Music of Montserrat

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The music of Montserrat is influenced by Irish traditions, noticeable in the set dance-like Bam-chick-lay, and the presence of fife and drum ensembles similar to the bodhrán. Natives are also witness to the jumbie dance, the style of which is still strongly African. Instruments include the ukulele and shak-shak, an African instrument made from a calabash gourd; both of these are used in traditional string bands. Calypso and spiritual-influenced vocal choirs, like the Emerald Isle Community Singers, are popular. [1]

Drum type of musical instrument of the percussion family

The drum is a member of the percussion group of musical instruments. In the Hornbostel-Sachs classification system, it is a membranophone. Drums consist of at least one membrane, called a drumhead or drum skin, that is stretched over a shell and struck, either directly with the player's hands, or with a percussion mallet, to produce sound. There is usually a resonance head on the underside of the drum, typically tuned to a slightly lower pitch than the top drumhead. Other techniques have been used to cause drums to make sound, such as the thumb roll. Drums are the world's oldest and most ubiquitous musical instruments, and the basic design has remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years.

Bodhrán Irish frame drum

The bodhrán is an Irish frame drum ranging from 25 to 65 cm (10–26 in) in diameter, with most drums measuring 35–45 cm (14–18 in). The sides of the drum are 9–20 cm deep. A goatskin head is tacked to one side. The other side is open-ended for one hand to be placed against the inside of the drum head to control the pitch and timbre.

Ukulele member of the guitar family

The ukulele or ukelele is a member of the guitar family of instruments. It generally employs four nylon or gut strings or four courses of strings. Some strings may be paired in courses, giving the instrument a total of six or eight strings.


Past pop stars include the soca bandleader Alphonsus "Arrow" Cassell, known for 1983's "Hot! Hot! Hot!". [2] Calypso music is also popular, as are the vocal choirs Voices and the Emerald Community Singers are well known throughout the island. They perform at various special occasions, such as the December Festival, and throughout the year. The most famous modern string band from Montserrat is the Rude Boys String Band. [3]

Soca music is a genre of music that originated within a marginalized subculture in Trinidad and Tobago in the early 1970s, and developed into a range of styles by the 1980s and later. Soca was initially developed by Lord Shorty in the early 1970s in an effort to revive traditional calypso, the popularity of which had been flagging amongst younger generations in Trinidad by the start of the 1970s due to the rise in popularity of reggae from Jamaica and soul and funk from USA. Soca is an offshoot of kaiso/calypso, with influences from Latin, cadence, funk and soul.

Alphonsus Celestine Edmund Cassell MBE was a Montserratian calypso and soca musician, regarded as the first superstar of soca from Montserrat. He performed under the stage name Arrow.

Calypso is a style of Afro-Caribbean music that originated in Trinidad and Tobago during the early to mid-19th century and eventually spread to the rest of the Caribbean Antilles and Venezuela by the mid-20th century. Its rhythms can be traced back to West African Kaiso and the arrival of French planters and their slaves from the French Antilles in the 18th century.

Montserratian culture is generally a hybrid of African and European, specifically British and Irish, elements. [4] The African influence is the most pronounced, and manifests itself in the local Creole language, as well as the island's folktales, stories, songs, dances and religion. Montserrat remained largely isolated from international popular culture until the 1960s, and the island's folk traditions remained vibrant until the eruption of the Soufrière Hills volcano in 1995, after which most of the population left the island. The popularity of Arrow also contributed to the demise of traditional music, replaced largely by imported popular styles. [5]

Folk music

Montserrat's folk musical heritage includes a wide array of religious and ritual folk music. There are also folk songs used in spiritual musical traditions, in addition to secular use; indeed, there is little distinction between secular and spiritual aspects of traditional Montserratian culture. Folk songs are generally in the Montserrat Creole language and concern topics ranging from obeah (magic) to agriculture, infidelity and historic occurrences. [6] Many songs are widespread and well-known, and occur in numerous variations, including "Nincom Riley" and "All de Relief", two of the most famous Montserratian folk songs. The folk repertoire also include calypsos and Irish melodies. The Irish Montserratian tradition has largely died out, with the last performer, George Allen, a fiddler, dying in 1966. [5]

Montserrat British Overseas Territory in the Caribbean

Montserrat is a British Overseas Territory (BOT) in the Caribbean. The island is in the Leeward Islands, which is part of the chain known as the Lesser Antilles, in the West Indies. Montserrat measures approximately 16 km (10 mi) in length and 11 km (7 mi) in width, with approximately 40 km (25 mi) of coastline. Montserrat is nicknamed "The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean" both for its resemblance to coastal Ireland and for the Irish ancestry of many of its inhabitants.

Folk music Music of the people

Folk music includes traditional folk music and the genre that evolved from it during the 20th-century folk revival. Some types of folk music may be called world music. Traditional folk music has been defined in several ways: as music transmitted orally, music with unknown composers, or music performed by custom over a long period of time. It has been contrasted with commercial and classical styles. The term originated in the 19th century, but folk music extends beyond that.

Montserrat Creole is a dialect of Leeward Caribbean Creole English spoken in Montserrat. The number of speakers of Montserrat Creole is below 10,000. Montserrat Creole does not have the status of an official language.


The jumbie dance has been called the "purest manifestation of folk religion on Montserrat", [7] and is an iconic part of folk culture, bringing together local folklore, dance, song and music. [8] It has also been described as a startling and unique hybrid, consisting of "Western instruments (that) produce Africanesque music, to which dancers perform Irish steps while moving their upper bodies like Africans". [9]

The jumbie dance was probably last performed in 1980. Jumbies are traditionally said to be spirits, one of several kinds that also include the African sukra and jabless , and the Irish mermaid, animal spirit (similar to the Púca ) and the Jack Lantern. Jumbies hold a similar place in Montserratian society as fairies does in Irish culture; they are the recipients of many small offerings, such as bits of food or drink, and the subject of numerous daily superstitions and rituals. [5]

A spirit is a supernatural being, often, but not exclusively, a non-physical entity; such as a ghost, fairy, or angel. In English Bibles, "the Spirit", specifically denotes the Holy Spirit.

Mermaid Legendary aquatic creature with an upper body in human female form

In folklore, a mermaid is an aquatic creature with the head and upper body of a female human and the tail of a fish. Mermaids appear in the folklore of many cultures worldwide, including the Near East, Europe, Asia, and Africa.

The púca, pooka, phouka, phooka, phooca, puca or púka is primarily a creature of Celtic folklore. Considered to be bringers both of good and bad fortune, they could either help or hinder rural and marine communities. Púcaí can have dark or white fur or hair. The creatures were said to be shape changers which could take the appearance of horses, goats, cats, dogs, and hares. They may also take a human form, which includes various animal features, such as ears or a tail.

The jumbie dance is performed by four couples, one man and one woman. They each do a series of sets, consisting of five quadrilles played at successively swifter tempos. The couples will switch out as they get tired, until eventually one becomes possessed by a jumbie. They often move about wildly, fall to the floor and shout in glossolalia. [5]

Some Montserratian Irish trace the origins of the jumbie dance to the pre-emancipation period, when slaves attempted to perform the dances performed by white overseers and landowners. Jumbie dances are traditionally performed after a celebration, in the home of a sponsor, and to mark times of individual crisis or major life changes, such as a wedding or christening. [5] The jumbie dance is said to induce spiritual possession and grant divination skills. Often, jumbie dances are intended to cure diseases, remove curses or discover the identity of a guilty party. [6]

There are generally three jumbie dancers in a unit, who perform accompanied by the babala (tambourine, or jumbie drum), triangle, fife or pulley (accordion, concertina or melodeon), and most importantly the French reel (also jumbie drum or woowoo), a skin drum that produces an ominous sound which is said to attract the jumbie spirits. [10] Both the babala and French reel are similar to the Irish bodhran in construction; all three drums are played with the fingertips, palms and the backs of the hands. [5]

Other folk traditions

The same music used in the jumbie dance also accompanies country dance s (also known as goatskin or drum dance). Country dances are strictly recreational, however, and use different songs and dances than the jumbie dance. Rum shops are frequently home to string bands, especially on Boxing Day, and ensembles of guitar, banjo, accordion and cuatro (ukulele). [5]

The Montserratian tradition of masquerading is both a ritual and celebratory element of folk music. Groups of dancers (masqueraders) with bright costumes and voluminous adornments, including whips (hunters) that are used for the Masqueraders to move crowds away as they parade the streets, scare away evil spirits and send signals to other dancers. Masqueraders travel door to door and receive small gifts, while dancing a standard set of dances consisting of a heel-and-toe polka and five quadrilles. This celebration begins in mid-December and ends January 1. [6]

Montserrat is also home to a string band folk tradition that provides accompaniment to many kinds of songs and dances. These generally include the ukulele (yokolee, imported from Hawaiian music), guitar, triangle, the bass boom pipe, shak-shak, gradge and fife. String bands traditionally performed for weddings; this tradition declined with the rise of stereos and recorded music, as well as the spread of jazz bands, but was revived in the 1970s. String bands now also play at hotels and nightclubs. [6]

The steel band tradition is common to many Caribbean, and especially Lesser Antillean, islands. The Montserratian tradition began in 1949 in Ryner's Village and Kinsale, and was prominent enough by the following year to be played at the Empire Day celebrations. Despite some criticism that the music was degrading for children, steel bands have become a major part of the island's musical heritage. [6]

Calypso is an originally Trinidadian style of music that has since spread across the world. In recent years it has become a major part of Montserratian music, with the rise of Alphonsus "Arrow" Cassell, a soca artist who is internationally renowned. Calypso in Montserrat dates to the 1950s, and Justin "Hero" Cassell (Arrow's brother), who won the islands calypso competition thirteen times and became the Calypso King of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States. In 2000, Sylvina "Khandie" Malone became the first female calypso monarch on Montserrat. [6] A popular song on local radio is "Sailing Away Again" by local writer and singer Eloise Lynch. Her main focus is Lovers Rock but this song has always been a popular favorite on the island.

Holidays and festivals

The Montserrat December Festival (the local Carnival tradition) is the biggest holiday of the year, held all through the month of December concluding on January 1 and ending with a street parade. The Festival is like Carnival on the other Caribbean islands, featuring competitions in various skills, especially the Calypso King competition, street dancing (jamming or jumping up), Soca King, beauty pageants and masquerade performances. There are also Christmas songs and caroling. [3]

December Festival parades formerly included music and masqueraders, and dancers in uniforms modeled on the Grenadier Guards. Music is provided by an ensemble of triangle, fife and two goatskin, deep-barreled drums called kettles or booms). This tradition is primarily African in style, with little Irish or British influence, and is very distinct from jumbie dance styles. The traditional music of the December Festival was last performed in 1988, in St. John's Village. [5]

Boxing Day is an occasion for music competitions, held in Sturge Park. Steelbands, village groups, masquerade ensembles and mummers all perform. Jump-up Day commemorates and celebrates emancipation from slavery, and is accompanied by steelbands, masquerades and dancing men carrying chains to symbolize the bondage of slavery. [5]

Music is also an important part of St Patrick's Day, which is a celebration of Montserrat's Irish heritage and music and has now been transformed into a whole week of activities. [3]

Music for Montserrat

Air Studios, a recording studio operated by George Martin, used to be on the island, and performers like the Rolling Stones, Sting and Elton John traveled there to record. After Hurricane Hugo, however, the studios were closed. Martin organized a fundraiser ( Music for Montserrat ) for the island in 1997, which included native band Arrow, Mark Knopfler, Jimmy Buffett, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Carl Perkins (who died the next year), Sting and Elton John. Other local bands performed simultaneously at Gerald's Bottom on the island; the occasion also saw the reformation of Climax Blues Band and the appearance of Bankie Banks.

Related Research Articles

The music of Trinidad and Tobago is best known for its calypso music, soca music and steelpan. Calypso's internationally noted performances in the 1950s from native artists such as Lord Melody, Lord Kitchener and Mighty Sparrow. The art form was most popularised at that time by Harry Belafonte. Along with folk songs and African- and Indian-based classical forms, cross-cultural interactions have produced other indigenous forms of music including soca, rapso, parang, chutney, and other derivative and fusion styles. There are also local communities which practice and experiment with international classical and pop music, often fusing them with local steelpan instruments.

Music of Dominica

The music of Dominica includes a variety of genres including all the popular genres of the world. Popular music is widespread, with a number of native Dominican performers gaining national fame in imported genres such as calypso, reggae, soca, kompa, zouk and rock and roll. Dominica's own popular music industry has created a form called bouyon, which combines elements from several styles and has achieved a wide fanbase in Dominica. Groups include WCK, Native musicians in various forms, such as reggae, kadans (Ophelia Marie, and calypso, have also become stars at home and abroad.

The music of the Lesser Antilles encompasses the music of this chain of small islands making up the eastern and southern portion of the West Indies. Lesser Antillean music is part of the broader category of Caribbean music; much of the folk and popular music is also a part of the Afro-American musical complex, being a mixture of African, European and indigenous American elements. The Lesser Antilles' musical cultures are largely based on the music of African slaves brought by European traders and colonizers. The African musical elements are a hybrid of instruments and styles from numerous West African tribes, while the European slaveholders added their own musics into the mix, as did immigrants from India. In many ways, the Lesser Antilles can be musically divided based on which nation colonized them.

The music of Barbados includes distinctive national styles of folk and popular music, including elements of Western classical and religious music. The culture of Barbados is a syncretic mix of African and British elements, and the island's music reflects this mix through song types and styles, instrumentation, dances, and aesthetic principles.

The music of Grenada has included the work of several major musicians, including Eddie Bullen, David Emmanuel, one of the best-selling reggae performers ever, and Mighty Sparrow, a calypsonian. The island is also known for jazz, most notably including Eddie Bullen, a pianist, songwriter and record producer currently residing in Canada. Kingsley Etienne, a keyboardist, while the Grenadan-American Joe Country & the Islanders have made a name in country music.

The music of the Virgin Islands reflects long-standing West Indian cultural ties to the island nations to the south, the islands' African heritage and European colonial history, as well as recent North American influences. Though the United States Virgin Islands and British Virgin Islands are politically separate, they maintain close cultural ties. From its neighbors, the Virgin Islands has imported various pan-Caribbean genres of music, including calypso and soca from Trinidad and reggae from Jamaica.

The music of Bermuda is often treated as part of the Caribbean music area. Its musical output includes pop singer Heather Nova, and her brother Mishka. Collie Buddz has also gained international success with reggae hits in the US and the UK.

The music of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines includes thriving music scenes based on Big Drum, calypso, soca, steelpan and also reggae. String band music, quadrille, bélé music and traditional storytelling are also popular.

The music of Saint Lucia is home to many vibrant oral and folk traditions and is based on elements derived from the music of Africa, especially rhythmically, and Western Europe, dances like the quadrille, polka and waltz. The banjo and cuatro are iconic Lucian folk instruments, especially a four-stringed banjo called the bwa poye. Celebratory songs called jwé show lyricism, and rhythmic complexity. The most important of the Afro-Lucian Creole folk dances is the kwadril. Music is an integral part of Lucian folk holidays and celebrations, as well as the good-natured rivalry between the La Rose and La Marguerite societies. There is little Western classical music on Saint Lucia, and the country's popular music industry is only nascent. There are few recording opportunities, though live music and radio remain a vital part of Lucian culture. Popular music from abroad, especially Trinidadian styles like calypso and soca, is widespread.

Music of Saint Kitts and Nevis

The music of Saint Kitts and Nevis is known for a number of musical celebrations including Carnival. The last week in June features the St Kitts Music Festival, while the week-long Culturama on Nevis lasts from the end of July into early August.

The music of Antigua and Barbuda is largely African in character, and has only felt a limited influence from European styles due to the population of Antigua and Barbuda descending mostly from West Africans who were made slaves by Europeans.

Trinidad and Tobago Carnival

The Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is an annual event held on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday in Trinidad and Tobago. The event is well known for participants' colorful costumes and exuberant celebrations. There are numerous cultural events such as "band launch fetes" running in the lead up to the street parade on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. It is said that if the islanders are not celebrating it, then they are preparing for it, while reminiscing about the past year's festival. Traditionally, the festival is associated with calypso music, with its origins formulated in the midst of hardship for enslaved West and Central Africans; however, recently Soca music has replaced calypso as the most celebrated type of music. Costumes, stick-fighting and limbo competitions are also important components of the festival.

The culture of Trinidad and Tobago reflects the influence of European, African, Indian, Spanish, Arab, cultures. The histories of Trinidad and Tobago are different. There are differences in the cultural influences which have shaped each island. Trinidad and Tobago is an English-speaking country with strong links to the United Kingdom.

Crop Over is a traditional harvest festival which began in Barbados, having had its early beginnings on the sugar cane plantations during slavery. The original crop-over tradition began in 1687 as a way to mark the end of the yearly harvest, but was wide-spread throughout the region at the time, including in St. Vincent, Trinidad and Jamaica. As such, it still shares similarities with Carnival in Brazil and Trinidad. Many crop-over celebrations were organized and sponsored by planters, who used gifts of food and liquor as a means of reenforcing and excusing the continued enslavement of their labour force. However, slaves would also have often unsanctioned fetes that featured singing, dancing and accompaniment by bottles filled with water, shak-shak, banjo, triangle, fiddle, guitar, and bones that were more in keeping with their ancestral culture. Other traditions that were later added included climbing a greased pole, feasting and drinking competitions. However, with the harsh effects of World War II on Barbados, these annual celebrations came to an end.

The shak-shak is a kind of Antillean musical instrument, similar to maracas or shakers. They are played in Barbados, Montserrat, Grenada and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Their uses include Montserratian string bands and the Barbadian crop over festival.

Jumbee Caribbean mythological spirit

A jumbee, jumbie or mendo is a type of mythological spirit or demon in the folklore of some Caribbean countries. Jumbee is the generic name given to all malevolent entities. There are numerous kinds of jumbees, reflecting the Caribbean’s complex history and ethnic makeup, drawing on African, Amerindian, East Indian, Dutch, English, and even Chinese mythology.

Antigua Carnival

The Antiguan Carnival is a celebration of the emancipation of slavery in the country held annually from the end of July to the first Tuesday in August. The most important day is that of the j'ouvert, in which brass and steel bands perform for much of the island's population. Barbuda's Carnival, held in June, is known as Caribana. The Antiguan and Barbudan Carnivals replaced the Old Time Christmas Festival in 1957, with hopes of inspiring tourism in Antigua and Barbuda. Some elements of the Christmas Festival remain in the modern Carnival celebrations.

Chanté mas and Lapo kabrit is a form of Carnival music of Dominica. It is performed by masequerading partygoers in a two-day parade, with a lead vocalist (chantwèl), who is followed by the responsorial chorus (lavwa), with drummers and dancers dancing backwards in front of the drummer on a tambou lélé. The Carnival has African and French roots and is otherwise known as Mas Dominik, the most original Carnival in the Caribbean.



  1. Cameron
  2. De Ledesma and Popplewell, pp. 507-576.
  3. 1 2 3 Montserrat Entertainment Guide Archived 2006-09-06 at the Wayback Machine
  4. Mesener, p. 922; Mesener cites Messenger, John C. (1968). The Irish of Montserrat. Typescript, Montserrat Public Library., Philpott, Stuart B. (1973). West Indian Migration: The Montserrat Case. London: Athlone Press. and Dobbin, Jay D. (1986). The Jombee Dance of Montserrat. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Messenger, pp. 922-926.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Montserrat Chamber of Commerce Archived 2006-01-07 at the Wayback Machine
  7. Chamber of Commerce.
  8. Messenger, p. 924.
  9. Messenger, p. 925.
  10. The Chamber of Commerce and John Messenger mostly agree; the Chamber of Commerce does not mention the triangle, and refers to the tambourine/bambala as the jumbie drum, while Messenger reserves this for the French reel or woowoo.