similar sociohistorical factors, which enables us to make certain generalizations about the region as a whole. The entire Caribbean shares a history of Euro- pean colonialism, slavery, ethnic and class conflict, nationalism, and, in the twentieth century, North American imperialist influence. Within this frame- work, Caribbean musics have evolved: in a complex process of creolization, in which Caribbean peoples have fashioned new, distinctly local genres out of elements taken from disparate traditions—primarily African and European. Caribbean musics are thus the products of the dialectic interaction of distinct ethnic groups and social classes, and they often combine elements of cultural resistance as well as dominant ideology and of local traditions as well as those borrowed from international styles. THE INDIAN HERITAGE The prehistory of Caribbean music begins with the culture of the region’s first inhabitants, the Amerindians, whose fifteenth-century population his- torians have estimated, not very helpfully, at somewhere between 250,000 Introduction: The Caribbean Crucible 3 and 6,000,000. The currently favored guess at their population numbers is around half a million, with the largest concentration on the island of Hispa- niola. The Ciboneys of Cuba had been in the region the longest but became outnumbered by other groups, especially the more advanced Taino Arawaks and, in the Lesser Antilles, the warlike Caribs. Because of the presence of these Indians, it may be better to speak not of a “discovery” of the region by Europeans but of the “encounter of two cultures,” although the actual pe- riod of cultural interaction lasted less than a century, by which time most Indians had perished. Nevertheless, any historical account of Caribbean mu- sic and culture must commence with the practices of the Amerindians, as described by the Spanish. Indigenous Caribbean music centered around a socioreligious ceremony called areito, in which as many as a thousand participants would dance in concentric circles around a group of musicians. The musicians sang myth- ological chants in call-and-response style, playing rattles (later called “ma- racas”), gourd scrapers (giliros), and slit drums called mayohuacan. These last were hollowed logs with H-shaped tongues cut into them. Although most scholars think the Indians of the Caribbean originally came from what is now Venezuela, the use of slit drums suggests some affinity with Aztecs and other Mexican Indian groups, who played similar instruments called teponastli. The Spaniards, far from bringing progress and civilization to their Carib- bean subjects, enslaved and effectively exterminated them. The Indians were forced to work in mines, while Spanish pigs overran their crops. Those who did not perish from starvation, disease, or forced labor were killed outright or committed mass suicide. Christopher Columbus himself set the tenor, presiding over the death of a third of the population of Hispaniola during his sixteen-month governorship (1496-1497). By 1570, the Caribbean In- dians were effectively extinct, except for a few villages in Dominica and the African-intermixed “Black Caribs” of St. Vincent, later exiled to Hondu To fill the need for labor, the colonists had to turn to slaves from Africa Trinidad’s prime minister Eric Williams put it, the Europeans “used negroes they stole from Africa to work the land they stole from the Indians.” To a certain extent, early colonial-era culture emerged as a mixture of European, African, and Amerindian traditions; the still-popular Cuban cult of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, for instance, mixes clements of the worship of the Taino god Atabey, the Yoruba deity Oshun, and the Euro pean Virgin of Illescas. On the whole, however, little rem: culture except for place-names, foods, and words like “hammock,” “t atee,” “yucca,” “hurric ns of Indian n and “tobacco”—the last surviving as the Th