Friday, July 20, 2012


Music in the Bahamas has a strong African and Caribbean influence on it. But it’s also influenced by various folk music traditions and the hip/hop scene from the US as well.

The most commonly associated musical genre associated with the Bahamas is Junkanoo. It’s a street parade, in similar fashion to that of Carnival or Mardi Gras. The people dress in wildly elaborate and colorful costumes. Much of the music is similar to a marching band style, consisting mostly of brass instruments (as a French horn/mellophone player, this makes it the ideal marching band) and percussion. It’s thought that this type of festival started during the 1700s and 1800s by slaves that were granted time around Christmas to spend with their families. Junkanoo continued even after they were granted their freedom, except now it has been expanded to contain themes and prizes, etc.

With every junkanoo, the foundation of the music is based on goombay drums (a drum with a goatskin head that’s held between the legs and played with either hands or sticks; goombay, incidentally, also means rhythm in Bantu), cow bells, and mouth whistles. Some tend to think that the brass section actually accompanies the rhythm section, not the other way around as many people listen to music would perceive. (Some percussionist probably thought that up.)

Rake-and-scrape is a type of music that is popular in the Bahamas, especially on Cat Island where they hold a rake-and-scrape festival every Labor Day. Related to the ripsaw music of nearby Turks and Caicos islands, rake-and-scrape consists of using a saw is scraped by some object, a knife blade being most common. The sounds produced mimic other percussion instruments that are found more commonly in Latin or Indian music. It takes a little bit for them to get started, but just bear with it. 

Folk music from freed African Americans that emigrated to the Bahamas is also popular. One of the steadfast “fathers” of folk music is Joseph Spence. He’s been called the Thelonious Monk of the folk guitar. His polyphonic playing style and blend of gospel music, folk music, and even blues reaches across all demographics. I love his music from the first that I heard it. Definitely on my must-buy list. There are several albums and compilations on iTunes, mostly for around $10.

And of course, probably the most famous group in recent years is The Baha Men, giving us the song I love to hate: “Who Let the Dogs Out?” (only because it’s catchy, and in my daughter’s opinion of the music video: “That. Was. Awesome!”).  I even, in my effort to be fair and listen to it from a musicologist’s point of view, did in fact listen to most of the album, and, yes, there are other catchy songs that feed my earworm as well. (There are things you do as a parent that you never thought you'd do before having kids. Singing about poop is one. Posting this song is another. This is for my kids.)

Two dances that are popular with rake-and-scrape music are the Bahamian Quadrille and the Heel and Toe Polka. The quadrille and polka are actually both European dances, and the Bahamians created their African version of it. It's comprised of two lines, both males and females, where they come together, then separate. The key focal point of the quadrille is that the male dancer will stomp his foot on the ground at the same time as a syncopated slap from the goombay. During the junkanoo parades, you’ll often find more upbeat dancing, such as the jump-in-dance.

There aren’t many videos on YouTube about these dances specifically in the Bahamas, except junkanoo (the next time anyone in the Bahamas sees the other dances performed, please videotape it and put it on YouTube, for the sake of all humanity), although these dances are popular in variations throughout the Caribbean.

Up next: the food!

Wikipedia: “Ripsaw Music” “Junkanoo” “Joseph Spence”
Bahamian Quadrille: The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: The United States and Canada. 

1 comment:

  1. Great article, thanks.

    i am writing holiday articles too.

    There are myriad reasons why you might choose to visit Bahamas America in Holidays.