In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section English-Speaking Caribbean

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works

Music English-Speaking Caribbean
Timothy Rommen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0226


The English-speaking Caribbean is extraordinarily rich in its musical diversity. This region within a region is home to a mere 7 million people, but the sonic footprint that the English-speaking Caribbean has left on the world far outstrips any reasonable expectation for what such a collection of small places should be able to produce. The Caribbean is shaped by the violence associated with Amerindian encounters with Europe; the long and brutal histories of slavery and plantation economies; the economic, political, and social consequences of coloniality; anticolonial and decolonial struggles of the 20th century; and by the fact that everyone in the region is, for one reason or another, from somewhere else. The English-speaking Caribbean is also home to profoundly creative communities. The sounds of calypso, dancehall, soca, wylers, rake-n-scrape, bouyon, junkanoo, ska, spouge, tuk, mento, quelbe, chutney, reggae, and cadence-lypso, to name but a few styles, have emerged in this region within a region, and many of these sounds circulate far beyond the Caribbean. What follows is a guide to the essential scholarship on the music of the English-speaking Caribbean. Any bibliography that begins by dividing the circum-Caribbean region into language blocks immediately risks reinforcing one of the long-standing scholarly issues within Caribbean studies—the tendency to treat the French-, Spanish-, Dutch-, and English-speaking Caribbean as though they exist in isolation from each other. Too often, Caribbean scholarship has missed opportunities to think across linguistic boundaries in addressing common threads and significant exchanges. There are, nevertheless, also certain practical advantages to compiling bibliographies that are focused in this way. For instance, such an organizational choice affords an opportunity to explore the specificities of colonialism and empire within the region. It also provides a unique perspective on the practicalities, associations, and political realities that continue to animate the Caribbean. This article leverages these advantages while also offering a sense, where possible, of the deep connections and interdependencies that extend across the region, regardless of language or colonial history. Anyone wishing to gain a broadly useful framework for thinking about music in the Caribbean, however, should also survey the literature of the French, Spanish, and Dutch Caribbean. Bibliographies, by their very shape and organization, often point to areas for further research, and the organizational strategy for this particular article highlights some significant imbalances in the scholarly record. A pattern that emerges clearly concerns the relative lack of attention that has been paid to the small island Caribbean. The further need to integrate the small island Caribbean into the larger conversations within the English-speaking (and wider) Caribbean is pressing. To that end, after three sections highlighting reference works, general overviews, and theoretical works, this article breaks down scholarship according to island, focusing attention on each in turn. In doing so, it groups islands within the political rubrics commonly used to organize them within the region, including: the Commonwealth Caribbean, the Mainland Caribbean, the British Overseas Territories of the Caribbean, and Other Territories (the US Virgin Islands). One area consciously omitted from this bibliography is the growing body of literature centered on diasporic Caribbean communities. Although this rapidly growing field of research is producing excellent scholarship, there is simply not space to incorporate it within the constraints of this bibliography. In fact, this topic is crucial to understanding the Caribbean as a region and warrants a dedicated bibliographic essay in its own right. A final note: the English-speaking Caribbean was built on the ashes of Amerindian societies (Carib, Arawak, Taíno, Kalinago, etc.) that had existed in the region before encounter with Europe. Unfortunately, disease, war, shrinking territory, and forced labor ensured that they have not generally survived as viable communities (with the notable exception of the Kalinago community in Dominica). Consequently, very little can be written about Amerindian musical practices outside of the realm of archeology. Notwithstanding the lack of music scholarship, however, it remains crucial not to treat European encounters with Amerindians as a prehistory to the region but rather as foundational to our understanding of the region’s past, present, and future.

Reference Works

The English-speaking Caribbean is well represented in standard reference works concerned with Caribbean musical life. Included here are some of the most useful encyclopedias along with a few select anthologies and bibliographic tools that engage with musical practices across a significant portion of this region within a region. Olsen and Sheehy 1998 is perhaps the best place to begin a general study of the region’s musical life. Shepherd, et al. 2005; Shepherd, et al. 2014; and Kuss 2007, however, also offer excellent entries on the region’s traditional and popular musics. Those interested specifically in religious practices and sacred music should turn to Taylor and Case 2013, which represents the most comprehensive reference work on this subject. Lomax Hawes 1997 offers an excellent entry into children’s games in the eastern Caribbean, and Gray 2011 and Gray 2015 offer exhaustive bibliographies of Trinidadian and Jamaican musics, respectively.

  • Gray, John. Jamaican Popular Music, From Mento to Dancehall Reggae: A Bibliographic Guide. Nyack, NY: African Diaspora, 2011.

    This comprehensive bibliographic work covers the wide range and scope of Jamaican popular music. Covering materials from the mid-20th century to the early 21st, and expanding beyond Jamaica to include presence of Jamaican sounds in international contexts, this work is a valuable starting point for those interested in researching these genres and their global circulations.

  • Gray, John. Carnival, Calypso and Steel Pan: A Bibliographic Guide to Popular Music of the English-Speaking Caribbean and Its Diaspora. Nyack, NY: African Diaspora, 2015.

    This is the most comprehensive bibliographic work on the intertwined topics of carnival, calypso, and steelpan. Annotated citations cover materials from the mid-19th century to the early 21st, expanding beyond Trinidad to include the bourgeoning practices of the diaspora. This is a valuable resource for those interested in researching these musical and masquerading practices.

  • Kuss, Malena, ed. Music in Latin America and the Caribbean: An Encyclopedic History. Vol. 2. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007.

    Eight chapters of this encyclopedia volume are focused on music in the English-speaking Caribbean, including: Jamaica, Barbados, The Bahamas, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Trinidad. The encyclopedia includes general essays about the region and incorporates scholars hailing from within the region more thoroughly than does any other such volume. The entries provide excellent introductions to the musical genres and social contexts within their respective national contexts.

  • Lomax Hawes, Bess. Brown Girl in the Ring: An Anthology of Song Games from the Eastern Caribbean. New York: Pantheon, 1997.

    This anthology of song games from the eastern Caribbean is an excellent reference for anyone interested in the circulation of children’s songs throughout the region. An audio compilation, recorded by Alan Lomax and released as part of the Caribbean Voyage series by Rounder Records (see citation in General Overviews) serves as a companion to this anthology.

  • Olsen, Dale A., and Daniel Sheehy, eds. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. Vol. 2, South America, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. New York: Garland, 1998.

    Perhaps the most widely recognized encyclopedia of world music. The entries on the English-speaking Caribbean are detailed, encompass traditional, popular, and art musics, and offer an excellent starting point for research. General essays on several aspects of the region’s musical life are also included. While not comprehensive, the encyclopedia offers detailed articles aiming for broad coverage, including: Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, and the US Virgin Islands.

  • Shepherd, John, David Horn, and Dave Laing, eds. Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World. Vol. 3, Locations: Caribbean and Latin America. New York: Continuum, 2005.

    This encyclopedia volume includes survey essays concerning much of the English-speaking Caribbean. Although not exhaustive, it nevertheless provides an excellent starting point for further research. Musical genres that are introduced here in the context of colonial and decolonial narratives are further explored in Volume 9 of the encyclopedia.

  • Shepherd, John, David Horn, Hettie Malcomson, Pamela Narbona Jerez, Mona-Lynn Courteau, and Heidi Feldman, eds. Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World. Vol. 9, Genres: Caribbean and Latin America. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.

    This encyclopedia volume includes introductory essays to many of the genres emanating from the English-speaking Caribbean. Entries are written by experts in the field and include select bibliographic and discographic references. Although the encyclopedia is explicitly focused on popular musics, traditional musics are covered where relevant to the development of particular genres.

  • Taylor, Patrick, and Frederick I. Case, eds. The Encyclopedia of Caribbean Religions. Vols. 1 & 2. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013.

    This encyclopedia offers the best and most exhaustive introduction to the many religious and spiritual traditions of the Caribbean. Because entries focus on practice as well as theology/belief, the encyclopedia includes a substantial amount of material on the sacred/spiritual musical traditions of the English-speaking Caribbean. As such, it serves as an excellent starting point for those interested in the sacred musics of the region.

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