Article Laméca

"Native bi-musicality in "traditional" music of the Caribbean"

Martha Ellen Davis (2003)
University of Florida


ABSTRACT: "Traditional" Caribbean music is neither homogeneous nor unchanging. Rather, the oral musical culture of any slice in time represents the results of accumulated cultural layers in that place, social sector, and performance context. This paper examines case studies from fieldwork in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico in which, in the contexts of folk-religious ritual, musical genres and styles of both European and African origins may coexist in a single event without merging. Thus, some "traditional" musical cultures of Caribbean communities may be viewed as bi-musical by nature. This paper calls for rethinking what "traditional" Caribbean music means, and the concept itself of "traditionality."


Woody Allen in the film "Deconstructing Harry" says: "Tradition is only an illusion of permanence." "Traditional" music of the Caribbean, viewed from today's slice in time, then, refers simply to older practices. The term implies practices mainly of peasant society, that is, subsistence agriculturalists, because they are considered more faithful conservators of older practices than the urban sector. However, old musical "traditions" are not unchanging. Rather, they are the product of years of cultural contacts and evolution, pre- and post-conquest, and a constant dialectic between city and country and between literate and non-literate practices.

Caribbean oral musical "traditions" derive from various origins with regard to ethnic group, social class, literate/non-literate practices, and period of time. The result is a living history within Caribbean musical traditions, in which the past is embedded in the present. A musical performance is a temporal "artifact", which, for the past hundred twenty years has been able to be captured electronically for formal analysis. Like a rock whose stratigraphy may be studied by the historical geologist to reconstruct its development, a musical piece, style, or ensemble of "traditional" (i.e., nonliterate) music may be studied by the historical musicologist. Other aspects of culture can also be subjected to formal historical analysisómost notably language and material culture (which includes food as edible material culture!)


The Caribbean musical stratigraphy

Bi-culturalism, or multi-culturalism, of which music forms a part, appears to be a common consequence of conquest and of large population movements. For example, among Native-American populations of the Lesser Antilles, where Arawaks had been conquored by Carib incursions, European chroniclers found that the men spoke Carib, the language of the conquerors, and the women, Arawak, the language of the conquored. The musical culture would likely differ accordingly. Another sort of cultural multiculturalism is found even today in the musical of the Kuna people of Panam·. A fundamental aesthetic of Kuna musical culture is reflected in their encouragement of eclecticism and innovation. This attitude can be attributed to their geographical position at the crossroads of the Americas, which for millenia has facilitated contact with various other cultures (Smith 1985). For the Kuna, the European conquest appears to have provided simply another welcome source of new musical ideas.

In the case of Native American, European, and African contact in the Americas, my findings in the Hispanic Caribbean indicate folk-religious ritual as the most conservative musical context, concurring with Melville Herskovits. Taking his observations a step further, religious contexts conserve not only African traditions, but European, Native-American, and perhaps other traditions as well. I have found two or more ethnic practices coexisting side-by-side, even within a single piece, in religious contextsóalthough in other genres as well. In religious contexts, the music forms part of the folk liturgy and hence is slow to change. Thus, I would argue that bi- or multi-musicality is more common within the sacred contexts, styles, and genres of folk-religious practices, both Catholic and Protestant.

In contrast, the hybridizing of musical elements of various ethnic origins into the evolution of new styles, genres, and instrumentation, occurs within the music of other contexts, most notably secular dance music. Music which serves the function of recreation permits certain modification with jeopardizing its social purpose.


Time, space, and gender in folk-religious ritual

In folk-religious contexts, the result of cultural contact is sometimes not a merger, rather the coexistence of components, which remain discernable as discrete features. Such is the case with the most sacred music of both European and African origin. In the case of the less-sacred religious music, however, such as the non-liturgical Salve, evolution is indeed permitted. The Salve con pandero or Salve con palos appears to be the result of a merger of various traditions. Its basic rhythm, akin to the so-called "habanera" (which allegedly was in fact from the island of Hispaniola), appears to be a common denominator. The degree of musical orthodoxy of a particular genre appears to be determined by the social function of the music.

In the Caribbean context, there also seems to be a progression in folk rituals from the more purely European, African, or Native American to the "creole" ritual and music (meaning hybrid, developed in the New World). A case of ritual in which African-derived sacred music precedes the more secular and creole/hybrid music is the Big Drum Dance of Carriacou, a ritual in commemoration of the ancestors, as documented by ethnomusicologist Lorna McDaniel (1998). First, the "nation dances" are performed by descendants of various African ethnic groups. Then, having completed the sacred obligation, the participants perform recreational "creole dances."

A similar pattern may be found among Afro-Caribbean Protestants. For example, in the Afro-North American enclave of Saman·, Dominican Republic (settled 1824-25), the traditional church service (Methodist and African Methodist Episcopal-A.M.E.) utilizes hymns of the English or Anglo-American origin. The formal service is concluded or followed by spontaneously-initiated spirituals (termed "anthems"), non-literate religious music (Davis 1981 and 1983). On the Anglophone island of Montserrat, the same temporal pattern of sacred/European followed by secular/African is associated with the wake. Dobbin (1986:41), observing a specific event, reports: "Hymns [probably Anglican or Methodist] were sung only until midnight, when all Christian ceremony vanished as folk games and songs took over." Thus, in both folk Catholic ritual of the Hispanic Caribbean and Protestant ritual of the Anglophone Caribbean (of non-pentecostal sects), for events honoring both the deities and the dead, there appears to be a temporal progression from the European-influenced and literate to the African-influenced and non-literate practices within the ritual context.

The spatial relationship between the two cultural components is also of significance. In folk Catholicism, the location of European-derived music is at the altar, the European-influenced sacred site. The location for most drumming is removed from the altar in the folk chapel - at the African sacred site, the center post (poteau-mitan) - or outside, although drums may be dragged to the altar for ritual moments. In the Afro-Puerto Rican enclave of LoÌza Aldea during the carnavalesque Feast of St. James (Fiesta de Santiago ApÛstol), the separation between the sung rosary site and the bomba dance is over a mile (from MedianÌa Baja to MedianÌa Alta).

Gender is associated both with the spatial and temporal dimensions of rituals, and with musical genres. Women are associated with the altar and the European-derived prayers and sung prayers performed there. Men are associated with the long-drums (palos).


Individual bi-musicality

division), Caribbean bi-musicality is common on an individual as well as a collective level. That is, within the largely rural sector that practices folk religion, all genres are part of a general musical culture, although individuals may not actively participate in all. On the other hand, certain musicians, particularly men, may indeed be active participants in more than one musical tradition. They may singing the sacred, unaccompanied, Hispanic Salve Regina one moment, then turn around and play the long-drums the next. Kenneth Bilby has found the same in Jamaica (1985:203).

My observations of bi-musicality within Caribbean musical "traditions" represent musical culture within the slice of time encompassing the last thirty-four years. During this time period, I have seen that the trend is away from bi-musicality and toward synthesis. This trend includes the move away from orthodoxy in musical and other folk-religious practices, be they of European, African, residual Native American or other origins. Musically, this includes the growing loss of modal scales, antiphonal structure, and special vocal features. In dance, the Dominican drum dance (baile de palos), is traditionally a semi-sacred baile de respeto (dance of respect), hence danced unembraced with little body contact between the man and the woman. Starting before my period of observation, there has been a trend toward dancing it in an embraced position. In the area of gender roles, there is also a trend away from gender-associated roles in genre association and vocal and instrumental performance. In conclusion, I forsee that the Caribbean will continue to lose its musical "traditions" of ethnic, class, and gender specificity, and develop a hybrid, "creole" musical culture, with its many and continually-changing variants.

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References Cited

Bilby, Kenneth M.
The Caribbean as a musical region. In Caribbean Contours, edited by Sidney W. Mintz and Sally Price, pp. 181-218. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

McDaniel, Lorna
The Big Drum ritual of Carriacou: praisesongs for re-memory of flight. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida.

Davis, Martha Ellen
La cultural musical religiosa de los "americanos" de Saman·. Boletín del Museo del Hombre Dominicano 15, pp. 127-169.
"Bi-musicality" in the cultural configurations of the Caribbean. Black Music Research Journal 14:2, pp. 145-160.

Dobbin, Jay B.
The Jombee dance: A study of trance ritual in the West Indies. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press.

Smith, Sandra.
A form of pre-Colombian musicianship? Paper presented at the Thirtieth Annual Meeting, Society for Ethnomusicology, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada



© Médiathèque Caraïbe / Conseil Général de la Guadeloupe, 2003