Performing and Visual Arts

Contemporary Music In Dominica, 1950-2000

The Fifties and Sixties

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Dominican contemporary music, that is the music played by the dance bands from the 1950s, has played a very important role in our national life. Our musical landscape has seen many changes in the intervening period from 1950. In the forties and fifties, there were bands such as Casimir Brothers of Roseau. The Swinging Stars emerged at the end of the fifties. All these bands played music of the Caribbean and elsewhere such as calypso, bolero, samba, merengue and funk. They all had the big band sound with lots of horns. Traditional rhythms of Dominica such as lapokabwit or jing ping were not played by the big bands.

In the sixties, calypso and steelband music became very popular and indeed replaced lapokabwit and chante mas as the music of carnival, particularly in the capital Roseau. Many of the traditional songs were performed in the new calypso beat. Calypsonians and calypso monarch competitions emerged and became extremely popular. Steelbands emerged all around the country. The older musicians and bands had moved on and were replaced by the younger musicians. Bands such as Swinging Stars, Gaylords, De Boys an Dem, Los Caballeros and Swinging Busters surfaced and began to cut records. The emergence of radio, first WIDBS and later Radio Dominica helped to spread the music.

It was in the sixties that the trend towards drawing on original music, traditional music and songs of Dominica began. This was probably best exemplified by the music of the Gaylords and to a lesser extent, De Boys and Dem. Gaylords unleashed a string of hits such as DouvanJou, Ti Mako, songs in Kwéyòl as well as powerful nationalist songs in English, as Lovely Dominica and Pray for the Blackman. Such songs however were performed to calypso rhythms and later the new reggae beat coming out of Jamaica.

In the late sixties and early seventies, the influence of rock, soul and funk music from the United States was reflected in our contemporary dance music. New groups originating from mainly the high school student population emerged. Groups such s Every Mother's Child, Woodenstool and Voltage Four specialized in rock and funk. The Latin-rock music of Santana and Afro-rock music of Osibisa became powerful influences on our younger bands, and were very popular in the dance halls.

The Candence Era

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It was in the seventies that the first authentic or original contemporary music genre of Dominican origin really emerged. This was cadence-lypso created by Exile One, a new group of top rate Dominican musicians originating from bands such as Woodenstool, Voltage and De Boys and Dem. This new form was a fusion of Haitian compas/cadence rempa and the Trinidadian calypso. There was a virtual explosion of bands - Exile One, Grammacks, Liquid Ice, Midnight Groovers, Black Affairs, Black Machine, Mantra, Belles Combo, Milestone, Wafrikai, Black roots, Black Blood, Naked Feet and Mammouth among others. Leading vocalists of the period include Gordon Henderson, Jeff Joseph, Marcel "Chubby" Marc, Anthony Gussie, Mike Moreau, Tony Valmond, Linford John, Bill Thomas, SinkyRabess and Janet Azouz among others. Cadence-lypso music quickly spread to Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti and other islands in the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa, blazing a pathway for the development of related styles such as zouk.

The music of Santana and Osibisa also influenced this new form as evidenced in the use of guitars, keyboards, horns and percussion. At that time too, the society was in nationalist ferment. The Black Power and Rastafarian Movements, with their black pride, pro-African and anti-colonial ideological positions, influenced the young musicians tremendously. This was reflected in the music in terms of band names such as WaDikai, Black Machine, Black Roots, Black Affairs and Black Blood, a definitive identification with blackness, with Africa. This was reflected in the melody, in the use of certain instruments such as keyboards, guitars and horns. This was also reflected in lyrical content, the positive, nationalist and social commentary of cadence-lypso. Songs like TwaveyPouAnyen which addressed the rigours of slavery, impacted on our collective consciousness more than the politicians or Black Power advocates ever could. Cadence-lypso reflected and exuded the nationalist ferment of the seventies.

There were a number of other important aspects of cadence-lypso music which impacted on our culture and society as well as the future direction of Dominica's contemporary music. Cadence-lyspo used the Kwéyòl language as its prime means of expression, again feeding into our language traditions and our folk song traditions. Oral traditions such as proverbs were every much utilized in the music. Cadence-music also united the generations. It was popular among the young and the old. This music was popular among the older folk because of its similarity or relationship to rhythms of jing ping music and the use oft the Kwéyòl language. For the younger people, this music represented a truly Dominican music which was making Dominica famous overseas and was also serving as a platform of protest against the ills of society and for conscious-raising.

Zouk

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The period of the eighties saw the demise of most Dominican bands of the Cadence-lyspo era. The first half of the eighties was dominated by hi-fi music systems. During that period, Ophelia emerged and became Dominica's first female singer to achieve international star status. The same too can be said of her with respect to the French Antilles. Gordon Henderson, Jeff Joseph and Julie Mourillon were all pursuing solo careers and releasing albums.

By the mid-eighties, there emerged two powerful influences on our contemporary dance music. Firstly, zouk music, pioneered by Kassav of Guadeloupe/Martinique became very popular here. Zouk's use of the Kwéyòl language, its rhythmic connections to cadence-lypso and its excellent technical and sound quality, were the main reasons for its success here. The second major influence was the jam-band, rant and rave, soca music as played by bands such as Burning Flames. New bands such as WCK, First Serenade and RSB emerged playing zouk and jam-band soca. The music, while retaining lyrical originality, was a clone of Burning Flames. With regards to instruments, the horns were replaced by keyboard synthesizers and the drums by drum machines. The new musicians were largely untrained and lacking in the nationalist consciousness of the seventies. It was only in calypso and in the newly developing performance poetry that the social commentary was still to be found in the music of the eighties.

In the eighties, there also emerged an interest in jazz music with the formation of a number of jazz trios and quartets. A number of jazz festivals and shows were held here. There was also the beginnings of exploring the lapo kabwit and jing ping rhythms by the newly regrouped Exile One, a trend which deepened in the nineties.

The Bouyon Generation

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The nineties in Dominica have been dominated by a new musical form called Bouyon. Bouyon emerged out of the attempt of the new generation bands like WCK to move away from the Burning Flames shadow and develop their own style. Bouyon in effect represents a fusion of zouk and rant and rave, wine and jam, soca music but also draws upon jing ping elements in terms of rhythm and use of the accordion timbre. Bouyon also draws upon lapo kabwit rhythms. Bouyon music is very dependent on the drum machine, cowbell and keyboards with guitars receding into the background. As such, it has a very strident rhythm and is aptly referred to as jump up music by the population in Guadeloupe and Martinique. Bouyon is truly that, music for jump up.

From a language perspective, Bouyon draws on English and Kwéyòl. The lyrics are very trivial. Bouyon involves chanting rather than singing and is very much influenced by dance hall reggae rap language style, coming out of Jamaica. Bouyon-Muffin is an off shot of this tendency. While bouyon lyrics comment on everyday life in the cultural sense, they are not explicitly social commentary in the political sense. The present crop of musicians do not have the rich cultural, political and nationalist experience of the seventies to draw on in their creativity. Hence the triviality of topics and lyrics. Bouyon perpetuates the wine and jam music trend sweeping the Caribbean at the moment.

With the emergence of bouyon music and tax concessions on musical instruments, new bands have emerged, including Seramix, Wassin Warriors, Rough and Ready and other lesser known bands in rural villages. All however use the same production formulas and thus sound alike. The emergence of computer-based recording studios in Dominica has meant a great increase in the production of local recordings. There is need however to improve the quality of the sound, the quality of the vocals and to better structure the melody. Bouyon still sounds like disorganized noise. One cannot discern individual musician craftsmanship in the music. And, unlike cadence-lypso, bouyon does not unite the generations. It is really the music of young people.

With bouyon we have seen a continuation of certain Dominican music forms such as jing ping, lapokabwit, and the use of the accordion timbre. The recent recordings of Exile One and Imperial All Stars reflect a continuing trend to explore the jing ping sound and reproducing it using modern musical instruments and technology. The songs Cavalier MiCavaliere by Exile One and Hossy by Imperial All Stars are evidence of this.

Other trends emerging in our contemporary music in the nineties is gospel music, religious/inspiration music. Individual artistes include Jerry Lloyd, Agnes Aaron, Leon Esprit, End Time Singers, Cegid and Exeters among others. Such gospel artistes applied Dominican and Caribbean music rhythms to their gospel lyric orientation. In the nineties, calypso music in Dominica continues to strengthen and is achieving high standards of musical and lyrical quality. Our top calypsonians are making a name for themselves in the region and beyond. The Swinging Stars continue to play that pivotal role in Dominican calypso music after forty years.

Recently, efforts have begun to revitalize cadence and creole music generally through the holding of the World Creole Music Festival here in Dominica. This festival attracts top bands of the French Creole-speaking world and in Africa. Exile One, Jeff Joseph//new Generation Grammacks, Anthony Gussie and Tony Valmond/Liquid Ice have released a number of albums as well as remastered vintage cadence hits of the 70s. There is also the continuing development of performance poetry as seen in the the works and recordings of Ras Mo and Gregory Rabess. Rabess' Woch-la in particular has impacted on the collective consciousness to such an extent that it continues to resonate among the people and have relevance and serve as a rallying cry, eight years after it was originally released.

Jazz music continues to have a following here. One group, Impact, released a jazz recording in 1997, a fusion of mainstream jazz and Caribbean rhythms. Fred Nicholas and friends perform at Symzees every Thursday evening. Steelband music has declined. It never really took off since the seventies. In recent years, there have been efforts to revive steelband music here. Groups such as Phase Five have released recordings and are popular at hotel functions. Dance hall reggae is also very popular among urban and rural youth. Artistes such as Cecil Moses, Skinny Banton, PuppaTino and Miekey Moreau have become popular in youth circles. This music draws mainly on Jamaican linguistic expressions rather than Kwéyòl.

Extracted from: Dominica's Arts & Culture Magazine, Division of Cutlure, 1999
by Gregory Rabess