Music: a uniting force
Exploring how music impacts Caribbean, Indian, and American culture
April 1, 2021
Behind every era of history are thousands of styles and genres of music that have shaped the world into what it is today. Likewise to our earth’s millions of cultures, every style of music is unique to the rest while also being influenced by one another.
While music hasn’t always been effective in producing an immediate or direct change, it serves as a means of communication and expression.
Music can hold so much power and influence through a multitude of factors. Through words and lyrics, a story and a more defined message can be told. Through the rhythms and tunes of music, a more abstract idea is told while bringing people together.
“There are certainly those who argue that the power of songs lies less in their lyrics and more in their rhythms. The former speaks to the choir, as they say: they tell people what they already know,” said John Street, a professor of politics at the University of East Anglia. “It is the rhythm, the unconscious effects of music, that matter. This is what – literally – mobilizes people.”
The Caribbean Man
In the Caribbeans, music has been an influential tool for the people and their movements. With more than 700 islands, 13 nations, and 12 dependent territories, the Caribbeans are a very culturally rich region bearing many types of music. Such music includes soca, mambo, calypso, reggae, and salsa, many of which have become popularized outside of the Caribbeans.
Famous Protest Songs by Erin Kee
Calypsos, a style of music that originated in Trinidad and Tobago, typically discusses topical events of political and social implication. One famous Calypsonian was Black Stalin, who wrote songs addressing European colonial oppression, one of which was “Caribbean Unity,” better known as “Caribbean Man.”
“Caribbean Man” questioned the purpose of the short-lived West Indies Federation. The Federation, created by the United Kingdom, aimed to create a fully independent state while also unifying the colonies, but due to their disunification, the federation collapsed.
Not only does Stalin address the issues of the federation, but he roots them in the Caribbean’s past of slavery. Stalin notes that the “Caribbean man” should not lose sight of what they have been fighting for.
“Dem is one race / De Caribbean Man / From de same place / De Caribbean Man / That make the same trip / De Caribbean Man / On the same ship / De Caribbean Man / So we must push one common intention / For a better life in the region / For we woman / And we children / Dat must be the ambition of the Caribbean Man / De Caribbean Man, De Caribbean Man,” Stalin sings.
The political message in “Caribbean Man” of unity, class, and struggle are common themes in all of Caribbean music, telling their story from emancipation to this day.
“There’s a special power that comes with these kinds of musical events, among people who had a deep music history in pre-migration and who then turn that into understanding and doing something about their circumstances: their lack of power and their lack of control,” said Gage Averill, a professor of ethnomusicology at the University of British Columbia.
Not only were the lyrics of Caribbean music inspired by and directed to influences from the British and French, but also the different styles of music and instruments used. Going back to the 1700s, when French planters brought their carnival traditions to Trinidad and Tobago, their slaves created their own carnival based on percussion.
“This dialogue of black emancipation and black cultural liberation moves between the states: Cuba to Africa, back to the States to the Caribbean, and it creates this kind of ongoing dialogue around politics and music globally,” Averill said. “Each one of these movements produces its own sound.”
After the emancipation of slaves, with worry that former slaves were communicating through the music of their drums, percussion was banned. Since then, the people of Trinidad and Tobago have developed the steel pan, which is now their national instrument. What once was music from car parts, paint pots, oil drums, and biscuit tins turned into the powerful, tuned, hammered-out steel pan we have today.
Keishaun Julien, a steel pan musician based in Trinidad and Tobago, has been playing the steel pan since he was 5-years-old and, along the journey, has found his true passion in music.
“Music has really allowed me to see the world, share my talent, share the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, and touch people’s lives in many different ways. It’s something that I enjoy doing, and I live for,” Julien said.
The steel pan’s long history of those who suffered and those who innovated to create a beautiful instrument has built a uniting force for the Trinidad and Tobago people.
“The steel pan is one of those instruments that brings together all the cultures and unites us,” Julien said. “It is something that we as Trinbagonians identify with—it’s the raw identity of the creative people of Trinidad and Tobago.”
Manasi Prasad is a singer, Carnatic musician, and the director of India’s first interactive music museum. Join her as she speaks about how music has shaped her life and culture around her.
Jazz, the blues, rock – in a way, all American music is rooted in Black history. Join Vernon Bush, the music director at Glide Memorial Church, as he explores how American music and culture is shaped by Black history.