Caribbean Voyage

Caribbean Sampler - Various performers

Rounder CD 11661-1721-2

Peter was a Fisherman

Various performers

Rounder CD 1114

When I first became interested in traditional music, or when I first realized I'd always been interested in traditional music and set about trying to find out why, I visited countless libraries, reading and listening to whatever I could find - blues music, folk music, world music ... the music of people and places, and not just markets.  Littered amongst the numerous books, videos and scratchy records I steeped myself in, were the words, ideas, and recordings of two giants of the traditional music of the Americas, Alan Lomax and Melville Herskovits.

Alan Lomax first began recording music with his father, John Lomax, as a young man of eighteen and is now widely recognized as one of the most ambitious recorders of traditional music of our times.  While Lomax recorded the music of diverse communities throughout his career, he, like Melville Herskovits before him, held a particular interest in the music of the Black/African populations of the Americas.  It is known that he, along with his father, was interested in the connection between various African-American musical styles and their relation to music in Africa.  Cover pictureThe 1962 Caribbean recordings, some of which are included on the Caribbean Sampler, furthered and expanded Lomax's work to find the common links in African-American music.  They also represented a new chapter in a long legacy of study and recordings that included the work of Melville Herskovits, Harold Courlander, and other pioneers in the study of this genre.

What sets Lomax's Caribbean recordings apart from others, including those of Melville Herskovits, is that Lomax recorded with state of the art equipment (for 1962) at a time before the explosion of radio, records, or tapes in many of the islands.  Thus, he had an advantage over earlier ethnomusicologists due to his superior recording equipment and an advantage over later ones in that many styles that were later to be forgotten still existed when he was visiting the islands.  Also, as has been perhaps overstated in the Alan Lomax series liner notes, he seemed to have a knack for getting the best performances out of the artists he recorded.

The Caribbean Sampler contains 31 tracks from ten West Indian islands.  The recordings range from well-known styles such as the Guadaloupean gwoka and the Martinican bélé (both Afro-Creole drum dances) to a rare shango from Grenada and a French ballad from St. Barthelemy - perhaps the first music I've ever heard from this tiny Caribbean island.  Three islands which figure prominently on this sampler - Dominica, Carriacou, and Trinidad - each getting about 5 to 8 tracks.  Others, Guadeloupe and Nevis for example, only have one track to represent them.  Why some islands have more tracks than others is a mystery to me, and I hope we will hear more from the less well-represented islands in forthcoming releases of the Caribbean Voyage Series.

The bulk of the music found on the Sampler can be divided into three overlapping traditions, one primarily African in influence, another showing a mixed African/European influence, and a third primarily European in influence.  Some highlights include an energetic bongo (wake dance) from Trinidad, two work songs related to the sea, a musical storytelling session from Martinique, and a few charming string band pieces including a lakonmet (also called mazouk) from St. Lucia, a 'breakaway' from Carriacou, and a holiday piece from Nevis.  The bongo, work songs, and the storytelling song all show strong African influence in their performance, including call-and-response vocals, while the string band music, with its Creole interpretations of quadrilles, waltzes and other set dances, shows a more mixed African/European influence.  There are also a couple of ballads included on the CD, giving us a nice taste of the European influence in Caribbean music.

I must admit that I have a particular love for Caribbean traditional music, and from scratchy violins and bellowing accordions to hand clapping, croix-croix sticks, and drums sounding beneath sweet confident voices, it's all here.  I guess I should qualify that, since Lomax did not record the music of the Spanish Caribbean islands, the Dutch Caribbean, or the Continental Caribbean (the Caribbean coasts of the nations of Central and South America).  This is not necessarily a complaint, rather just an observation, since the scope of Lomax's work, both in terms of islands and genres, is truly breathtaking.

I'd like to make a special note of the only Spanish-Caribbean selection found on the Sampler, a parang from Trinidad.  The parang, originally referring to the tradition of Christmas serenading found in Trinidad, is a little known Afro-Spanish string band music that came to Trinidad via immigrants from neighboring Venezuela.  While recordings of parang can be found on a few Caribbean collections, it continues to baffle me as to why there has been no easily available international release of a CD solely dedicated to this enchanting musical genre.  I hope the inclusion of a parang on this sampler is an indication that such a CD is on the way.

I've commented on only a few tracks here, but don't be fooled.  Everything on this CD is a gem, from the very African Big Drum Nation songs of Carriacou to the humorous French ballad from St Barthelemy.  This is an excellent CD both for those who already study or love Caribbean traditional music as well as for new listeners.

Twenty-three years may separate the recordings on the Caribbean Sampler and Peter was a Fisherman, but they clearly belong to the same tradition.  Melville Herskovits was a pioneer in the study of African-American music and culture in the Caribbean and South America.  He was one of the first Northamerican researchers to emphasize and attempt to categorize the African contribution to music and culture in the Americas.  Herskovits' articles and books (The Myth of the Negro Past and Trinidad Village) influenced many concurrent and future researchers, ethnomusicologists and anthropologists.  His work came in the face of a number of misguided, ignorant, or frankly racist scholarly works that both de-emphasized the contributions of Africa in American music and characterized those contributions as barbaric or inferior to the Western musical traditions, particularly the Western classical tradition.

Melville and Frances Herskovits recorded the selections included on Peter was a Fisherman, in 1939 in a village in Trinidad.  The 34 tracks on the CD include a number of song styles ranging from primarily African songs sung in Yoruba to Creole/European quadrille and reel songs.  The range of songs recorded helped Herskovits to theorize a spectrum of African influence in American music, from music with high African content (usually religious music) to music with only trace African content (usually European forms with some African rhythmic sensibilities).

Listening to this collection of songs, I got the feeling that Herskovits was more interested in how the elements of the music fit into his ideas of African retention in the New World than in the experience of the music itself.  While a number of the songs are pleasing to listen to and most are fascinating examples of early Trinidadian musical traditions, I found the songs lacked the energy, the vibrancy, of those found on the Lomax CD.  This may in part be due to the poor nature of the recording equipment Herskovits used, but I wonder if there isn't some other explanation for the monotonous and sparse sound of much of the CD.  Perhaps the musicians felt uncomfortable performing for this foreign couple, or in front of a microphone?  Perhaps Herskovits hoped to isolate certain themes in the music and therefore insisted on a simple presentation?  Who can say?

Five of the more historically important songs on the CD are sung in Yoruba by Margaret Buckley, a 70 year old woman who was the daughter of Yoruba speaking parents.  While these songs are undoubtedly interesting, particularly to linguists, the use of Buckley's son as a single backup drummer results in the loss of much of the rhythmic complexity that might otherwise have been present if the normal three drum orchestra found in most Yoruba music had been used.  Some life can be heard in the sankeys of the Spiritual Baptists, or Shouters, who are the resident Black Protestants of Trinidad.  Sankeys begin as European style hymns and then transition to an African-American musical style know as 'trumping', which is a series of rhythmic groans and shouts - hence the name 'Shouters' - that can lead to spirit possession.

The Creole/European music forms, which include a number of reels, quadrilles, and carnival songs, seem to survive the poor technical quality of the recordings a bit better than the forms with greater African content, perhaps because they depended less on drums or large groups of voices, which tended to distort the sound.  Ine Ine Katuke, sung in the untranslatable 'Wild Indian' tongue, and When Me Baby Born, O are both nice examples of these Creole forms.

Despite the shortcomings of this CD, I am grateful to finally hear some of the recordings that informed Herskovits' ideas.  And the booklet that accompanies the CD is interesting and informative, with descriptions of each of the songs and transcriptions and translations of the lyrics as well as a brief discussion of Melville and Frances and the people they recorded.

In the end, both Peter was A Fisherman and the Caribbean Sampler are important, if not interesting, for the historical recordings they contain and I heartily recommend both of them to all the budding ethnomusicologists / anthropologists out there.  Still, it is important to remember that music is not just for study.  With that in mind, I think I can safely say the Lomax sampler is the more suitable CD for most of us.  Buy it and get ready to sing and dance!

Nathan Luna - 31.3.99

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