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Black Music in the Circum-Caribbean
American Music. 17.1 (Spring 1999): p1.

The author examine the influence of black music on the Caribbean music scene. Topics include the African beat, cross-rhythmic virtuosity and polyrhythmic structure.

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In most circum-Caribbean locations,(1) the influence of Africa is evident in the musics that emerged from various mixtures of Yoruba, Bantu, Fon, Kongo, and other African peoples with Spanish, Portuguese, English, and French musical forms, structures, and genres. These intermixtures can be heard in the polyrhythms of the three bata drums and the call-and-response invocations of Cuban Santeria ceremonies; in the singing and drumming of Haitian vodun rituals; in the percussion-driven song of Honduran dugu rites; in the three drums, metallophones, and call-and-response singing of Brazilian candomble; in the percussion-supported harmonized song of Surinam Winti; in the polyrhythmic and cross-rhythmic virtuosity of the salves of the Dominican Republic's Africanized interpretations of Roman Catholic traditions; in the call-and-response, puya drum-accompanied singing of Afro-Venezuelans; and in varieties of African-derived or African-influenced music-making from Panama, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Belize, Mexico, Peru, Jamaica, Antigua, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Nicaragua, Colombia, and other locations.

In studying this music, its constitution as a large, complex, and tangled array of musical genres fraught with formal and stylistic contradictions becomes apparent. For example, versions of merengue reside in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Colombia, and Venezuela, each differing in some ways from the others. Likewise, there are various boleros in Brazil (set in 3/4), Cuba (set in 4/4), and other places. Still other quite distinctive but identically named genres reside simultaneously in other geographical locations. While the concert-hall music of this region does not present the same kind of problem, its stylistic range is wide and varied. Gerard Behague, in his discussion of the rise of nationalism in Latin America, treats nationalist composers of European classical music in Brazil, Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, and other countries, citing their inclusion in their works of Afro-Latin traditional music, dance rhythms, vocal characteristics, and native instruments.(2) Among these nationalists (some of whom are not mentioned by Behague) are the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century mulatto and black composers Amadeo Roldan (1900-39) from Cuba, Juan Morel Campos (1857-96) from Puerto Rico, and Robert Geffard (1860-94), Ludovic Lamothe (1882-1954), and Justin Elie (1883-1931), all from Haiti. Although these and other composers from the Caribbean had been trained in the European way, they brought into their European-derived musical structures elements of negros, negrillos, guineos, negritos, and other traditional and not-so-traditional genres of their various Latin American and West Indian cultures.

In exploring the music of these composers and, first of all, the vernacular and concert-hall musics of the greater Caribbean, I develop an outline of a conceptual approach to the study of all of this music--traditional, popular, and concert hall. This approach is conceived as a means of negotiating some of the problems that arise in attempts to understand such a large and variegated complex of genres and cultures. I approach this subject as a nonspecialist, casting a wider net in order to better inform myself about the music of the circum-Caribbean and to help other nonspecialists connect with the musics of that large geographical region.

The traditional and popular musics of the Caribbean are usually described as products of a process known variously as syncretization, creolization, creolite, and culture metissage, all of which signify the hybrid character of the cultural products of the region. Often, however, what is called syncretism has been, for Africans, "something that corresponds more to the concept of `appropriation' in the sense of taking over for one's own use and on one's own initiative the diverse and even the hegemonic or imposed elements, in contrast to assuming an attitude of passive eclecticism or synthesis."(3) Such embracing and transforming of European form and content by African and African-derived people was accomplished through the power of African myth and ritual, both within and outside the ritual trappings of these practices. For in the making of the African Diaspora,(4) the myths and rituals that enslaved Africans brought with them to the Americas served as abiding connectors to their religious past. In the Americas, Africans transformed these practices into new forms fraught with a new cultural richness and functional aesthetic power. Thus, a compelling continuity existed between and among the African-derived and -influenced musical genres of this large region--a continuity perpetuated by African cosmologies that in some cases eventually lost their functional value but left behind their aesthetic residue.

The Cinquillo-Tresillo Complex

In the circum-Caribbean, African-derived rituals often were, and still are in many cases, two-part structures such as those observed by Martha Ellen Davis, Walter F. Pitts, Alberto Pedro, and other scholars. Davis gives as one instance of such structures the Haitian vodun ceremony, which

   opens with Catholic prayers of the rosary (the cantique), recited or sung
   in French to invoke the spiritual presence and blessing of European
   deities. Upon its conclusion, the ritual moves into the next phase, sung in
   Creole and accompanied by drumming, in which the same is done for both the
   African-derived or African-influenced deities and invites them to present
   and express themselves through spirit possession.(5)

Davis suggests that such a ritual "provides the context for the preservation of both European and African cultural elements; indeed, each may be present in conservative, even archaic, forms within single Caribbean religious musical events."(6)

The same kind of structure governs other Afro-Caribbean rituals. In his book Old Ship of Zion: The Afro-Baptist Ritual in the African Diaspora, Pitts has described the binary-structured ritual of the Afro-Baptist church in the Caribbean as a somber devotion followed by a more exuberant service, constituting

   two distinct metaphoric frames ... that join to produce the ritual syntax,
   or structure.... By shifting the metaphoric predication from disparagement
   at the ritual's beginning along a continuum of emotion until adornment is
   reached at the ritual's end, the participant is borne along an affective
   span during the rite, finally being transformed from an initially miserable
   state of mind to one of emotional satisfaction.(7)

Pitts's first frame, like Davis's, is a prayerful devotion in which European language forms prevail, the second a celebratory event in which African-American sermonic speech forms predominate, leading in some cases to possession. In the first frame, heterophonic, homophonic, lined-hymn singing prevails; in the second, percussive folk song, polyrhythm, and ostinati predominate.(8) In this joining, the ritual moves from abstractness to concreteness; in speech, song, and behavior alike, its first phase is derived from European practices, its second from African.

In his article "La Semana Santa Haitiano-Cubana" ("The Haitian-Cuban Holy Week"), the Afro-Cuban author Alberto Pedro describes a two-part secular ritual that takes place among Haitians and Cubans during preparations for Holy Week, caolinas:(9)

   One of the participants would begin to sing a merengue. The improvising
   vocalist, after singing the first verse, which tells a story, would be
   joined by the group in the refrain, establishing the antiphonal dialogue
   between the soloists and the chorus, characteristic of the merengue. The
   same person who sang would perform the rara dance, executing small rhythmic
   leaps with his feet together and his arms extended casually from his trunk.
   The dancer's steps would intensify as the music and rhythm reached a
   crescendo. The text the soloist/dancer sang became shorter and the chorus
   would repeat more as the music intensified.

      As the song picked up speed, the dancer would turn faster, dancing on
   one foot and then the other, and jumping back. He would stop briefly, he
   would jump and spin in the air, falling on one knee with his arms extended
   to the sky. If this step was well executed, the crowd would sing with even
   more enthusiasm, cheering the dancer on so he would dance even more
   spectacularly, which he would do until another singer/dancer took his place
   in front of the caolinas.

      ... The texts to these merengues is in creole.... The soloists who
   danced and sang were Haitian.... The Cuban descendants would sing only the
   chorus of the merengues and mark the beat of the danceable numbers. The
   picaresque nature of the merengues contrasted sharply with the religious
   nature of Holy Week.(10)

In this performance, several disparate elements converge: a song-form called merengue; a dance called rara; call-and-response singing within the context of a two-part, slow-to-fast, relaxed-to-frenzied performance style; and the performance of popular song and dance within the traditional structure of a sacred ritual. The two-part structure described by Pedro, Pitts, and Davis is common throughout the Americas in a family of "danced" religions that derive from the same or similar sources and include, in varying degrees in various places, vodun (Haiti), macumba and candomble (Brazil), Santeria/Lucumi (Cuba), Kumina (Jamaica and other locations), and Shango and Shouter rites (Trinidad).(11) The latter group, Spiritual Baptists or Shouters, have much in common with African-American charismatic sects in the United States(12) and share traits and practices with Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian religions.(13) For example, in the Trinidadian Shango and Shouter religions, the African gods are called "powers," and markings similar to Haitian vodun veves are employed as "spiritual" writing symbols that record, on the floors or walls of Shango and Shouter churches, divine messages received by church officials during services. Among both sects, possession is common, as it is in Haitian vodun and in some Protestant religions in the United States.

All of the rituals I have mentioned are accompanied by a wide variety of "rhythm" instruments. The caolinas described by Pedro, for example, are accompanied by one or two caolinas (instruments consisting of a single string attached to a sound box), a vaccine (a tube made of material at hand, which is blown into), and several tambouras (small hand drums). Sometimes rara bands include the marimba the lambi (small drum made of a conch shell), and a papaya-stem instrument. Other rites, such as vodun, may employ various rattles and any number of small percussion instruments.

These and similar rituals exist alongside African-derived secular dances. In the colonial period, dances with names such as calenda, chica, bamboula, and juba were ubiquitous.(14) Pere Labat saw the most popular of these, the calenda, in 1698 while visiting Martinique, and reported that it "came from the coast of Guinea," probably Ardra, and was "the commonest dance and the one the slaves enjoy most.... The Spanish have learned it from the Negroes and they dance it all over America just as the Negroes do." Although the calenda (also spelled calinda, kalenda, and kalinda)(15) was banned by slave owners in parts of the Caribbean in the same year in which Labat's comment was published, the dance continued to be performed throughout the West Indies.(16) Janheinz Jahn has described it as follows:

   The spectators and those who are waiting their turn form a circle around
   the dancers and the drums. Some specially talented person among them sings
   a song which he composes on the spur of moment on some theme that he
   considers appropriate, and the refrain, sung by all the spectators, is
   accompanied by hand-clapping. The dancers themselves hold their arms
   somewhat after the fashion of people who dance while playing castanets.
   They hop, turn to right and left, approach one another until they are two
   or three feet apart, and withdraw in the same step, until the sound of the
   drums indicates that they should come together and touch thighs. This is

   done by each pair, that is, a man and a woman. It looks as if the bodies
   meet, although in fact it is only the thighs that make contact. They at
   once pirouette back again, and repeat the same movements ... as often as
   the drum gives the signal, which it does several times in succession.
   Occasionally they fold their arms and turn two or three times in a circle,
   each time striking thighs and kissing.(17)

Here again we encounter the aforementioned two-part structure (note the term "refrain"), this time within the ring,(18) that counterclockwise-moving circle of singing and dancing participants accompanied by drumming, which sometimes led to aesthetic and spiritual climaxes. What is not described, however, is the nature of the drumming and the manner in which the movements and hand clapping of the participants were related to the rhythms of the drums. But if we extrapolate from other ring-derived music, including some of the secular dances of the colonial and later periods, we can, appropriately, draw certain conclusions. In a chapter entitled, "Rumba: The Meaning of the Dances," Jahn mentions three dances--the calenda, the Congo-derived yuka, and the rumba--and establishes that they were performed throughout the Antilles.(19) According to Jahn, the rumba (specifically, the guaguanco version), a pantomime dance like the yuka, is a "representation of courtship up to the achievement of orgasm; highly ... stylized and executed with subtle courtesy."(20) Among several Brazilian vernacular dances, which apparently paralleled the early Caribbean dances observed by Labat, was the lundu. The music for this dance featured the rhythm in example 1. According to Peter Manuel, the lundu "appears to have expired in the early nineteenth century";(21) thus comparison extrapolations are difficult, if not impossible.


The rhythms of many such Caribbean dances were multifaceted, but most probably had in common two motives that have come to be known as cinquillo and tresillo. Cinquillo (see ex. 2) has been noted by the Cuban musicologists Emilio Grenet, Alejo Carpentier, Gerard Behague, John Santos, Peter Manuel, and others; tresillo (ex. 3) has also been noted by Grenet and Behague, as well as by Largey.(22)


Scholars have noted the presence of cinquillo in Haitian and in Cuban music, showing the relationships between the musics of these two locations. They have shown that large numbers of Haitian refugees from the revolution of 1804 settled in Cuba, bringing with them (1) their large drum, called tumba francesa, which its namesake Tumba Francesa societies used in their singing and dancing activities on Sundays, sometimes performing throughout the day and night; (2) their knowledge and memory of African vodun and the dance ring; and (3) their use of the call-and-response and other song-style devices. The Tumba Francesa societies combined their big drums with bells and rattles to accompany call-and-response singing.(23) According to Frederick Starr, the rhythms of this society "show the direct influence of the African cinquillo, the `de-dum-de-dum' cadence that vitalizes and transforms any four-beat melody under which it is placed."(24) On occasion, "vigorous Afro-Haitian drumming" and singing also accompanied the stylized European colonial dances (e.g., minuet, contredanse) of the Haitian refugees.(25) Some of these practices entered the music of Cuba. "El cinquillo" became "slowly incorporated into many folkloric genres of the island,"(26) perhaps with tresillo foregrounded as one-half of the clave beat (see ex. 9a below) that quickly became paramount in the musics that were performed informally and within societies such as the Tumba Francesa.

Both cinquillo and tresillo, which are ubiquitous in black music-making in the Americas, had their origins in an African time-line pattern of sub-Saharan Africa. Included among Gerhard Kubik's "pyramid stump" time lines,(27) this pattern (shown as "universal" in ex. 4) and its variations and derivatives constitute the shortest of the African time lines.(28) Specifically, it is an eight-pulse pattern that is frequently found in African asymmetric time lines. Even a quick look at the two basic rhythms that appear in this pattern, as they appear in Kubik's notational system in which x is used to denote a stroke and * a rest (see ex. 4), will reveal them as the source, indeed the manifestations, of the cinquillo and tresillo rhythms.


Kubik points out that in both African and African-American traditions these rhythms "appear with different starting points, i.e., reshuffled," and in interlocking, complementary configurations, with the variations having "no effect upon their structure."(29) In one of the "reshuffled" forms of the basic time line, we get the configuration, with tresillo derived from it, shown in example 5. These patterns appear also in Alfons Dauer's discussion of computer-crested proliferation lists of rhythm patterns on identical time lines.(30)


Other evidence supports a theory that cinquillo was brought to the Americas by Bantu peoples, privileged and refined in Haiti in the boku(31) and the meringue, and spread from there to the rest of the circum-Caribbean in the early nineteenth century.(32) The tresillo rhythm often appears alongside cinquillo and may have derived from it.(33) These two rhythms are so widely used throughout the circum-Caribbean that I have chosen to recognize the entire complex of genres in which they appear as a compelling cinquillo-tresillo rhythmic matrix, a complex of rhythmic configurations that I view as a conceptual flame that can be used not only for understanding the Caribbean complex of musics but also for the negotiation of certain boundaries that exist within it and for the discovery of implications for the analysis of its music.

I do not claim that all of the black music from these and other diasporic locations is based on, or contains, cinquillo and tresillo elements; nor do I wish to oversimplify a phenomenon that is sometimes much more rhythmically complex. But the number of examples of this music in which cinquillo and tresillo do appear gives some indication of the near-ubiquity of their presence throughout the Americas. As my examination of these rhythms in many different musical contexts confirms, they bind together conceptually the black musics of the entire Caribbean and beyond, in spite of the musical, cultural, and political divergences of the societies from which they spring.

Related to the cinquillo-tresillo matrix is Peter Manuel's notion of a "cellular structure" that pervades much Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean music. He suggests that

   pieces tend to be constructed by repetition and variation of a short
   musical cell or ostinato. Variety is provided by altering the pattern or by
   combining it with another feature, such as a narrative text.... Pieces
   using this format are open-ended, additive entities, loosely expandable or
   compressible in accordance with the desires of the performers, the
   audience, or the occasion. This sort of structure contrasts with that of
   most European-derived music ... in which a song or piece has a finite,
   symmetrical structure, such as the thirty-two bar AABA form typical of
   American popular song.(34)

Shabazz Farel Johnson and John Miller Chernoff call such cells "standard patterns," relating them to their identification of twenty-five fundamental figures that "could characterize and anchor almost every African and African-American rhythm or musical style."(35) Example 6 shows four of their notated patterns, which are somewhat related to, or suggestive of, cinquillo and tresillo.


The cinquillo and tresillo motives, or variations of them, are prominent in the rhythmic constructions of musics all over the Caribbean. They provide the base for multirhythmic stews in which the two rhythms blend and contrast with one another and with other rhythms derived from the same and similar sources. Found in the melodic lines and in the accompanying parts of most circum-Caribbean music, they are sometimes prominently present and at other times sparingly and subtly employed. These rhythmic motifs can be heard to good effect in the audio compilation Africa in America: Music from Nineteen Countries,(36) particularly in the examples of Martinican bele, Guadeloupe gwo ka, and Belize (Belice) calypso musics. With their probable origins in the ring, cinquillo and tresillo are essentially dance rhythms. Played in different meters or reversed in their various additive constructions and cross-rhythmic incarnations, they "dance" at a crossroads of duple-triple rhythm, sometimes disguised by their interactions with other rhythms. In much Cuban music, for example, cinquillo and tresillo are often accompanied by the rhythmically transformative beat of the conga drum's tumbao ostinato (see ex. 7), and in many other genres they all are placed at various and varying points within or across "bar lines."(37) Tresillo may also appear (see ex. 8a, or even 8b). An abbreviated cinquillo may appear (as shown in ex. 8d and 8e), or in other configurations, and clave might appear in reverse fashion (ex. 9b), or in one of its more elaborate cascara forms (ex. 9c). They appear variously as "Esu's rhythm," "Esu's dance," "Anansi's dance," and "Uncle Bouki's dance," exhibiting clear connections with such African and African-derived mythic and rhythmic traditions and figures as signifyin', off-timing teasers, and "liars" (signifyin' storytellers).


Cinquillo and tresillo rhythms exist on a continuum of variations that range, for example, from the straight and bold pattern of the cinquillo proper in the Cuban son to the subtle, reversed pattern of the North American Negro spiritual. In many cases, cinquillo and tresillo tend to morph, moving smoothly into and out of each other and also in and out of rhythms derived from and related to them; this accounts for the chameleonic character of much of the music of the cinquillo-tresiIlo matrix.

In addition to these rhythmic devices, other African-derived musical practices are heard prominently and prevalently throughout the circum-Caribbean. African song style, for example, has contributed to the vocal character of the music. This song style, according to Alan Lomax, is vocally relaxed, textually repetitious, lacking in melodic embellishment, noncomplex, relaxed, cohesive, multileveled, and leader-oriented--in other words, he says, "distinctly African," although in many Caribbean locations the melodic and cadential structures may be distinctly Spanish, English, or French.(38) As far as the general character of the music as a whole is concerned, Peter Manuel has recognized that many African musical traits are still prominent in contemporary Latin American and Caribbean popular musics, including "an emphasis on rhythm and percussion; overlapping call-and-response vocal format; linear, open-ended forms as opposed to closed, sectional `song' format; repetition of short melodic and/or harmonic units; frequent association of music and dance; and the use of certain Africa-derived instruments such as conga drums"(39)--and, I might add, bata drum and agogo, plus guiro, maracas, and other percussion instruments.

For a broader and fuller understanding of this music, our knowledge of these musical traits can be supplemented and illuminated by aural examples from the Africa in America compilation of songs. The Jamaican mento example from this set of recordings, for instance, is a blend of African and British elements and is based on the rhythm shown in example 10.


"Canto a Chango" from Brazil has a solo-chorus call-and-response figure laid over rhythms played by three drums and clapperless bells that are governed by a time-line pattern. The song "Canto Winti" from Surinam features solo-group call-and-response between women's and men's voices and singing in thirds over cinquillo-based drum rhythms. The Dominican "Salva" consists of a time line laid over a drummed clave rhythm that is improvised on by other drums and a scraper playing straight eighth notes over which male and female voices sing in a call-and-response format. The Cuban columbia on this recording is based on a drum-sounded time line accompanied by other drums and a metallophone that plays various other patterns, over which is laid a solo-chorus call-and-response structure. Most of this music makes use of cinquillo, tresillo, and variations of them--matrixed rhythms that link many circum-Caribbean genres together rhythmically and, in some cases, structurally.

The Son Complex

In his liner notes to the album Septetos Cubanos: Sones de Cuba, Eduardo Llerenas cites musicologist Argeliers Leon's notion of a "son complex" in which are included not only the son proper but also the Cuban danzon, the Colombian porro, the Haitian meringue and Dominican merengue, the Puerto Rican plena, and the Cuban sucu-sucu and changui;(40) later in the same notes Llerenas refers to a bolero-son, guaracha-son, afro-son, pregon-son, and other members of his son complex. After pointing out that the primary genre of each of the named constructions appears in the introduction section of the son structure, he contends also that "there is no doubt that the Cuban son has provided the basic structure for the salsa."(41) Peter Manuel, going further, refers to a son/guaracha/rumba complex,(42) both confirming and extending Leon's formulation to include other genres. What seems to be common to all or most of these subgenres is the presence of strummed instruments, additive rhythm, and two-part structures in call-and-response format.

Derived from the yuka, the son,(43) which Grenet identified as originating in Cuba as early as the sixteenth century,(44) was "the first Cuban musical genre to feature musical and vocal improvisation and to incorporate [the bongo], an Afrocuban drum performed with bare hands."(45) By the nineteenth century, the son was strophic, featuring duple meter, African words and phrases, and simple I-V and I-IV-V progressions. Between strophes, short instrumental interludes were played on the guitar-like tres, with its three double strings, or on the trumpet. The clave rhythm was paramount and a syncopated bass pattern characteristic. By the late nineteenth century, the son ensemble had been expanded to include--in addition to the tres--the guitar, maracas, guiro, and botijuela (jug bass), with occasional use of cello, flute, violin, and timbal.(46) In its early form, the son was a flexible structure consisting of two sections (perhaps reflecting its probable lineage in the two-part structure of Afro-Caribbean ritual): a European-oriented introduction made up of four eight-syllable stanzas and an African-oriented montuno in which some of the instrumentalists improvise. In the montuno section, the bass becomes more syncopated and anticipated,(47) the rhythm more flexible, and the rhythmic pattern shown in example 11 is sometimes emphasized.


Llerenas describes the sound of the son as a sonic blend of plucked strings, bongo drumming, bass-range harmony, and clave-and-maracas percussion accompaniment, and its structure as a stanza-refrain performed in solo-chorus call-and-response format with African and Spanish motivic elements.(48) Others have referred to the son as characterized by additive rhythm, a textual couplet format, and a structural format comprised of alternating sections of verse and call-and-response refrain, performed on tres, cuatro, or guitar, with marimbula, botija (jug aerophone), bongos, claves, and other hand percussion.(49)

According to musicologist Robin Moore, the Cuban danzon descended from the danza and contradanza of polite eighteenth-century Cuban society, emerged by the 1840s among working-class blacks, and was transformed in the 1860s by middle-class blacks into a ballroom dance.(50) After 1879 it became celebrated as the "National Dance of Cuba."(51) Later danzones were performed by bands called orquestas tipicas, which played a more developed form of the genre with three sections--introduction, clarinet trio, and brass trio--which implied the performing ensemble's instrumentation and the means by which that instrumentation outlined and enhanced the form of the son. While the danzon may have been part of the Cuban musical landscape as early as the 1850s, the first danzon to be published, "Las Alturas de Simpson" ("Simpson Heights," the name of a neighborhood in Matanzas, Cuba), was written in 1879 by the black composer and cornetist Miguel Failde Perez (1852-1921).(52) In this frequently cited piece, the cinquillo rhythm appears first in the third full measure, then again in measures 5, 6, and 7 (see ex. 12), and is frequently sounded in the accompaniment, sometimes persistently, as it is, for example, in the brass trio sections. In traditional recorded performances, the cinquillo pattern is usually played throughout the piece. "Las Alturas de Simpson" may be one of many manifestations of the transition of Caribbean musical genres from the two-part structures spawned by Afro-Caribbean religious rituals to three-part forms--not the ternary forms of European dance derivation but structures of three contrasting sections.


For present purposes, I have also placed within the son complex the Brazilian samba, although the term samba is treated generically in Brazil. I have placed it within the son complex, however tentatively, because it has several characteristics in common with many sones, including a two-part verse-chorus/call-and-response format, drums and hand percussion, additive rhythms, and distinctive rhythmic patterns frequently used in the son (see ex. 13).


The samba as a complex of ritual, choreography, and text with music dates from colonial times,(53) Developing from the lundu and the maxixe, with their syncopated ostinatos and other elements from Africa and from Europe, the samba became popular in the late nineteenth century, was standardized in the 1920s, emerged as a ballroom dance in the thirties, and was transformed into bossa nova in the late fifties,(54) and into other refined versions that made use of jazz-like chords and harmonic progressions played by band and orchestral instruments. Concurrent with these various transformations of the traditional samba there emerged Carnival sambas in duple meter and strophic form, with short texts performed in solo-chorus call-and-response format accompanied variously by syncopated rhythms played on hand- and stick-played drums, friction drums, and rattles of various kinds.

In nineteenth-century aristocratic Puerto Rican creole culture, the European-derived danza was king;(55) in African-derived communities of the island, however, such as Ponce, it was the bomba, the most African of dances and "almost exclusively a Negro tradition."(56) Probably named after the large drum employed for its accompaniment (the term is also used for drums generally), the songs of this genre are topical and laden with double entendre. The drumming is vigorous, played on two barrel drums--one high and one low--and the performance is a challenge between an improvising dancer and a lead drummer who must follow her steps.(57) Also out of Ponce came the plena, the first recordings of which appeared around 1926. According to sociologist Juan Flores, its most "towering practitioner was a black working class Puerto Rican named Joselino Oppenheimer [1884-1929], the first `king' of plena, the forger of the style and creator of some of the all-time favorites of Puerto Rican song." Known as Bumbum after "the thudding beat of his pandereta," a "tambourine-like hand drum," Oppenheimer contributed mightily to "the musical features of plena, with its boisterous syncopated rhythms, improvised instrumentation and vigorous call-and-response vocal cadences." Flores points out also that

   the real roots of plena are in the bomba.... All of the early pleneros,
   including Bumbum, were originally bomberos, and the most basic features of
   plena derive directly or indirectly from bomba.... The varied musical
   expression of the slave population, the peasantry from the mountainous
   inland and the national elite make up the direct context for the birth and
   growth of plena, while the imported elements brought by los ingleses
   constituted a spark igniting the appearance of a new genre.(58)

The plena recorded in the Africa in America audio set includes a melody containing what is known in Cuba as a danzon clave, the rhythm of the second measure of which is what I call a "soft" reverse cinquillo (ex. 14). This rhythm is accompanied by a clave (extended tresillo or a reduced cinquillo time line) pattern on the high drum and a habanera (ex. 15) variation on the low drum. The bomba on the same recording consists of vigorous drumming of patterns such as those shown in example 16. Variations of these patterns are played on the two barrel-shaped bomba drums, plus rattles.


On other recordings, cinquillo rhythms are played by percussion instruments, particularly in the lower drums, to support the voice and enhance the overall rhythmic structure of the performance.

At various points in the histories of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the Dominican merengue and the Haitian meringue (mereng in Creole)--both commonly thought to have emerged as fusions of the dance music of enslaved Africans and of European contredanse music in folk and stylized versions--have been highly popular. The country merengue, also part of the son complex, was in its mid-nineteenth-century form a 4/4 dance with an instrumentation of tambora, guiro, and guitar; in a salon version violins and flutes are added to the foregoing instruments. In the late nineteenth century, the guitar was sometimes replaced by the melodeon or the accordion, depending on geographical location, and in other cases the marimba was added as a bass instrument. Manuel describes the traditional merengue as consisting of "the merengue proper, containing vocal stanzas sung over variable chord patterns, and the jaleo, which generally features call-and-response vocal and instrumental patterns sung over oscillating tonic and dominant harmonies."(59) He cites as its "most distinctive feature" the "fast composite rhythm produced by the continuous sixteenth-note guira (guiro) pattern and the tambora ostinato." In more modern merengues, he points out, "sophistication is generally most evident in the saxophone jaleos, which often consist of intricate, high-speed arpeggio patterns employing staccato attack, repeated pitches and other technically difficult effects; tight (apretado) execution of the arrangements is essential." Although the Haitian meringue derived in part from the contredanse, as did twentieth-century Haitian genres such as compas, a large part of its foundation, particularly rhythm, resides in African-derived religious and artistic expression.

The son complex also encompasses music in Mexico, where free Africans settled as early as the Spanish conquest and lived well into the colonial period in Veracruz, Tuxpan, and Campeche. Intermarriage created an Afro-mestizo population, some of whose music, with its African roots, is performed even today at a major festival called Yanga. Celebrating annually the founding of the town of the same name, which was the first free black township in the Americas, Yanga also has a secondary purpose--to revitalize African culture in Mexico, whose African-derived population is now tiny. Although the precise meaning of the Mexican son is tied to its "association with a particular region or state,"(60) and although the three Mexican pieces recorded in the Africa in America set show few traces of African influence, cross-rhythms abound in one of the later pieces, "Son de arpa cacheteada," and the harp playing in another, "Son Jarocha," recalls African kora playing. Clearly African-influenced, in my opinion, the latter son type--which Stanford says has "a particular affinity with the Caribbean area"(61)--is found in Veracruz, one of the last strongholds of African culture in Mexico.

Sones de Mexico, a Chicago "all-Mexican" music ensemble specializing in Mexican son, includes in its CD ??Que Florezca! a "Negritud" section in which they explore, in rather free interpretations, "the influence of Black music in the [Mexican] son"(62) through chilena musical practices,(63) the use of the wooden box drum called cajon, the presence of the harp and the marimba, and the performance of mimetic animal dances. As in nearly all black musics of the circum-Caribbean, hand percussion instruments, the tresillo and cinquillo rhythm, occasional hemiola, and other elements mark the six songs on the album as having been influenced by African music. "Entrada de Jarabe" ("Enter the Dance") is introduced by a bell-playing tresillo against drums and shakers, followed by a main section in which harp, then voices, predominate, accompanied by hand percussion, some of which play the predominant rhythm shown in example 17. "El Toro Rabon" ("The Tailless Bull") uses small guitars called jaranas, drums, cajon, donkey jaw, and cowbells, and features an occasional hemiola; and in "El Zopilote/La Iguana" ("The Buzzard and the Iguana"), a son de tarima (platform dance), the same underlying rhythm as that in the preceding piece is heard. At the beginning of "Zapateado/Aguanieve," a son jarocho (peasant dance) from Veracruz, the rhythm in example 18 is heard, then later that in example 19 appears; the feet are used as accompanying instruments. "La Bamba," no doubt the most famous of all sones, also features human feet as instruments, together with the bell, and a box drum plays the tresillo rhythm as an accompaniment to the harp; a chanted poem called pregon praises fugitive slaves, and a conga drum solo is featured at the end of the verse.


In the foregoing, I have attempted to adduce additional evidence that a son musical complex exists and that it consists of the son proper, the danzon, and other Cuban genres; of Puerto Rican bomba and plena; of Haitian meringue and Dominican merengue; of Brazilian samba; and of other genres from throughout the Caribbean. Let us now turn to the West Indies and the musical genres of a different musical complex.

The Calenda Complex

In the West Indies, tresillo and cinquillo are used more sparingly and are manifested differently from the way they are used in the son, or they may be entirely absent. But in virtually all West Indian locations, African-derived cultural practices are present in musical forms derived from danse calenda.

Many Latin American and most West Indian musical genres probably derived from the calenda and thus could be said to form a calenda complex, an array of music-and-dance forms that are related to one another through similar textual, rhythmic, and melodic tendencies. The calenda was performed in a ring that surrounded drummers and dancing pairs. Accompanied by singing and hand clapping, the dancers, in man-woman pairs, moved about each other in various steps until the drum signaled them to approach each other, touch thighs, and kiss. Related to, perhaps emerging from, or even having been confused with the calenda, were the chica (bamboula), the goombay and bongo dances of Jamaica, and the Big Drum dance of Carriacou, all of which were, and in some cases still are, performed in a ring. Perhaps they all derived from the calenda, which seems to be the earliest documented of the New World ring dances. Each of these calenda-derived or -related dances features singing that embraces personal, topical, and political satire, critique, derision, and double entendre, as, for example, in Trinidadian and Jamaican boasting and Puerto Rican bomba song.

Musically, the earliest of the modern popular derivatives of the calenda was calypso, which, according to historian Hollis Liverpool (who is better known as the champion calypsonian Mighty Chalkdust), emerged in nineteenth-century Trinidad, growing out of the songs of the chantuelles (chantwells) and the extemporaneous songs of youth who made "sharp biting [verbal] attacks on one another to the deafening applause of the audience ... in eight-line oratorical patter."(64)

Manuel's analysis broadens the picture somewhat:

   By the 1780s, the word cariso had appeared, denoting some sort of
   satirical, extemporized creole song, but modern calypso emerged later as a
   product of a set of diverse musical influences. These included, in varying
   manners and degrees, the belair (a kind of French creole song), the lavway
   (a masquerade and procession song), neo-African genres like juba and
   bamboula, British ballads, Venezuelan string-band music, other West Indian
   creole song types, and the calinda (kalinda), which was associated with
   stick fighting.(65)

Even allowing for the widespread and varied influences that contributed to calypso, it was primarily the musical techniques of the chantuelles and the patter of the youth that merged in this musical system of derisive rebellion against colonialism.(66) Evolving in more than sixty-four "yards" in Trinidad, which were ruled by their "kings" and had names such as La Trois Chandelle, Hell Yard, Mafoombo Yard, and other equally mysterious appellations,(67) the early calypsos were sung in the Trinidadian vernacular, a mix of English and French patios. Their lyrics--standard or improvised in verse-chorus form--consisted of humorous commentary on personal, social, and political issues. As calypso developed over the years, it became known on some West Indian islands as "the people's newspaper." Its songs--in duple meter, based on the primary chords, in major mode, but sometimes carrying modulations to the tonic minor (with some older songs entirely in minor mode)--are played by steel bands and dance bands, or on the piano. The signifyin' nature of the genre has been remarked by Keith Warner: "Beware the mask!" he says, for "the most serious of issues can receive what looks to the outsider like frivolous treatment, but it is actually cleverly disguised criticism and analysis." Warner describes, for example, the effect of a song the calypsonian Plain Clothes sang in 1985 about the Trinidadian prime minister, George Chambers: "The public was well aware that the class dunce in Trinidad schools is called `duncy,' with the effect that the key line `Chambers done see' is heard as `Chambers duncy,' thereby giving an entirely different, and derogative, meaning to what was being said about the prime minister."(68)

Calypso had its most significant development in Trinidad, but, at this writing, the most popular music on that island, and in most of the English-speaking Caribbean, is soca (soul calypso), an example of which is "Hot Hot Hot," performed by Cable Wireless Hell's Gate Pan Band from Antigua in the Africa in America set. Based on calypso rhythms played by a steel pan ensemble accompanied by what appears to be two trap drum sets and what sounds like timpani, and consisting of a series of sixteen-bar choruses, "Hot Hot Hot" sounds several melodies and their variations over ostinato and chordal accompaniment figures, characteristic steel pan voicings, sparse percussion breaks, funky blues gestures, and jazz licks and phrasings. While its rhythms are not based on cinquillo and tresillo patterns, this percussion-driven hot-house of sounds, accompanied by a steady sixteenth-note rhythm on a cymbal or other metallophone, does use variations, or close relatives, of them.

Even in late nineteenth-century Jamaica, calypso was the principal dance music. But unlike the case in Trinidad, Jamaican calypso has been continually transformed, moving from mento in the early 1900s, to ska in the 1950s, through rocksteady in the 1960s, to reggae around 1968, with its signifyin' mode attenuated but still intact. Calypso also has a strong presence in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, where it is in some ways related to quelbe (or kwelbe) music. Quelbe is reputedly and colloquially "a fusion of bamboula rhythms and chants ... mixed with the old, European military fife and drum music, and the various quadrilles, minuets and jigs."(69) Created by "self-taught musicians, who played on mostly homemade instruments," the form eventually spawned quelbe bands, the earliest of which featured the flute and the bass drum. Later, the "pipe" (a shaped, cylindrical tube that was blown) was added, then the triangle, then guitar(s) and banjo. Still later, the saxophone was inserted, and in the 1970s the electric bass replaced the pipe; then the conga drum was added as a foundation for this mix of instruments.(70) Based primarily on quadrille traditions and steps, Virgin Islands quelbe music and dance are now performed almost exclusively on special social occasions. Quelbe is more prevalent in St. Croix than on the other U.S. Virgins, with groups such as Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Nights, Jamesie and the Happy Seven, and Blinky and the Roadmasters preserving it as part of their performing repertoires.

In the circum-Caribbean, as in the United States, African-Americans brought to imported European square dances "an element of spontaneity and improvision characteristic of Negro secular music in general, along with an imagery and idiom that made the calls unique."(71) Black set callers used their own idiom to drive and accompany new versions of quadrille that were characterized by the stamping, patting, and clapping that create propulsive, provocative, off-beat rhythms and phrasings. Local versions of the European set dances are still danced in the West Indies, where participants stately and subtly swing their partners, circle and bow in European-derived, African-influenced memory rituals of significant aesthetic power.

On the U.S. island of St. John, I once heard a performance of the Lashing Dogs, a percussion-driven string band from the British island of Tortola, which has an instrumentation of banjo, two ukuleles, bass, conga, steel triangle, "squash" (scraper), and vocalists. It calls itself a "fungi band," referring to an Afro-West Indies dish consisting of boiled corn or cassava meal mixed with other ingredients, but also identifying the group's specialty of scratch- and string-band-related music. The band possesses a wide repertoire that includes everything from quelbe to soca, a good portion of it based on the rhythm shown in example 20. Much of their repertoire, however, is calypso, which predominates on their recording The Lashing Dogs at Last! The selections on this CD do not do justice to the group's creative acumen nor its members' performing abilities, as the release appears to be the product of commercial rather than artistic motives.


Through fungi and quelbe, cinquillo and tresillo rhythms have a strong presence in these islands, as they do also in the "gasping riffs" of calypso and in the musical imperatives of other music from the calypso song matrix.

As in the Virgin Islands, the music of the down-islands of St. Lucia, Guadeloupe, and Dominica, unlike that of Haiti and the Spanish islands, has a firm historical grounding in calypso traditions. This may be true because at some point these islands also experienced colonialism under the English and because both English and French speech patterns constitute calypso's linguistic lineage. In parts of the French Caribbean, specifically the four adjacent Creole-speaking islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Lucia, and Dominica, the rhythm of zouk is widespread and--according to one of the informants of ethnomusicologist Jocelyne Guilbault--"irresistible."(72) Grounded in the traditional music of Guadeloupe and Martinique, zouk has as its rhythmic foundation the drum rhythms of gwo ka and bele,(73) with occasional use of mennde and mas a Sen Jan rhythms,(74) which are part of the cinquillo-tresillo rhythmic matrix (see ex. 21).


A recently created genre, zouk fuses "high tech with Antillean and international musics," representing a new perspective on the social situation in the four islands in which zouk reigns supreme. Its instrumentation consists of brass instruments, synthesizers, guitar, and bass. By comparing basic rhythms from zouk with those of Haitian compas-direct, Dominican cadence-lypso, and biguine, Guilbault shows links between the former and all three of the latter, each of which is driven in part by cinquillo or tresillo motifs, as shown in example 22.(75) An aural example of the similarity between zouk and a Haitian predecessor (or counterpart), is "Mambuya," a cadans o compa that appears on the Africa in America compilation. In both zouk and compas, which has been characterized as "the equivalent of salsa in the Spanish Caribbean,"(76) jazz influences are prominent and, in the latter, even European classical devices and traits can be detected.(77)


As early as the seventeenth century, Afro-Caribbean immigrants from Trinidad, Jamaica, and Panama settled in Costa Rica and established their own festivals, continuing a practice that long had been a primary means of celebration for them. Then and later, there was a clear preference among the whites for "Negro orchestras" to play for their dances. In the early period of calypso diffusion, Costa Rican kalenda fighters and shatwels (Trinidad chantuelles) held forth in yards and marquees (calypso tents). Even today, calypso is popular in Costa Rica, as attested, for example, by the content of the compact-disc recording, Calypsos: Afro-Limonese Music of Costa Rica.(78)

Ethnomusicologist Lorna McDaniel has researched the Big Drum dance of Carriacou, Grenada, and discovered a cycle of Big Drum songs that date back to that island's period of slavery. The ritual of the Big Drum, she found, encompasses varied elements: performances of gwa bele songs (e.g., "Madame Phillip-o," "Sandy Island," "Captain Desbat"); intonations of chantwells and answering phrasings by the group, with interjections such as "ai, dancer," "ai, drummer," and "take yo' time!"; singing and dancing in a "free ring"; and "frivolous dances" that conform to the "sexual innuendoes of the texts, and exploit aggressive leading hip movements called winding by Carriacouans"(79) and other West Indians. The dancer's feet "dictate the lead drummer's improvisation mode, for he converts her steps into audible rhythmic patterns. When she wheels or rotates, he `cuts' the drum [improvises] and changes the sporadic rhythmic impulses to an even rhythm, resuming the former highly syncopated pattern only at the dancer's return to the prescribed dance step."

Generally speaking, the music of the West Indies is calypso-based rather than son-inspired, existing within a calenda complex in which the verbal signifyin' of "men-of-words" is ubiquitous,(80) as in, for example, the "good talking" and "bad talking" of the "toasters and boasters" of Jamaica. Such signifyin'-related behavior has its basis in the calenda, in which call-and-response was ascendant and which was tied intimately to the stick-fighting dances of some circum-Caribbean cultures, including, for example, Trinidad and Brazil. The calenda seems to have been a significant generating force in the establishment and continuation of the kinship that exists among circum-Caribbean music and dance forms.

Some genres may not fit comfortably in either the son or calenda complex, and others may fit into both. A bomba, for example, can be calypso-based and son-oriented, and it and the merengue might belong in many specific cases also to the calenda complex. But it is clear that the son and calenda complexes, despite exceptions, reside within the cinquillo-tresillo rhythmic matrix that to a large extent governs, or is at least a significant and influencing factor in, the music of the entire circum-Caribbean region.

Cinquillo and Tresillo in Concert Music

Having thus far focused on traditional and popular music, I will now comment on European-derived classical music, mentioning briefly three works by the Haitian composer Ludovic Lamothe, whose music resides comfortably within Haiti's music savant ayisyen (classical music) and Negritude (indigene) movements of the 1920s and 1930s. The indigene movement, like the Harlem Renaissance of 1920s, used "folk forms" as the foundation for works of "high art." Lamothe's "La Dangereuse: Meringe haitienne," "Loco," and "Sobo," which were introduced into modern scholarship by musicologist Michael Largey, are examples of this tendency. All three pieces have, basically, three-part forms, and all make use of tresillo and cinquillo rhythms. In "La Dangereuse," a meringue lente tresillo appears as an integral part of a slow, repetitive, and languorous melody with a mostly cinquillo-structured accompaniment (see ex. 23).(81) The last two measures of the B section are almost entirely tresillo-structured. In "Loco," a melody whose rhythm is made up entirely of a cinquillo variation is placed over a recurring sixteenth-note triplet pattern. According to Largey, this triplet pattern is said to imitate Rada nanchon spirits, most particularly Papa Loco. In the B section, the melody is based on tresillo, which alternates measure by measure with straight eighth notes (see ex. 24). The uniquely structured "Sobo" (ex. 25) is also in ternary form, its ostinato triplet pattern, according to Largey, evoking the vodou spirit of the "Petwo nanchon, a group of spirits thought to be aggressive and hot."(82) From the printed version of "Sobo," it is clear, in spite of the numerous notation errors in it, that following a two-measure introduction, a four-measure phrase is repeated seven times, constituting a twenty-eight-measure A section. This is followed by a four-measure transition to the B section, which is made up of a twice-repeated eight-measure subsection in which a two-measure phrase is stated three times, cadencing on a new two-measure phrase that contains a significantly different rhythmic and melodic figure. A repeat of the A section rounds off the form, and a brief coda brings it to a close.(83)


In referencing Haitian popular music and Haitian vodun, "La Dangereuse," "Loco," and "Sobo" bring Caribbean concert and parlor music into the cinquillo-tresillo rhythmic matrix, further confirming Haiti's importance as a trope-maker of circum-Caribbean music and as an early twentieth-century disseminator of cinquillo and tresillo rhythms beyond the confines of traditional and popular musics. This trend toward the expansion of cinquillo-tresillo influence into the realm of classical music is evidenced also in the works of the afrocubanismo composers, specifically in the works of the Afro-Cuban Amadeo Roldan (e.g., Ritmicas I-IV for wind quintet and V-VI for percussion ensemble, 1930), and of white composers such as Alejandro Garcia Caturla in Cuba (e.g., the orchestral work La Rumba, 1931) and Silvestre Revueltas in Mexico (e.g., the orchestral work Sensemaya, 1949). These and numerous other works by composers in the Caribbean demonstrate that cinquillo and tresillo have been in continual flux-existing as fugitive rhythms that, having escaped both the African time line and European-derived divisive meter, find themselves free to roam and manifest themselves, chameleon-like, in ever-changing additive patterns of 3 + 3 + 2, 2 + 3, 2 + 2 + 3, and other such formulations. The cinquillo-tresillo matrix, as the common denominator in Latin American and West Indian performance practices, stands as a symbol of circum-Caribbean unity.

Summary and Conclusions

We have seen that the music and dance of the yuka-calenda-lundu-rumba matrix and of African-derived ritual matrixes were transformed into the son and calenda complexes. This transformation took place within a process coextensive with the growing demythification of the African sacred world. Our understanding of the underlying cultural and musical meanings, in any historical period, of this son-calenda matrix will reside in our knowledge of the transformative aesthetic and affirmative powers and values of the African mythic world and of African time lines from which many of these musical meanings and rhythms derive.

The music can be heard conveniently and productively in the three CD collection Africa in America. In this set, there also can be witnessed relationships among Trinidadian calypso, Jamaican mento, and Belizian brokdown; between Dominican folk merengue and the faster, pop-oriented Haitian meringue; between the irregular rhythmic structures of the African drumming in Brazilian candomble and the more regularized but equally compelling structures of Martinican bele; between the polyrhythms of Cuban columbia and the more straightforward constructions of Puerto Rican plena; and among other diasporal musical practices in the Americas. On a variety of other recordings that feature examples of today's most popular Caribbean genres can be heard soca, zouk, compas, salsa, reggae, and other popular music from a variety of traditions, all of which are ingenious hybrids of various other Caribbean genres. In these recordings, the diaspora-identifying rhythms and rhythmic configurations of cinquillo, tresillo, and their variations tend to merge because they are protean, mutable, and easily disguised.

Cinquillo and tresillo motives are more than just "basic rhythms." They stand as central symbols of African-diasporal musical unity, transcending the boundaries of geocultural units and linking these units to each other and also to West Africa, the land from which a large part of this music derived. Their enduring presence in dynamic rhythmic cohesions defines and distinguishes the aesthetic character of the music of nearly all parts of the African Diaspora. Since these rhythms create a large part of the Caribbean musical "feel" we know so well, cinquillo, tresillo, and their variations may properly be called rhythmic "structures of feeling" that take place within the anticipatory, cross-rhythmic, and improvisatory "forms of feeling"(84) of circum-Caribbean musical genres--rumba, son, merengue, danza, bolero, calypso, reggae, soca, samba, salsa, and all the rest, including the random music-noise of the carnivals and festivals I barely mentioned in passing in my brief discussions of Jamaica, Trinidad, Costa Rica, and Mexico. In such events, bands play continuously; single and grouped dancers step, turn, twirl, and leap; clowns parade and make gaiety and fright; stick fighters and muscle men engage in ritualized combat; masqueraders represent spirits, animals, pirates, sailors, and African and European historical personages; acrobats exhibit their dexterous skills; make-believe kings and queens "reign," princes prance, and Indians play, fight, and dance; moko jumbies ("dancing spirits"--stilt walkers) roam like long-legged giants; and real and faux politicians, preachers, and organizers engage in political and cultural polemic. In these formless fluxes of social, cultural, and artistic activity, there are rituals within rituals, creating heightened experiences during the course of events. Through it all, the rhythms of the cinquillo-tresillo complex infuse the carnival and festival bands, the second-liners, and the percussive beats and street singing of the standing and walking basers of the music--all supporting the mythical paradigms of African, African-American, and European cultures.

In The Power of Black Music, I posited that in the United States the ring shout was the generator and initial preserver of the tropes of call-response--the African-American

    calls, cries, and hollers; call-and-response devices; additive rhythms and
    polyrhythms; heterophony, pendular thirds, blue notes, bent notes, and
    elisions; hums, moans, grunts, vocables, and other rhythmic-oral
    declamations, interjections, and punctuations; off-beat melodic phrasings
    and parallel intervals and chords; constant repetition of rhythmic and
    melodic figures and phrases (from which riffs and vamps would be derived);
    timbral distortions of various kinds; musical individuality within
    collectivity; game rivalry; hand clapping, foot patting, and
    approximations thereof; apart-playing; and the metronomic pulse that
    underlies all African-American music.(85)

I indicated also that these defining and foundational characteristics were present to some degree in all of the music that emanated from black culture in the United States. The same is true for the black musics of the circum-Caribbean but in different ways and to greater or lesser degrees, depending on the particular provenance or manifestation of the music.

Although in the United States the melodic gestures of calls, cries, hollers, pendular thirds, and timbre distortions and contrasts are prominent, they may be entirely absent in some Caribbean genres, replaced, for example, by the brusque utterances of the soneros of Cuba and of the singers and dancers of the Carriacou Big Drum, by the musica de bembe oral imitations of the timbres of musical instruments, by the alternating, evenly stressed on- and off-beats of reggae music, and by the oral maskings of Caribbean "men-of-words." While correspondences prevail between the music of the United States and that of the circum-Caribbean, the differences are significant, the primary and perhaps most important being the fact that in the United States the blues is ascendant and in the circum-Caribbean the tresillo-cinquillo matrix predominates.

In the nineteenth century, cinquillo and tresillo rhythms, ubiquitous in Africa, arrived in the Americas and moved rapidly throughout the West Indies, Latin America, and the southeastern coast of the United States. Although tempered and transformed in the United States by the ascendance of melody and harmony and the supremacy of the blues, even here cinquillo and tresillo have remained inevitably central to African-derived musical expression--most particularly and obviously in traditional secular, religious, and classic ragtime music but also through the entire range of genres--with tresillo the dominant sister. In addition, moreover, these diasporal links are accompanied by others of significant import, including (1) formal structure, as I observed earlier in this article, (2) the performative context of African-derived musics, and (3) the use of the lyrical metaphor--the highly enthusiastic, even rapturous use of song. Thus, in spite of the ascendancy of blues-based music in U.S. black musical expression, the cinquillo-tresillo matrix, no matter its place of residency, is the Ur-trope of African-American music. I use this term advisedly: "African-American music," which currently--and groundlessly--refers only to U.S. black music, ought properly to signify the African-derived and African-influenced musics of all of the Americas: North America, South America, and the entire circum-Caribbean region, notwithstanding the fact that some of the particulars strain, somewhat, against my generalizations.

Conceiving of the music of the circum-Caribbean as existing within a two-part rhythmic matrix of son and calenda complexes allows us to grasp the whole as a manageable and understandable duplex, in each part of which many genres comfortably (or not so comfortably) fit.(86) It will also help us to remember that each of these genres emerged as African-derived people appropriated European musical genres for their own use, and for the use of others, and merged them with the music of their former homelands, first as portions of two-part religious rituals, then as transformed secular dance music. Our knowledge of and familiarity with these transformative processes will allow us to negotiate the mental and conceptual boundaries that exist between European- and African-derived performance practices, Catholic- and Protestant-influenced musical cultures, Latin American and West Indian musical products, and other pertinent contrasting formations and formulations.

From the two-part structures of African-derived religious ritual through the transformation of two-part dance forms into three-part structures, from the emergence of the rhetorical tropes of the cinquillo-tresillo rhythmic matrix to the influence of all of these throughout the circum-Caribbean, we observe a more or less coherent portion of the African Diaspora. This does not necessarily mean that two-part structures have had primary status in the Caribbean, although, for the moment at least, I believe that this may be true. The region's multiplicity of forms, which range from the fixed forms of European-derived country dance music and African-derived sacred ritual to the formless flux of Caribbean carnivals and festivals that transcend daily living, mitigate the dominance of form that is evident in most of the musical genres and cultural expressions of the circum-Caribbean.

I have focused here on nonreligious music of the circum-Caribbean, where the unifying force of cinquillo and tresillo rhythms is least convincingly manifest; but this force can be observed most powerfully in the musical repertoires of African-derived religious rituals, namely, Cumina/Kumina, vodun, Santeria/palo, monte/espirito, and candomble, all of which I treat in my forthcoming book about music in the black diaspora (to be published by Oxford University Press). In this book I will also link this diasporal formation to similar, parallel, and even different diasporal formations in Europe, the United States, South Africa, and, in a trope of return, West Africa; for in their return, cinquillo and tresillo affected significantly the character of the music of their place of origin. I will also give attention to European-derived aspects of this music, most particularly to Spanish traits, including those of the Puerto Rican danza, with its Spanish text and a "triplet rhythm (or flexible triplet) [that appears] within a classical two-four mold,"(87) and its Spanish textual, melodic, and harmonic-cadential contributions. In the process, I hope to demonstrate that, throughout the diaspora, the cinquillo-tresillo rhythmic matrix, a sonic montage of rhythms derived from African time lines, is a beat of memory. In some ways it is also Africa's beat, completing a conceptual circle that began in parts of that land and returned there five centuries later. Today, the return of this music continues--especially through the electronic magic of boom boxes in the bush.(88)


I would like to thank Marcos Sueiro, Jason Berry, Robin Moore, and Lorna McDaniel for reading an early draft of this article, and Robert Witmer who read the submission draft and offered keen critique.

(1.) In this article, the term "circum-Caribbean" will refer not only to countries that reside in and touch the Caribbean sea but also to an extended Caribbean region that includes Brazil, Peru, Belize, and other Caribbean-proximate locations.

(2.) Gerard Behague, Music in Latin America: An Introduction (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979).

(3.) Gerardo Mosquera, "Eleggua at the (Post?) modern Crossroads: The Presence of Africa in the Visual Art of Cuba," in Santeria Aesthetics in Contemporary Latin American Art, ed. Arturo Lindsay (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996), 227.

(4.) I will use the term "African Diaspora" when referring to locations in which African-derived cultural practices are prominent and widespread. I will use the terms "diaspora" and "black diaspora" (note the lowercase for each term) when referring to the diaspora as a whole and to locations in which African-derived practices are not ubiquitous.

(5.) Martha Ellen Davis, "`Native Bi-musicality': Case Studies from the Caribbean," Pacific Review of Ethnomusicology 4 (1987): 43.

(6.) Ibid., 40.

(7.) Walter F. Pitts, Old Ship of Zion: The Afro-Baptist Ritual in the African Diaspora (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 31.

(8.) Ibid., 92, 132, 139, 145-46.

(9.) Translation by RoseAnna Mueller.

(10.) Alberto Pedro, "Le Semana Santa Haitiano-Cubana," Etnologia y Folklore 4 (1967): 52-53.

(11.) In some circles it is commonly believed that all these religions are manifestations of vodun. According to Gerdes Fleurant, who does not make this claim, in the language of the Fon of Dahomey "the term vodun means drum and spirit." Dancing Spirits: Rhythms and Rituals of Haitian Vodun, the Rada Rite (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996), 34. In some of these religions, the forms may be multipart (even three- and four-part), and also strictly African in derivation.

(12.) George Eaton Simpson, "Baptismal, Mourning, and Building Ceremonies of the Shouters of Trinidad," Journal of American Folklore 79 (1996): 537.

(13.) The strong presence of Yoruba people in Brazil, Cuba, and Trinidad accounts for many of the African performance practices that exist in these locations.

(14.) Robert Murrell Stevenson (Music in Mexico: A Historical Survey [New York: Crowell, 1952], 162) reports that the earliest Negro dance music in print appears in Sebastian de Aguirre's tablature Metodo de Citara (ca. 1650), labeled as a portorrico de los negros, from ca. 1650.

(15.) Since many of the early statements about Caribbean dance and music are confusing and confused, I am offering here a word of caution from Gordon Rohlehr, who points out, in his Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad (Port of Spain, Trinidad: The Author, 1990), that throughout the nineteenth century the African-derived "song and dance complex was becoming simplified," with varioius dances "merging into each other," and that "white commentators tended to see the Blacks as a single undifferentiated mass, and only a few would or could distinguish between nation and nation, let alone between dance and dance" (14-15). I thank Robert Witmer for calling my attention to Rohlehr's caveat.

(16.) Lynne Fauley Emery, Black Dance: From 1916 to Today, 2nd rev. ed. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Books, 1988), 21.

(17.) Janheinz Jahn, Muntu: The New African Culture (New York: Grove Press, 1961), 80.

(18.) Secular ring dances can be found in a variety of cultures, including Jamaica, from which the notation and texts to twenty-eight ring dances have been collected, described, and discussed in Walter Jekyll, ed., Jamaican Song and Story: Annancy Stories, Digging Sings, Ring Tunes, and Dancing Tunes (1907; repr., New York: Dover, 1966), 190-215.

(19.) Jahn, Muntu, 62-85. The Antilles comprise all the islands of the Caribbean except the Bahamas.

(20.) Says Jahn (Muntu, 84), "In Cuba [the rumba] was not danced without embarrassment until in 1932 a stylized form (not folkloric) was presented, though with a certain reticence, at the World's Fair in Chicago and became a great success. It became everywhere a tolerated and often much-loved dance, with no enemies but its rival dances which come from the same source."

(21.) Peter Lamarche Manuel, Popular Musics of the Non-Western World: An Introductory Survey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 64.

(22.) Emilio Grenet, Popular Cuban Music, trans. R. Phillips (Havana: South Music, 1939), xviii; Alejo Carpentier, La Musica en Cuba (Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1972), 130; Behague, Music in Latin America, 104; John Santos, liner notes for The Cuban Danzon: Its Ancestors and Descendants, Folkways FE4066; Manuel, Popular Musics, 27-28; Michael Largey, "Composing a Haitian Cultural Identity: Cultural Elites, African Ancestry, and Musical Discourse," Black Music Research Journal 14, no. 2 (1994): 106.

(23.) Carpentier, La Musica en Cuba, 130ff.

(24.) S. Frederick Starr, Bamboula!: The Life and Times of Louis Moreau Gottschalk (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 189.

(25.) Peter Lamarche Manuel, Kenneth Bilby, and Michael Largey, Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995), 27; Starr, Bamboula!, 189.

(26.) Carpentier, La Musica en Cuba, 130.

(27.) Gerhard Kubik, "Kognitive Grundlagen der afrikanischen Musik," in Musik inAfrika, ed. Autur Simon (Berlin: Museum fur Volkerkunde, 1983), 327-400; Kubik, letter to author, April 11, 1998.

(28.) Kubik, "Oral Notation of Some West and Central African Time-line Patterns," Review of Ethnology 3, no. 22 (1972): 169-76; Kubik, letter to author.

(29.) Kubik, letter to author.

(30.) Alfons Dauer, "Derler 1: Ein System zur Klassifikation von Rhythmen: Musiktheoretische und musikhistorische Aspekte," Jazzforschung--Jazz Research 20 (1988): 117-54.

(31.) See Starr, Bamboula!, 189.

(32.) On this point, the historical evidence is slight. My following of Starr (ibid.) and others who posit an origin of cinquillo in Bantu Africa, the movement from there to Haiti (e.g., Manuel, Popular Musics, 27), and from Haiti to the rest of the Caribbean (my extension) is, at this point, a hypothesis. An alternative hypothesis, suggested to me by Robert Witmer, may be that cinquillo was simply derived from widely used African time-line material and spread geographically over time.

(33.) Grenet (Popular Cuban Music, xviii) refers to tresillo as "a simplification of cinquillo"; Largey ("Composing a Haitian Cultural Identity," 106) says that tresillo is a variation of cinquillo. Both may be correct, particularly if the rhythms are notated and analyzed visually. But tresillo's sounded character can be so different from cinquillo that I agree with Behague's conceptual separation of the two.

(34.) Manuel, Bilby, and Largey, Caribbean Currents, 9.

(35.) Shabazz Farel Johnson and John Miller Chernoff, "Basic Conga Drum Rhythms in African-American Musical Styles," Black Music Research Journal 11, no. 1 (1991): 67.

(36.) Africa in America: Music from Nineteen Countries, Discos Corason MTCD 115/7.

(37.) I parenthesize "bar lines" here to gloss it as a figure of speech, to indicate that is not my intention to "force" a non-Western concept into a European-derived metric scheme but to refer to the way such rhythms may be notated in printed music or how they may sound when placed or conceived within a metric context.

(38.) Alan Lomax, "Africanisms in New World Music," in The Haitian Potential: Research and Resources of Haiti, ed. Vera Rubin and Richard E Schaedel (New York: Teachers College Press, 1975), 42. Lomax's statement is overgeneralized, since there exist many exceptions to it. In some cases, for example, the singing may be brusque rather than relaxed, and in a few Caribbean locations Spanish belle canto influences may be more common than not, particularly in some parts of Cuba. But this fact should not prevent his statement from being used as a possible point of departure for understanding the music of the circum-Caribbean as a region in which African-derived musical practices prevail.

(39.) Manuel, Popular Musics, 25.

(40.) Argeliers Leon, Musica folklorica cubana (Havana: Ediciones del Dept. de Musica de la Biblioteca Nacional Jose Marti, 1964).

(41.) Eduardo Llerenas, liner notes for Septetos Cubanos: Sones de Cuba, Corason MTCD 113/4.

(42.) Peter Lamarche Manuel, "Puerto Rican Music and Cultural Identity: Creative Appropriation of Cuban Sources from Danza to Salsa," Ethnomusicology 38, no. 2 (1994): 266.

(43.) The son is an African-based genre consisting of repetitive, interlocking rhythms over which a drummer improvises and singers interject vocables; subgenres include guaguanco, naningo, and rumba de cajon. The son became popular in Cuba between 1900 and 1920, when sonero musicians began to move from Oriente province, where it appears to have been born, to Havana and inspired working-class musicians there to take it up.

(44.) Grenet, Popular Cuban Music, xxxvi.

(45.) Robin Moore, "Nationalizing Blackness: Afrocubanismo and Artistic Revolution in Cuba," Ph.D. diss., University of Texas at Austin, 1995, 109.

(46.) Ibid., 110, 115.

(47.) See Grenet, Popular Cuban Music, xxxvi.

(48.) Llerenas, liner notes for Septetos Cubanos: Sones de Cuba.

(49.) See, for example, David Stiber, "Son," in The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, ed. Don Michael Randel (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1986), 760; and Carlos Borbolla, "Cuba, II: Folk Music," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan Publishers, 1980), 5:85-89.

(50.) Moore, "Nationalizing Blackness," 14.

(51.) Santos, liner notes for The Cuban Danzon: Its Ancestors and Descendants.

(52.) See my more extended discussion of this piece in Samuel A. Floyd Jr., "Toward a Theory of Diaspora Aesthetics," Lenox Avenue 4 (1998): 25-68.

(53.) Gerard Behague, "Samba," in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Sadie, 16:447-48.

(54.) Manuel, Popular Musics, 64-67.

(55.) Manuel, Bilby, and Largey, Caribbean Currents, 54.

(56.) Harold Courlander, A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore (New York: Crown, 1976), 86-87.

(57.) Mary Farquharson, liner notes for Africa in America: Music from Nineteen Countries, Corason MTCD 115/7.

(58.) Juan Flores, "Bumbum and the Beginnings of La Plena," in Salsiology: Afro-Cuban Music and the Evolution of Salsa in New York City, ed. Vernon W. Boggs (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992), 61-62, 64, 65.

(59.) Manuel, Popular Musics, 42-46; John Storm Roberts, Black Music of Two Worlds (New York: Praeger, 1972), 102-32.

(60.) Gerard Behague, "Latin America, II: Folk Music," in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Sadie, 10:516-22.

(61.) E. Thomas Stanford, "Mexico, II: Folk Music," in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Sadie, 12:229-40.

(62.) Juan Dies, liner notes for ??Que Florezca!, Sones de Mexico SM1196.

(63.) According to Rolando Antonio Perez Fernandez (La Musica Afromestiza Mexicana [Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico: Universidad Veracruzana, 1990], 209), the chilena is "a dance related to the zamba." It was "introduced in Mexico by Chileans and South Americans in general during the mid-19th century" and "developed differently from its original form, until it became a variant of the Mexican son." Translation from the original by Marcos Sueiro.

(64.) Hollis Liverpool, "Researching Steelband and Calypso Music in the British Caribbean and the U.S. Virgin Islands," Black Music Research Journal 14, no. 2 (1994): 184.

(65.) Manuel, Bilbey, and Largey, Caribbean Currents, 186.

(66.) Keith Q. Warner, "Calypso, Reggae, and Rastafarianism: Authentic Caribbean Voices," Popular Music and Society 1, no. 1 (1988): 53.

(67.) J. D. Elder, "Kalinda: Song of the Battling Troubadors of Trinidad," Journal of the Folklore Institute 3 (1966): 193-94.

(68.) Warner, "Calypso, Reggae, and Rastafarianism," 56.

(69.) Dimitri L. Copemann, "Quelbe: The Folk Music of the Virgin Islands," The Voice (Nov./Dec. 1991): 40. According to Benjamin Nunez (Dictionary of Afro-Latin Civilization [Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980], 54), the bamboula--"drum dances of the West Indies blacks"--was "common until 1865 in St. Thomas when street masquerading replaced it. African in origin, the name is related to bamboo, of which the drum is made."

(70.) Copemann, "Quelbe," 49-50.

(71.) Lomax, "Africanisms in New World Music," 4.

(72.) Jocelyne Guilbault et al., Zouk: World Music in the West Indies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), xix.

(73.) The gwo ka rhythms can be heard in the compact disk distributed with Guilbault

et al., Zouk, excerpt 10. An example of a bele rhythm can be heard on Africa in America in "Man Pa Te La Man Rive," from Martinique.

(74.) Guilbault et al., Zouk, 214-15.

(75.) Ibid., 27, 47-52.

(76.) Farquharson, liner notes for Africa in America, 32.

(77.) Guilbault et al., Zouk, 168.

(78.) Calypsos: Afro-Limonese Music of Costa Rica, Lyrichord 7412.

(79.) Lorna Angela McDaniel, "Memory Songs: Community, Flight, and Conflict in the Big Drum Ceremony of Carriacou, Grenada," Ph.D. diss., University of Maryland, 1986, 25-28; see also her The Big Drum Ritual of Carriacou: Praisesongs for Re-Memory of Flight (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998), 20-28, 155-58.

(80.) Roger D. Abrahams, The Man-of-Words in the West Indies: Performance and the Emergence of Creole Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983).

(81.) Michael Largey ("Composing a Haitian Cultural Identity," 106) identifies both of these rhythms in the piece and, like Grenet, refers to tresillo as a "modified form" of cinquillo.

(82.) Ibid., 109.

(83.) A guitar rendition of "Sobo," by Frantz Casseus, can be heard on Haitian Folk Songs, Folkways Records FW6811.

(84.) These phrases are borrowed from Paul Gilroy (The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993], 77, 83), and through Gilroy, from Raymond Williams (Marxism and Literature [London: Oxford University Press, 1977], 132), although Gilroy and Williams use them in entirely different contexts than the one I have constructed here. I plan to develop this notion further in a future work.

(85.) Samuel A. Floyd Jr., The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 6.

(86.) Admittedly, the criteria for the membership of a genre in one or the other of these two complexes are in some cases somewhat vague. I offer them here as points of departure for further inquiry and future refinement.

(87.) A. G. Quintero-Rivera, "Ponce, the Danza, and the National Question: Notes Toward a Sociology of Puerto Rican Music," in Salsiology, ed. Boggs, 49.

(88.) I appropriated the phrase "boom boxes in the bush" from English professor and Harlem Renaissance scholar Richard Long.

Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., is Director of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago. His most recent publications include The Power of Black Music (Oxford University Press, 1995) and the International Dictionary of Black Composers (Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1999). He is currently completing a book-length study entitled "Music in the Black Diaspora" for Oxford.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
FLOYD, SAMUEL A. JR. "Black Music in the Circum-Caribbean." American Music, vol. 17, no. 1, 1999, p. 1. Academic OneFile, Accessed 22 Sept. 2017.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A58361685