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A Sampler of Caribbean American Recordings

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A man in Caribbean dress playing turtle shell drums.
A musician in the Garifuna band Libaya Baba plays turtle shell drums at the Library of Congress, July 2, 2013. Photo by Stephen Winick. Select the image to go to the webcast.

Caribbean American Heritage Month is a relatively new commemorative month, first created in June, 2006. The American Folklife Center has many collections that document aspects of Caribbean cultures and some of these are available online. This essay can only touch on a few examples, but I hope it will provide ideas on how to explore further. The available finding aids to archival collections are included with the resource links at the end.

European contact with the first peoples of the Caribbean had a devastating impact on populations, languages, and cultures. Until recently, historians often described these peoples as extinct, yet there are still many communities that maintain the traditions of their indigenous ancestors. Today there is a revitalization of these cultures and a renewed scholarly interest in their history and customs.

An example of a Caribbean Indian group is the Garifuna, who have preserved much of their traditional culture. The Garifuna band Libaya Baba (select for the video), whose members are from California and New York, performed at the Library of Congress in 2013. The name of the group means “Grandfather’s Children.” The musicians include three brothers Jeffrey, Kelsie, and Dayton Bernardez, and their cousin, Greg Palacio. Their first influence came from their grandfather, Cyril Antonio, and other master drummers of Dangriga, Belize. Garifuna music, as you can hear in this video, has elements of both Indian and West African music. The songs are in a dialect of Arawak. The  Garifuna are descended from Arawak and Carib peoples who lived on the island of St. Vincent. They fiercely resisted colonization. During the early colonial period they had little outside contact, with the exception of some escaped African slaves that the Garifuna assisted and with whom there was some intermarriage. They were defeated by the British in 1796 and exiled to a small infertile island. Eventually the survivors of this ordeal settled in Central America. More recently some have emigrated to other countries, including the United States.

In addition to American Indian, European, and African influences, some Caribbean cultures have influences from East Indians who were brought to the islands as indentured workers by the British. Major League Tassa, an Indo-Caribbean group from New York who performed at the Library of Congress in 2008, provides an example of drumming and instrumental music from their ancestral home in Trinidad.

Bahamians came to Spanish Florida in the eighteenth century, initially to fish and salvage wrecks. This led some to make Florida home. Migration of people back and forth between the Bahamas and the United States mainland has continued to the present day. Bahamian culture has multiple cultural influences from Africa, native Caribbean peoples, and European cultures, particularly the English. The Florida Folklife Project of the Work Projects Administration (WPA) between 1937 and 1940 included recordings of Bahamians in Florida. Among the more famous African Bahamian folksongs is, “Hoist Up the John B Sail,” sung by Robert Butler, accompanied by Theodore “Tea Roll” Rolle on the accordion. The song was recorded by a number of groups, including the Kingston Trio and the Beach Boys, with the title “Sloop John B.” White English Bahamians also migrated to Florida, bringing English songs they had learned in the Bahamas. For example, listen to Naomi Wilson of Riviera Beach, Florida singing the sea shanty, “Drive the Nail A’right, Boys.”  In the 1920s and 1930s, influences of ragtime and jazz blended with African Bahamian music, as is evident in the recordings of Tea Roll at the piano, here singing a jazzed up version of a folksong about painting a boat a new color to conceal it for rum smuggling during Prohibition. Smuggling boats were regularly repainted different colors. The song title is the name of the boat: “Bellamena.”

Anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston studied the influences of Caribbean cultures on the peoples of Florida and Georgia. She participated in the Florida Folklife Project and, in 1939, was recorded for the project performing some songs she had learned during the course of her earlier research in the Caribbean and Florida. In the recording of “Evalina,” a song found in many parts of the Caribbean, she sings a short version and then discusses it with folklorist Carita Doggett Corse.

Stetson Kennedy’s young bride, who was born Edith Ogden-Aguilar, was of Cuban and American heritage. She was able to assist the Florida Folklife Project by introducing the collectors to members of Cuban communities in Florida. She was recorded asking some riddles of young children in Spanish. Here is the recording of a riddle about a new world fruit, “Agua pasa por mi casa.“  The text and translation follows:

Agua pasa por mi casa,
Cate de mi corazon?

Water passes by my house,
Gate of my heart?

Answer: Aguacate (Avocado)

Another folklorist in the Florida Folklife Project was Herbert Halpert, who recorded a demonstration of five Cuban drum rhythms performed by Ramon Bermudez and announced by Art Page. He also recorded some excellent examples of Afro-Cuban dance songs such as “Guabina,” performed by Ramon Bermudez and Carlos Pous (a translation is spoken by Art Pages on this recording ), and “Merce,” sung by Adela Martinez with band, (a translation is spoken by Art Pages here).

Three women seated at a table
Left to right: Puerto Rican Americans Aurora Calderon, Elinor Rodriguez, and Cruz Losada who were recorded singing songs in Spanish by Sidney Robertson Cowell in Oakland California, April 10, 1939.

Puerto Rican migrants to California were recorded by Sidney Robertson Cowell in 1939, including some songs that originated in Puerto Rico. “Bolero Sentimental,” sung by Elinor Rodriguez in 1939, is a song about an economic depression in Puerto Rico that led to migration to the United States. “Si Me Dan Pasteles an Aguinaldo” (common title, “Si Me Dan Pasteles”) is a Christmas carol from Viequies, Puerto Rico, here sung by Aurora Calderon. She explains that the song is sung by carolers begging for hot pasteles, a finger food made of green bananas, vegetables, and stewed pork steamed in banana leaves. The song is still sung by carolers in Puerto Rico today.

The American Folklife Center continues to acquire ethnographic documentation of Caribbean cultures. An exciting new acquisition this year is the Mary Jane Soule Collection of field recordings of music, stories, and interviews recorded by Mary Jane Soule from 1978 to 1985 on St. Croix and St. Thomas, United States Virgin Islands. Select the link to learn more about this collection.

As should be clear from this sampling, Caribbean American music is of many styles and diverse sources. In some cases the ethnic origins are clear; for instance Spanish or English songs brought to the Caribbean are sometimes preserved much as they might have been performed in the countries they came from. In other cases various musical styles have been blended, giving rise to styles of music unique to various part of the Caribbean. These styles, in turn, have had a profound influence on the music of the United States as, for example, they were blended with jazz, brought Congo rhythms into popular dance music, and gave a characteristic beat to modern-day rap.

Resources [updated June 2019]

Comments (2)

  1. This article provides the idea on carribean american music briefing its diverse origin and categories. It samples the recordings of cultural songs of past times.

  2. Thanks, Stephanie. The links to the performances are wonderful. What a range of styles.

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