The cultural import of Africa in the Americas especially in the Caribbean began in 1532.When the Spanish empire found itself without work force to put up the first settlement on the island of Cuba, and the few Indians left hardly counted, they figured that importing enslaved Africans would be the ideal solution. With the first group of over thousands Africans came their rites, beliefs and music elements which joined with European contributions to forge what we know today as the Afro Caribbean culture.
Music historians often asked, what would American, the Caribbean and Latin America be without the presence of Africa? We wouldn’t have, cumbia, Salsa, son, cadence, blues, jazz, gospel, soul music, and we wouldn’t have zouk, reggae, meringue, mambo, Cha cha cha and many other Hybrids of rhythms which are prevalent today.
African golden voice Salif Keita who is from Mali, West Africa, compared African music to the Baobab, an African tree with thick trunk, bearing edible gourd like fruits often found in many African landscapes. He said “the roots of the music are African, the trunk is the jazz, the blues and gospels, the branches are r&b, soul, the leaves are afro-Latino, afro-Caribbean, the fruits are calypso, reggae salsa, hip hop, rap and other numerous music styles. ‘It is an analogy which is undoubtedly true to the scattering of Africa musical element in the Americas.
Presence in the Caribbean and Latin cultures
The influence of that African presence is obvious in the Caribbean, South and Central America nations. The imported African culture stood the hardship of slavery; it also stood the wrath of those whose agenda was a systematic genocide of African people they forcibly brought to the Americas. The culture survived despite centuries of willful attempts to suffocate it. In my travels in certain parts of the Americas, I have always been pleased to find traces of indigenous music and dance styles which stemmed from West Africa. In places like Peru, the African folklore is dominant; hence the Afro-Peruvian chants and dances. In Mexico, the Afro-Mestizo are a population of African descents in the areas of Vera Cruz, they sing in musical style purely African.
When I visited Puerto Rico, I had a very interesting conversation with Mr. Juan Carlos Director of Ponce Museum of music. According to Mr. Carlos, the presence of African in Puerto Rico’s culture is unquestionable. We see it in the traditional music of the island, plena and bomba. These two musical styles deeply rooted in Africa musical tradition established the foundation of what we know today as salsa. The band Plena Libre in Puerto Rico is the foremost exponent of these two musical styles.
Leading the way with African musical elements in the Caribbean is Cuba with a variety of musical styles and dances like rumba, changui, and comparsa, mambo, son guanguanco and charanga. The African presence in Cuba became large in the 19th century and spread throughout the island. A Cuban historian wrote that it is impossible to forget that many thousands of African people were hunted downs like animals and brought in the Americas as cheap goods from different parts of Africa’s west coast. Shiploads of Congo, Carabali, Arara, Mandinga, and Lucumi people included their languages, religions, dances, music and instruments were brought on various parts of the island. The manifestation of African art in all these places was the building of the various instruments found in Cuba; conga, shekere, bata drum, marimbula and other musical percussions. It is a common knowledge that during the slavery period the Africans were forbidden to play the drums, as the slave’s owners feared the sound of the drums.
Steadfast Culture: The Caribbean connections
The Maroons were the first freedom fighters of Jamaica. They refused submission and fled into the hills and mountains of Jamaica during the slavery periods, and were never captured. The spirit of resistance that drives much of Jamaica’s popular reggae music began with the Maroons. When I traveled to Jamaica, I visited a Maroon community in the Montego Bay region. I found that Jamaica’s deepest African roots live on the Maroons communities. Jamaica’s music style Cumina and Mento, which ascended to Reggae, go right back to their African origin of ritual and religion music.
The basic musical ingredients of the Caribbean styles are a fusion of African, European and Indian sounds. My Trinidadian friends compare the resulting mix of the cultures to callaloo, a soup with many ingredients. They also borrowed the Indian word dougla, something of mixed origin to describe people of east Indian-African descent. In an interview, Trinidad’s prolific singer David Rudder said the African influences on the island has been strong all along. For instance, Trinidad’s popular music style calypso’s origin is traced to a West African communal work song, which the enslaved Africans brought with them to the sugar plantations of the island. The word Calypso, David said, is derivative of the West African word Kaiso that is a shout of encouragement or satisfaction. It comes from the West African country of Sierra Leone. It is no surprise that the popular dance music of that country has the entire beat and tempo of Trinidad’s calypso. In Sierra Leone it is called Freetown calypso.
Haiti, the first independent black nation in the Caribbean has sustained the storm of political tyranny and dictatorships throughout the years. Most of Haiti’s African connection is through the West African nation of Benin, formerly known as Dahomey, from where the voodoo (spirit) rituals and practices originated. This tiny island’s strong cultural tie with Africa is detectable throughout its many religious rituals and secular music. Haiti’s buckle-rubbing street music Meringue along with Compas, Rara, Gaga and other popular rhythms have a definitive African character. Well known bands such as Boukman Esperyans, Rara Machine, Boukan Guinen and RAM are the foremost exponent of Haiti’s root music.
Central & South America
The late Belizean singing sensation Andy Palacio played a style of music which is a blend of African roots and native Garifuna rhythms with a pinch of Latin flavoring. The large black population on the pacific coast of Central America has preserved their cultural traditions in the shape of dances and songs which have a distinctive African timbre.
Brazil has the largest population of African descents outside Africa. Unlike its American counterparts though, Brazil’s black population has kept and held steadfastly the traditions, rites and customs of Africa. Like the other Caribbean and Central America nations, the ethnic mix is the same ingredient, African European and Indian in certain areas. If you want to see Africa folklore in living colors, go to Salvador de Bahia the musical capital of Brazil in the north eastern region. Africa is in their heart, their blood; it is in their way of life. Everyone you see on the street is black and the compelling influence of Africa is everywhere, in the dance, in the music of Afro-Brazilians. Choro, Carimbo, Samba, and other styles are all creation of the black population of Brazil. Capoeira-Angola, a form of Afro-Brazilian self defense and dance which has its roots in African traditions has become popular in urban centers around the world. Capoeira utilizes the call and response singing style peculiar to Africa. Santo Domingo’s root dance music merengue and Brazil’s samba have African footprint stamped all over their rhythms. Afro-Colombia music such as Meringue and Cumbia has retained many of its African roots and many of Afro-Colombia’s musical styles also reflect the soundtrack of its people’s daily lives.
South Pacific Connection
Let’s not forget the African descents in the south pacific, the people of Melanesia, which includes the Fiji and Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, are thought to have migrated from east Africa across the Indian Ocean. When one looks at Australia, New Zealand, Polynesia, the Phillippines all over the Southeast Asia, everywhere you look you see a remarkable African identity in many ways.
Acknowledging African Contributions
Music, songs, religion and superstitions, the main pillars of the Africa cultural identity have been handed down through the centuries. African popular music has been on the rise all over the world and the fusion with other forms and styles are outstanding. History cannot hide the presence of mother Africa everywhere around the earth. Though the different cultures often stand aloof from one another, they sometimes find common ground and interact. We are Africans regardless of which ethnic group or ancestry mix we came from. We must all raise our conscious and acknowledge the contribution of African people to the world. The time has come to eradicate ignorance; we are one people with common root, the earth.