How Readable is the Caribbean Soundscape?

New Contributions to Music Bibliography

in New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids

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From Vodou to Zouk: A Bibliographic Guide to Music of the French-Speaking Caribbean and its Diaspora. John Gray. Nyack NY: African Diaspora Press, 2010. xxxiv + 201 pp. (Cloth US$79.95)

Jamaican Popular Music, from Mento to Dancehall Reggae: A Bibliographic Guide. John Gray. Nyack NY: African Diaspora Press, 2011. xvii + 435 pp. (Cloth US$99.95)

Afro-Cuban Music: A Bibliographic Guide. John Gray. Nyack NY: African Diaspora Press, 2012. xiv + 614 pp. (Cloth US$124.95)

Baila! A Bibliographic Guide to Afro-Latin Dance Musics from Mambo to Salsa. John Gray. Nyack NY: African Diaspora Press, 2013. xv + 661 pp. (Cloth US$124.95)

Times have certainly changed for the study of Caribbean music. Not so long ago, one might have realistically hoped to fit a comprehensive bibliography of the music of the entire region between the covers of a single volume. Such was John Gray’s ambition some two decades ago when he systematically began to assemble the materials that ended up distributed across these four volumes. (At one point, the plan was actually to combine Latin America and the Caribbean in a single volume as part of a larger series devoted to music of the African diaspora.) Gray soon came to realize the impossibility of such a venture. The period during which his project was gathering steam coincided with an unprecedented explosion of new literature on the musics of the Caribbean. The volume of writing on Caribbean music was finally beginning to measure up to the abundant output of the region’s music makers themselves, and the sheer weight of the bibliographic data Gray had been compiling over the years led to his decision to divide these materials into a number of separate volumes—each a major undertaking in itself.

Finally in print after decades of toil (with a volume or two yet to come), these four books, taken together, represent a milestone in Caribbeanist and African Americanist bibliography. Their appearance can be seen as an event comparable in importance to the publication of such uniquely valuable forerunners as Caribbeana 1900–1965 (Comitas 1968), The Guiana Maroons: A Historical and Bibliographical Introduction (Price 1976), The Complete Caribbeana, 1900–1975 (Comitas 1977), Afro-American Folk Culture (Szwed & Abrahams 1978), Bibliography of Black Music (De Lerma 1981–1984), and African-American Traditions in Song, Sermon, Tale, and Dance, 1600s–1920 (Southern & Wright 1990)—each of which set new standards of comprehensiveness and scholarly value for its time and its topical domain.

Before considering a few larger issues raised by the four volumes as an ensemble, I will briefly describe each one. The first to appear, From Vodou to Zouk, is also the shortest, with 1,294 entries. This is not surprising, for the Francophone (and French Creolophone) Caribbean has had less of an impact on music in other parts of the world than have the Hispanophone or Anglophone areas. Despite the comparatively modest literature devoted to music from the French Caribbean, a quick perusal of the volume shows that this sub-region has produced a range of music no less rich or varied than the others. In addition to the French-speaking (or [partly] Creolophone) territories or countries covered here in discrete sections (Dominica, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Martinique, and St. Lucia), several places with substantial diasporic populations originating from one or another of these areas also merit sections of their own (namely, Canada, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, France, Puerto Rico, and the United States). Gray’s inclusion of such extensions of French Caribbean music beyond the borders of the present French overseas departments (French Guiana, Guadeloupe, and Martinique) and Haiti is laudable; it shows that the French Caribbean is no different from the rest of the region in that much of its musical vitality is tied to histories of migration linking it not just to the metropole but to numerous other locations and linguistic zones.

Although all four volumes are organized in a similar fashion (containing between four and seven main sections, including an opening general section devoted to “Cultural History and the Arts” [or, in the case of Baila!, “General Works”] and a closing section titled “Biographical and Critical Studies”), this first volume is the only one that includes a foreword by a separate author, the ethnomusicologist Julian Gerstin. (It also includes a special section focusing on “Festivals and Carnival,” as does the Afro-Cuban volume.) With substantive discussions of popular music, carnival music, religious music, secular folklore, colonial literature, classic anthropological work, and more recent musical ethnography, Gerstin’s 17-page essay represents an original contribution that could stand on its own as an overview of the study of French Caribbean music. Not only does it present a broad survey of the musical terrain itself, but it gives substantial attention to the role of ideas and shifting ideologies in shaping scholarship on the region’s music over time. Providing invaluable background and context for the mass of bibliographic data that follows, it certainly enhances the value of this volume; it is unfortunate that the other volumes lack introductory discussions of comparable quality. (In all fairness to Gray, one ought to acknowledge the difficulty of obtaining the services of established scholars like Gerstin for this kind of endeavor; I must confess that, when invited by Gray to contribute a similarly involved foreword to the volume on Jamaican popular music, I was forced by the press of other obligations to decline.)

Next to appear in the series was Jamaican Popular Music, From Mento to Dancehall Reggae. Boasting 3,655 entries, this volume displays a slightly different organizational logic—one that is tailored to the particularities of the Jamaican case. Following the standard general section on “Cultural History and the Arts” is a major section, “Popular Music in Jamaica,” concerned with music created and/or released within the borders of the island; it is broken down into subsections devoted to studies of specific musical genres, including Dancehall/Ragga, Dub, Dub Poetry, Jazz, Mento, Rastafarian Music, Reggae, Ska and Rocksteady, and Sound Systems and Deejays. The third section, “Jamaican Music Abroad,” is divided into 52 subsections given over to Jamaican-derived music produced in other countries or territories across the globe, ranging from Argentina to Zimbabwe. This section provides incontrovertible (though very partial) evidence of the amazingly broad and potent influence that the music of this one relatively small island nation, within the span of only a few short decades, has exerted on the popular music of the rest of the world. (Several years ago, anthropologist Donald Hill [2007: vii] found to his surprise that a simple Google search under the term “reggae” resulted in a whopping sixty-four million hits; and current trends suggest that this number will continue to rise for some time to come.)

The third volume, Afro-Cuban Music, is substantially larger than the previous ones, at 4,951 entries. As in the Jamaican case, one can only marvel at the cultural richness suggested by the copious and growing literature associated with the music of this single island nation. (And when it is remembered that this volume is limited to Afro-Cuban music—only one of a number of distinctive larger Cuban musical traditions—the musical wealth reflected in these pages is even more remarkable.) Unlike the previous volumes, this one includes a substantial (29-page) section devoted solely to literature on musical instruments. The middle section on “Genre Studies” is broken down into subsections focusing on a wide range of individual genres, from charanga, filin, and mambo to regueton, timba, and tumba francesa (to name only a few). Like the Jamaica volume, this one includes a section on music produced elsewhere; in this case, twenty different countries or territories outside of the music’s original homeland are represented, including such improbable places as Finland and the Netherlands. But this short section scarcely conveys a true sense of the global impact of Cuban music since much of what is known around the world today generically as “Latin music” (including “salsa” and its offsprings) is either Cuban-derived or very strongly influenced by Cuban models. Coverage of the very significant portion of transnational Cuban-related music not included here—which some might choose to view as part of a single (though dispersed) larger Afro-Cuban “musical family”—is reserved for the fourth volume in the series, Baila!. Along with entries concerning a number of other popular “Latin” dance musics that have achieved international success, such as Dominican merengue and Colombian and Panamanian cumbia, Baila! is replete with examples of literature devoted to musicians and transnational popular music forms that owe a great deal to specifically Cuban sources, although this debt is not always readily apparent.

With 5,300 entries, Baila! is the largest of the volumes. Like the previous one, it includes a separate section on musical instruments. Its section on “Genre Studies” is subdivided into individual discussions of bolero, boogaloo, cha-cha-cha, charanga, cumbia, Latin jazz, mambo, merengue, rumba, and salsa. It also includes a major section that gives some idea of the genuinely global scope of the dance musics it documents (though virtually all of them are traceable ultimately to one or another part of the Caribbean). Titled “Regional Studies,” this section features 35 country-specific sub-sections listing literature from various parts of the world about Afro-Latin music or its extensions; the countries and territories producing such music (or literature about it) range from Australia and the Democratic Republic of Congo to Japan and Switzerland.

All four volumes share the same basic arrangement of back matter consisting of six indispensable aids: (1) a section listing sources consulted in compiling the individual volume, (2) a section listing libraries and archives with significant holdings, (3) an appendix listing individuals and ensembles organized by idiom/occupation (showing instruments and genres with which individuals or groups are most closely associated), (4) another appendix listing individuals and ensembles organized by country (omitted from the Afro-Cuban volume), (5) an author index, and (6) a subject index. The appendixes are particularly helpful for those interested in finding out more about specific individual artists or ensembles. The author indexes are thorough, and the subject indexes (although more comprehensive in some volumes than others) are all well thought out.

The sections listing sources consulted point to one of the notable strengths of these volumes: the breadth of the literature used in compiling them, which includes materials in several languages other than English (mainly Spanish and French, with a smattering of other, mostly European, languages). (Users conversant with the European languages in question will find the absence of diacritics in all four volumes irritating.) Particularly noteworthy is the fact that none of the volumes is limited to the more purely academic types of sources (such as peer-reviewed books and journals) that are often given preferential treatment by scholars. Although the scholarly literature is, on the whole, fully represented here, each volume also includes a wide range of source materials liable to slip through the cracks of formal knowledge production in the academy. In addition to the most respected scholarly journals and monographs (as well as various kinds of grey literature, including unpublished dissertations and theses), Gray combed through a liberal assortment of newspapers, newsletters, music trade magazines, fanzines, popular biographies, and websites. This is particularly significant in a region where popular music and other forms of nonelite culture (with the occasional exception of varieties of “folk culture” selected for official canonization) have typically (though more in the past than present) been neglected by educational institutions, and viewed with contempt (if not actively stigmatized) by those occupying more privileged social positions. Because of this unusually broad and inclusive approach to sources (and, it must be said, despite significant omissions, such as LP and CD liner notes), Gray has made an exceptional contribution. Not only are these volumes indisputably the most comprehensive bibliographic tools available to date for the study of Caribbean vernacular musical traditions, they are surely the most balanced.

That said, specialists will no doubt find shortcomings to quibble with in each volume. I found myself puzzling, for instance, over the virtual absence in the Jamaica volume of entries centering on traditional or “folk” music. In the Afro-Cuban volume, in contrast, ample attention is paid to distinctly “traditional” genres such as abakuá, arara, lucumí, tumba francesa, and many others; in the French Caribbean volume, writings on older genres such as Martinican bele, Guadeloupean gwoka, or various subdivisions of Haitian vodou music are similarly well represented. Certainly, Jamaican popular music owes no less to older local traditions (such as kumina and revival) than do the popular musics of Cuba and the French Caribbean. In the Jamaica volume, major (and well-published) scholars of Jamaican music such as Olive Lewin and MarjorieWhylie inexplicably merit only a couple of entries. By the same token, at least half a dozen of my own publications with relevance to the development of Jamaican popular music are neglected here. One of these (Bilby & Leib 1986, cited by numerous scholars and twice reprinted in scholarly anthologies), which presented original research on the indigenous development of Rastafari Nyabinghi music is, curiously, ignored in the subsection on “Rastafarian Music” in favor of, among a number of similar entries, an unpublished senior honors thesis on “Rastafarian Culture.” Granted, of the four volumes in the series, only the Jamaican one contains the words “popular music” in its title (and the subtitle, “From Mento to Dancehall Reggae,” does suggest a more restricted scope than the others). But its omission of a considerable number of existing scholarly sources with solid information on the wealth of older traditions that still form part of the Jamaican soundscape risks helping to perpetuate the common myth (probably produced by reggae’s early dalliance and continuing on-and-off romance with the Euro-American pop music mainstream) that Jamaica’s phenomenally influential popular music sprang more or less from a cultural vacuum that began to be filled only with the coming of North American rhythm and blues in the 1950s. (We do, however, at least see signs of a partial shift in this myth in this volume; whereas most histories of Jamaican music have traced the beginnings of the music essentially to ska and its non-Jamaican rhythm and blues roots, Gray’s Jamaica volume at least acknowledges the importance of mento in its title.)

One thing all four volumes clearly demonstrate is the necessarily partial nature, especially in a region such as the Caribbean, of musical knowledge produced through writing. Despite the tremendous growth in the amount of literature, both popular and scholarly, devoted to Caribbean musical traditions, most of these traditions are still based in orally- (and aurally-) transmitted practices and remain only tenuously connected to the world of written media (whether language-based texts, or musical notation). This means that the vast majority of knowledge about them, rather than resting in books and other such text-based documents, continues to be locked in the minds of living practitioners and participants (composers, players, dancers, and listeners), as well as the aural and visual traces left by previous generations in audio, film, and video recordings. We can be confident that what has made it into print (including the recent proliferation of texts on the web) represents only a very small proportion of what is worth knowing about these traditions. A mere glance at Gray’s “List of Individuals and Ensembles by Idiom/Occupation” in the Jamaica volume, for instance, makes this clear. The number of instrumentalists appearing here, impressive though it is, amounts to a rather arbitrary fraction of those who have made important contributions to the development of Jamaican popular music; presumably, the many significant omissions can be explained by wide gaps in the existing literature.

This disparity becomes even clearer when we consider the section on “Jamaican Music Abroad.” A careful web search reveals that there are not just hundreds, but thousands, of artists and bands outside of Jamaica that specialize in reggae, ska, and other Jamaican-derived genres—many with both local and transnational audiences. (For one of the first attempts to take stock of reggae’s globalization through interdisciplinary scholarship, see Cooper 2012). Indeed, one would be hard put to find a country anywhere in the world today without some kind of local reggae presence; yet this volume lists bibliographic sources on non-Jamaican reggae from only 52 countries (out of 193 currently recognized by the United Nations) and attests to the existence of only a handful of non-Jamaican reggae artists. To point this out is not to find fault with the compiler of this volume. Clearly, by their nature, the kinds of sources subject to compilation in a bibliographic guide can capture only a narrow slice of musical life in a hugely varied and ever expanding orally-based realm such as this (to which yet another layer of complexity has been added in recent years with the introduction of digital technology and computer-based forms of popular music composition and consumption). And the same is equally true of Cuba, the French Caribbean, and their diasporic extensions (and boundary-defying musical genres). As previous bibliographers of the region working on similarly ambitious projects have found, the process of constructing categories of knowledge and drawing boundaries between them is perhaps even more hazardous in the Caribbean—famous for the complexity and analytic elusiveness of its historically constituted cultural mixes—than in most other regions. Gray’s efforts, which far outstrip those of any previous bibliographer concentrating on this particular area of cultural expression, show how far scholarship on Caribbean music has come, even as they suggest how much remains to be learned.


Bilby, Kenneth & Elliott Leib, 1986. Kumina, the Howellite Church and the Emergence of Rastafarian Traditional Music in Jamaica. Jamaica Journal 19(3):22–28.

Comitas, Lambros, 1968. Caribbeana 1900–1965: A Topical Bibliography. Seattle WA: University of Washington Press.

Comitas, Lambros, 1977. The Complete Caribbeana, 1900–1975: A Bibliographic Guide to the Scholarly Literature. Millwood NY: KTO Press.

Cooper, Carolyn (ed.), 2012. Global Reggae. Kingston, Canoe Press.

De Lerma, Dominique-René, 1981–1984. Bibliography of Black Music. Westport CT: Greenwood Press.

Hill, Donald R., 2007. Caribbean Folklore: A Handbook. Westport CT: Greenwood Press.

Price, Richard, 1976. The Guiana Maroons: A Historical and Bibliographical Introduction. Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Southern, Eileen & Josephine Wright, 1990. African-American Traditions in Song, Sermon, Tale, and Dance, 1600s–1920: An Annotated Bibliography of Literature, Collections, and Artworks. New York: Greenwood Press.

Szwed, John F. & Roger D. Abrahams, 1978. Afro-American Folk Culture: An Annotated Bibliography of Materials from North, Central, and South America, and the West Indies. Philadelphia PA: Institute for the Study of Human Issues.

If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

How Readable is the Caribbean Soundscape?

New Contributions to Music Bibliography

in New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids



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