Caribbean Music in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Caribbean Music in Canada

Caribbean music is an important component of musical life in Canada on two grounds: firstly, significant numbers of Caribbean peoples have immigrated to Canada, particularly beginning in the 1960s, and have continued the musical traditions of their homelands in the new environment; and secondly as early as the 1920s successive styles of Caribbean-derived music began to form part of the fabric of Euro-American pop music and thus part of the musical experience of many Canadians over the years.

Caribbean music is an important component of musical life in Canada on two grounds: firstly, significant numbers of Caribbean peoples have immigrated to Canada, particularly beginning in the 1960s, and have continued the musical traditions of their homelands in the new environment; and secondly as early as the 1920s successive styles of Caribbean-derived music began to form part of the fabric of Euro-American pop music and thus part of the musical experience of many Canadians over the years.

The Caribbean Area

The Caribbean area includes the insular Caribbean, and also mainland territories washed by the Caribbean Sea having strong historical and cultural connections to the island territories (ie, Belize, French Guiana, Guyana, and Suriname). The Caribbean area is linguistically, culturally, and musically heterogeneous. Four major groupings are generally recognised, on the basis of shared colonial histories and language usage: the Hispanic Caribbean (Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico); the French Caribbean (Haiti, Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana); the Dutch Antilles (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaço, Saba, St Eustatius, St Maarten); and the British Caribbean (The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, plus numerous smaller islands, some of them referred to collectively under the following groupings: Leeward Islands, Windward Islands, Virgin Islands). The term 'West Indies' is generally synonymous with 'Caribbean area'; in the Canadian context, however, 'West Indies' is often understood to refer to the British Caribbean only.

This article focusses on the British Caribbean musical presence in Canada, and secondarily on the French Caribbean presence. Music of the Dutch Antilles is as yet a minimal presence in Canada and is accordingly not treated as a separate entity here. The Hispanic Caribbean territories, although in the Caribbean area geographically, are historically and culturally more closely related to the mainland Latin American republics than to the non-Hispanic territories in the Caribbean: accordingly, Hispanic Caribbean music is covered only cursorily in this article

Socio-musical Overview

Each territory in the Caribbean area is socially stratified and ethnically/culturally pluralistic, but not in totally dissimilar ways. The colonial experience has resulted in each Caribbean country and territory being peopled by a similar set of population groups, each with its own historic musical traditions. In the area as a whole, the vast majority of the population consists of the descendants of African slaves. Numerically much smaller are the descendants of European colonists (principally Dutch, English, French and Spanish), entrepreneurs from the Near East (eg, Syria), and labourers from Asia (primarily China and India). In the Guianas a small residual Amerindian population maintains some semblance of a Native way of life. The musical culture of the Caribbean area thus comprises a plurality of world musics. In addition, miscegenation, and blendings of various musical practices have occurred over time - particularly between African and European strains - further enriching the plurality. The transplantation of Caribbean music to Canada through human migrations thus represents many distinct traditions.

The major immigrant group to Canada - and hence the one with the most prominent musical presence - has been the African-descended one. The majority of them hail from the larger countries of the British Caribbean (Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago) and have settled, in the main, in industrial centres in Ontario. The French-speaking immigrants have settled mainly in Montreal. Caribbean immigrants of East Indian descent, hailing mainly from Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, also comprise a substantial immigrant population, mainly in Ontario.

Caribbean-canadian Musical Communities

In Caribbean communities in Canada (and throughout the Caribbean diaspora) immigrants have maintained virtually intact the popular music cultures of their homelands, including the rapid adaptation to shifting trends. Jamaican reggae - along with its infrastructure of dance halls and night clubs, recording studios, resident and visiting performers, record stores, radio and TV programming, and coverage in both ethnic and mainstream print media - is a well established presence in Canada, particularly in southwestern Ontario. Almost as well established (again, particularly in southwestern Ontario) is Trinidadian calypso, and steelband music, and their infrastructures, including organized inter-city and intra-city competitions. French Caribbean popular music (eg, cadence, méringe, mini-jazz) is maintained by the French Caribbean populace in Montreal, and is supported by a local infrastructure that includes coverage by mainstream print media and broadcasting outlets. Canadian analogues to Trinidad's annual pre-Lenten Carnival are regular and highly visible fixtures of the summer music calendars of several Canadian urban centres, notably Toronto and Montreal. Following the demographics of their respective venues, Toronto's Caribana festival highlights music of the British Caribbean, whereas Montreal's Carifête festival gives pride of place to French Caribbean genres.

The Caribbean area has nurtured a rich vein of folk and traditional music, eg, work songs, country dance music ensembles that combine African and non-African musical practices and instruments, and devotional music for the rites of numerous Afro-Christian sects and cults. The state of these musical traditions in the Caribbean-Canadian diaspora has not as yet been systematically documented. There is evidence that some of the more prominent Caribbean Afro-Christian sects and cults are flourishing in Canada (eg, Jamaican Rastafarianism), and so too, necessarily, the associated musical practices. Caribbean secular folk music, being largely associated in the homelands with an agrarian milieu, does not appear to maintain in the Canadian urban environment the same level of prominence it exhibits in the homelands; it appears to be maintained primarily by semi-professional 'folkloric' dance and song troupes, of which there are a number.

Immigrants to Canada versed in the European colonial heritage and in dance band music and jazz have tended to gravitate to the parallel - and largely non-Caribbean - musical communities in Canada. They have included the danceband pianist Billy Munro, born in the British West Indies, who was brought to Canada as a child and the tenor Édouard Woolley, born in Haiti, who settled in Montreal in 1938. Many Caribbean-Canadians follow rock, and other non-Caribbean contemporary popular forms. Hindustani devotional music, and song hits from Indian films, are important among many East Indian Caribbean-Canadians; and Christian devotional music, in both European and 'Africanized' styles, is important across the spectrum of Caribbean-Canadians.

Caribbean Music In The Canadian And International Contexts

A number of Caribbean musical styles and genres have been familiar to Canadians for much of the 20th century. Already in the 1920s Trinidadian calypso records were being exported abroad. From the 1930s through the 1950s a succession of social dances and dance music of Caribbean derivation became popular throughout the Euro-American world: eg, rhumba, conga, beguine, méringue, merengue mambo, cha-cha-cha. In 1956 and 1957 Euro-american pop music went through an 'Island music' craze (eg, Harry Belafonte). From the mid-1960s to the early 1970s a number of recordings employing Jamaican rhythmic grooves (ska, rock steady, reggae) became international pop music hits. There were also experimentations in 'Latin rock'. From the mid-1970s on Jamaican reggae and Hispanic Caribbean salsa have become established subgenres of international popular music and have spawned numerous imitations and adaptations by non-Caribbean musicians. Trinidadian calypso and steelband music have attracted numerous aficionados outside the Caribbean and the Caribbean diaspora, and steelbands in school music curricula have been gaining currency in North America and elsewhere. Trinidad-style carnivals, such as Toronto's Caribana and Montreal's Carifête, occur throughout the Caribbean diaspora and attract hundreds of thousands of celebrants annually, both Caribbean and non-Caribbean. More intimate settings for the presentation of Caribbean music also exist throughout the Caribbean diaspora: notable Canadian examples include Winnipeg's Folkorama festival and Toronto's annual multicultural celebration, Caravan.

Documentation And Research

The study of Caribbean-Canadian music and musical life is as yet in its infancy. The available published literature consists almost entirely of topical/ephemeral 'music scene' news appearing in newspapers (both ethnic and mainstream), music trade and fan magazines, and entertainment tabloids. No systematic survey or synthesis of this material has yet been attempted.

A number of scholars at Canadian universities have been documenting Caribbean music and musical life, either on its home turf or in the Canadian context (and, in some cases, both). They include Claude Dauphin (Haitian peasant music) and Nicole Beaudry (voodoo music) at UQAM; Monique Desroches (music of Martinique), Josée Cardinal (flute music of the Lesser Antilles), and Geneviève Lefebvre (Haitian popular music) at the University of Montréal; Jocelyne Guilbault (zouk, and other music of Saint Lucia) at the University of Ottawa; and Nina De Shane (the Carnival complex), Annemarie Gallaugher (calypso), Pauline Haslebacher (steelband), James Robbins (Cuban music), Lise Waxer (salsa), and Robert Witmer (Jamaican music) at York University.

Further Reading

External Links