How does Afro-Caribbean music function in the reconstruction of political and cultural identity?
In order to understand Afro-Caribbean music’s role in the reconstruction of cultural and political identity, one must appreciate its diversity and what Afro-Caribbean music is comprised of. To do this, there must be a discussion of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, its multiple trade routes, and the differing experiences under different colonial powers, allowing us to trace the origins of the musical form. This in turn will help us to understand why, for example, North American jazz differs from that of the Deep South and why Cuban music is a whole new sound, even though all genres, at their roots, are based on African traditional musical features. Firstly, Cuba’s slave trade history starts and finishes later than other Caribbean countries, as it only joined the sugar trade in the 1800s, when slaves that were in British colonies, such as Jamaica, were sent to the Spanish colonies, such as Cuba, after Britain’s abolishment of slavery. It appears that one of the main African tribes being moved from British colonies to Cuba was the Yoruba tribe. Therefore, we see the drum become central to Caribbean music, for example in reggae and in Cuban son, as the Yoruba were known as a tribe of advanced drummers and this, like any other African tribe, was part of their communication and heritage. This movement of slaves to the North provoked a movement in culture and therefore suggests why many Cuban musical forms such as the Son maintain a lot of the ritual elements of African tribes.
Some scholars have offered the explanation that, in addition to the constant movement of slaves and their tribal cultures, different slave owners allowed more or less cultural autonomy to their slaves. It is suggested that the Spanish and Portuguese colonialists allowed for greater autonomy than British colonialists, for example in the protestant US and British colonies, African drumming was outlawed – except for in New Orleans, whereas Spanish colonies, such as Cuba, were allowed to keep their drums, as slave owners found that they were more productive when creating music, and this gave birth to the work song, where the rhythm of the song kept the rhythm and pace of work.
Upon evaluating Afro-Caribbean music’s role in the reconstruction of cultural identity we begin to consider the objectives of the music created and how they contribute to the reconstruction of the cultural identity of Afro-Caribbeans. Music is widely regarded as a universal language even for the illiterate, therefore music now, and during the slave trade, acts as a form of communication for many. The slave trade saw the mass importation of diverse cultures from many different African tribes, and this diversity inevitably made communication between the enslaved Africans considerably more difficult. In order to survive and rebuild what lives they had left and retain their cultural heritage, they needed to ‘find non-linguistic forms of interpersonal communication to make sense of their common predicament.’ (YOUNG & SMITH, 2007) Essentially, they strived to find a way to maintain what little humanity they had left by overcoming the language barrier, hence ‘music and drumming… became an essential part of the repertoire of communication and resistance.’ (Ibid.) Peter Manuel furthers this argument by accrediting their ‘shared general experiences of slavery, the cultural uprooting it entailed, and the direct roles of creating a new set of creolized cultures,’ (Manuel, et al., 2006) despite being divided by geography and language, to this rebuilding of shared cultural identity amongst Afro-Caribbeans. This beating drum of communication echoes in many forms of Afro-Caribbean music and not only is it a fundamental rhythm for music that is globally circulated and appreciated, but it is a beat that helped many enslaved Africans retain their cultural heritage. It seems that the drum from tribes in Africa was one of the ways in which they were able to resist losing their heritage altogether, and the meeting of new cultures allowed the incubation of this culture safe inside new traditions.
Drumming is also a form of ritual practice for African tribes. As previously mentioned, many neo-African rhythms and subgenres of Afro-Caribbean music have ritualistic or religious elements. Religion for many enslaved Africans was a vital part of their cultural heritage, therefore losing their spiritual and ritual culture would mean losing an integral part of who they were. They continued to try to retain this cultural identity in many different ways, in spite of their oppressive situation. It has been suggested that certain enslaved Africans were able to maintain their ‘ritual continuity between West Africa and Cuba by treating the barracón de patio [slave barracks] like the compound of the Yoruban village…’ (Sugar Changed the World, 2009) and here employed music as a tool of religious reconstruction. Music and religion went hand in hand as they used music to disguise their worship from slave owners, who had banned any non-Catholic or non-Christian worship. This led to the creation of Orishas, which were African deities who were paired up with Catholic saints so that the slaves could practice their own religion without the slave owners knowing. For example, in Cuba, even today Santería is a widely practiced religion, and its ritualistic features now also feature in Cuban Son and more recently salsa. Religion played a vital role in their cultural heritage and by drawing on European forms of Catholicism, enslaved Africans were able to retain their spiritual heritage, by disguising their original religion with music. This allowed a new-found culture to develop, which could prosper in even the harshest of circumstances. Additionally, work songs on North American plantations acted as an almost ‘counter-Christian allegory,’ (Brennan, 2008) as they rejected the traditional, European religion of the oppressors, as the slave trade’s banning of non-Christian worship, meant that many enslaved Africans in North America sung Christian songs to praise their Gods, for example, the sorrow song Roll, Jordan, Roll (1700s). Originally written by Methodist preacher Charles Wesley, the song ‘Roll, Jordan, Roll, which was a Christian song, is a ‘primary example of slaves’ claiming and subverting a Christian message to express their own needs and send their own messages.’ (Powers, 2013). This maintenance of African religious cultures further articulates the idea that Afro-Caribbean music was a reconstruction of cultural identity because it evoked cultural ties back to the homeland yet was ultimately changed due to the restrictive regime on the plantations.
The Slave Trade
During the slave trade, the enslaved needed a creative and emotional outlet: to protest, to express, to survive. For many, music was the cathartic process to achieve this. With respect to Afro-Caribbean music, it pays homage to the perseverance of many enslaved Africans, who fought to uphold their cultural heritage in the most dehumanizing of experiences. For example, North American spirituals and work or sorrow songs, such as ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,’(a spiritual, supposedly written by a slave called Wallace Willis in the 19th century), have now become memories resonating with the suffering experienced, and have worked their way into much of the Afro-Caribbean music and ‘energized and transformed the vocabularies of modern music.’ (YOUNG & SMITH, 2007) Western history tends to view slaves as ‘passive victims of circumstance’, (Manuel, et al., 2006) however scholars now criticize this idea as stressing ‘the ways in which slaves and free blacks fashioned their own culture.’(Ibid.) It is true to say that, Afro-Caribbeans have forged their own cultural expressions and constantly experimented with and innovated music, in spite of being oppressed by their masters, for example, jazz music is the result of this experimentation and innovation. It is one of the most improvised forms of music, mixing musical features from African roots, such as call and response, jazz music has become a completely new form of music, that is constantly growing and innovating, whilst still holding onto the features on which it is based.
‘The experience of enslavement, calculated to dehumanize and oppress, was resisted and given a voice and a dignity through these musical forms,’ (YOUNG & SMITH, 2007), however, it could be argued that this music’s sole aim was resistance, but that actual music was a form of cultural expression, as music for many African tribes involved communal participation and was a feature of daily life. Therefore, producing and performing music when they had been forcibly removed from their homeland and taken somewhere completely new and different, allowed them to hold on to the traditions that they knew. This in itself is a form of resistance, because their cultural expression, was what set them apart from their oppressors. Slave owners, ‘encouraged enslaved Africans to sing as they worked under the brutal plantation regime, they were forbidden to sing of freedom,’ (YOUNG & SMITH, 2007) this shows the work songs’ and spirituals’ ability to strike the fear of resistance in the hearts of the slave owners, because it meant they had not been so repressed that they no longer had spirit, it showed hope. By banning these songs of freedom ‘slave owners tacitly acknowledged the potential power of words and music even for brutally oppressed people.’ (Ibid.) Timothy Brennan aptly describes it as, ‘art that under colonial conditions is dangerous to power because it points to a rejection of an order weakly established on the basis of exclusion.’ (Brennan, 2008) Music can be seen in the context of Afro-Caribbean music as being a testimony to the hardship, the pain, the loss, but also the spirit to carry on, Music can be seen in the context of Afro-Caribbean music as being a testimony to the hardship, the pain, the loss, but also the spirit to carry on just as ‘chanting and moaning of the enslaved during labor…’ was a kind of witnessing…’, (Brown, 2016)
Rap music and Political Identity
‘In today’s world, people’s cultural identities are increasingly invoked in support of their political claims,’ (Gilbert, 2010) which is a good basis for exploring the political identity built through Afro-Caribbean music, as one must appreciate how cultural and political identity seem to go hand in hand. Afro-Caribbean music is not just a reconstruction of cultural identity, but also of political identity, as it seems to adapt to the changing political struggles that many Afro-Caribbean and African-American people have faced over the centuries. Music has been a long-standing cultural form of resistance, however, in terms of Afro-Caribbean music, it isn’t necessarily a focal point for the music to have a political message, it’s suggested that it is neo-African music genres, such as Afro-Caribbean, are political ‘not because it is always […], a carrier of political messages (it isn’t) but because the saturation of New world sensibilities by African religion and philosophy is, by its nature, political.’ (Brennan, 2008) However, rap seems to be a more conscious counter-movement, aware of its abilities, as its place in society is ‘to provide a word-centered, oral-literary component to beat: the component missing from African-American holism but found in a number of Latin American genres…’ (Brennan, 2008) and this is accurate as it added lyrics to a neo-African beat, which gave a voice to the oppressed and became a global sensation at the same time. Whilst rap music may not explicitly be an Afro-Caribbean music genre, it is a modern form of neo-African music and is heavily influenced by older Afro-Caribbean music genres, such as soul, jazz, funk, and rock & roll. It is a melting pot of different cultures founded on influences from Caribbean music, with its home in the Bronx in New York, where there was this mix of cultures from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Jamaica, and Africa, rap finds itself borrowing from ‘Jamaican dancehall… the early rap beats taken from Puerto Rican plena and aguinaldos…the whole competition aspect of the boast with its roots in the physical show-downs of the calendar (stick fighting) dance…’ (Brennan, 2008) This Afro-Caribbean subgenre is ‘driving the entire music industry today, accounting not only for most of its sales but the sale of other genres as well…’(Ibid.) This paradoxical revelation that music derived from a people who have been kidnapped, oppressed, and dehumanized, was not only able to be created in the first place but was able to survive and flourish, despite authoritarian powers trying to stop it. We have seen rap music gain momentum, reaching all communities, and involving all minorities, and we have also seen its repression by authority forces, therefore by doing so they are acknowledging this music’s power and influence.
This discussion of Afro-Caribbean music inevitably leads us to the idea of realism and its role in the reconstruction of cultural and political identity amongst Afro-Caribbeans. It could be argued that realism is in fact the end result of this reconstruction, as it is the product of merging cultures to create a new cultural identity. The word ‘inevitable’ has been employed here because the slave trade ensured ‘the continual movement of humans across borders results in new forms of hybrid and creolized cultures.’ (Yelvington, 2000) There is no denying the impact the slave trade had on Afro-Caribbean music today, it is the basis for all sub-genres, such as son, salsa, jazz, reggae, merengue Et cetera. Afro-Caribbean music is a melting pot of cultures, some of which have survived constant repression and trauma, but have mixed with other musical cultures to create new hybrid forms. Taking the Cuban son as an example, Brennan writes that the son’s origins can be traced back to San Domingo (now Haiti) after the slave revolt in the 1790s, when ‘both the black and white French émigrés brought with them musical traditions unknown in Cuba at the time…’ (Brennan, 2008) These musical forms were ‘disciplined performance protocols than were common in Cuba previously. It is in this way that the rhythmic phase known as cinquillo, clearly of African origin (and fundamental to many Caribbean genres) entered Cuba.’(Ibid.) The constant movement of slaves meant the constant movement of cultures, therefore the introduction of African cultures to new musical forms. It could be argued that really demonstrates how Afro-Caribbean music played a role in the reconstruction of cultural identity, because this musical form did not just happen, it was a slow process of accumulated cultures. Afro-Caribbean music’s syncopated rhythms speak to the African presence, which has gone on to form cinquillo and tresillo rhythms which now are the structural base for musical forms such as son, contradanza, and merengue. These creole rhythms feature ‘prominently in several Afro-Caribbean traditional music contexts, including Santería batá rhythms (toques ) played for the orishas (spirits) Obatalá, Ochún, and Olokun…’ (Manuel, 2009) therefore forming the basis for Afro-Caribbean religious cultures.
Music did not just reconstruct a cultural identity for the slaves of the 1400s, it became the cultural and political identity of many generations to come, it became their cultural heritage which had previously been a heritage robbed of its homeland. Comment by Megan Hadfield: Conclusion
It was an accumulation of cultures from Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America that came together to form what is now known as Afro-Caribbean music.