The Two-Way Afro-Caribbean Music Connection

John Cho

Enticed by what you've heard on the radio, you buy Juan Luis Guerra's latest album, Fogaraté. Now you're sitting at home listening to all the songs in sequence. Good stuff, you think. But what is that intricate guitar pattern weaving in and out of the music? And the rhythmic layers that are not part of the standard merengue percussion lines? Overall, there's an undefinably exotic texture that seems somehow strange and familiar at the same time.

Those of you who are fans of African pop music will recognize that the Dominican superstar has decided to inject fresh flavor into his new songs by appropriating Zairian soukous. Such deliberate cross-fertilization has been a recent musical trend set by the likes of Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, and David Byrne. For Guerra the choice of African music seems natural, since, as we all know, one of the main roots of Caribbean folk and popular music is in sub-Saharan Africa. Some specific rhythmic patterns, the call-and-response choral format, and certain percussion instruments used in Caribbean music can be traced back via the slave trade to specific regions of Africa.

However, how many people are aware that Caribbean music made its way back across the Atlantic to spawn a new generation of pop music all over Africa? For example, soukous developed out of the rumba, which enjoyed pan-African popularity following World War II. The Afro-Caribbean musical connection has never been a one-way street. Even before the arrival of satellite communication and MTV, music traveled far and wide to be soaked up by disparate cultures. Therefore, it is not at all surprising to detect a certain familiarity in the soukous which you hear on Fogaraté.

Because of the colonization by European powers, African popular (i.e., non-religious, non-ceremonial) music has a long history of assimilating elements of Western music, especially the diatonic harmonic language based on hymns (via the missionaries) and marches (via the military). Such harmonic lineage is still readily discernible, for example, in the South African townships' choral music, ingoma ebusuku, made world-famous by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Also, not surprisingly, the dominant Islamic presence in the Sahel region has endowed its pop music with Arabic modalities and the singing style of a muezzin. This you can hear even in the internationalized pop of Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour.

Colonialism was also responsible for the diffusion pattern of Caribbean music across Africa, at least before the maturation of the mass media. An early example is how the calypso became the rage in British West Africa in the 1940s. Because the colonies tended to trade within the family, e.g., British West Africa with the British West Indies and French West Africa with the French Antilles, there was a steady stream of sailors, traders, and soldiers that flowed between specific areas of Africa and the Caribbean. It was inevitable that some of this human traffic would carry with them the sounds of one place to the other. History records that the Kru of Liberia, who became itinerant sailors during the colonial era, were also skilled musicians, especially as guitar players. Coming from a nominally Anglophone region, they mainly plied the trade routes linking British West Africa, the British West Indies, and Britain. They played a vital role, beginning in the 1920s, in disseminating the various popular musical styles from one place to another by absorbing new sounds at one seaport, then reproducing them at another. One such song form they picked up was the calypso from Trinidad and Tobago. Perhaps because the calypso rhythm is essentially African, or perhaps because the Kru sang in Krio, which was the default trade language of British West Africa, the calypso became immensely popular. Although it did not spread widely to the non-British colonies, it remained regionally dominant until Africa was swept off its feet by the rumba.

Cuban dance music stormed the globe following World War II. Led by Benny Moré and others, a new, vibrant rumba emerged, which melded the European-inflected son and the African rumba guaguancó. Distributed widely by record and radio, this music with its exuberantly African heartbeat had a special and enduring effect on Africa, which was beginning its process of independence from the colonialists. Here was a music that they could lay a claim to, which was rooted in their own rich rhythmic heritage. While the popularity of Cuban music eventually waned in other parts of the world, in Africa (especially in the Congos, Guinea, Mali, and Senegal) it went on to influence the development of a variety of pop music such as Congo jazz, makossa, soukous, mbalax, and horn-based highlife. Since the salsa is also a descendant of the rumba explosion, we might say that it is a cousin of those African pop forms.

Perhaps the introduction of a soukous element into our Top-40 radio, courtesy of Juan Luis Guerra, signals the beginning of a modern African Wave in the Caribbean. Language, however, may be a barrier in the Spanish-speaking islands, since virtually none of the African music is sung in Spanish. Thus, it is not likely that a pan-Afro-Caribbean phenomenon like the zouk in the French Antilles and Francophone Africa will develop here. But the strong affinity for African rhythms is deeply ingrained in our collective musical psyche. The beat itself is a language which can be appreciated without an understanding of the text. Those of us who love African music hope that the radio stations will be inspired to anticipate a trend by giving more airplay to the exciting tropical sounds coming across the Atlantic.

Copyright 1995, John Cho

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