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Music of Dominica

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A Dominican band

The music of Dominica plays an important role in the social and culture life of the Antillean island of Dominica. Popular music is widespread, with a number of native Dominican performers gaining national fame in imported genres like calypso, reggae, soca, zouk and rock and roll. In addition, 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, especially the group WCK ( Windward Caribbean Kulture). Native musicians in various forms, like reggae ( Nasio Fontaine, Lazo), Brother Matthew Luke), soca ( Derick St. Rose-De Hunter, Young Bull), zouk ( Ophelia Marie), Cadence-Lypso ( Exile One),( Grammacks) and calypso ( The Wizzard), Levi "Super L" Loblack, have also become stars at home and abroad.

Like the other Francophone musics of the Lesser Antilles, Dominican folk music is a hybrid of African and European elements. The quadrille is an important symbol of French Antillean culture, and is, on Dominica, typically accompanied by a kind of ensemble called a jing ping band. In addition, Dominica's folk tradition includes folk songs called bélé, traditional storytelling called kont, masquerade, children's and work songs, and Carnival music.

Until the late 1950s, the Afro-Dominican culture of most of the island was repressed by the colonial government and the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, both of which taught that African-derived music was evil, demonic and uncultured. This perception changed in the mid- to late 20th century, when Afro-Dominican culture came to be celebrated through the work of promoters like Cissie Caudeiron.


Dominica's terrain is rugged, which has fostered distinct regional traditions. The northern, eastern, southern, western and central parts of the island are music areas. The villages of Wesley and Marigot are also unique in their preservation of English language and music rather than the more French-based styles of the rest of the island.

Dominican folk music is an oral tradition, learned informally through watching others perform. As of 1987, most performers of traditional music were either over fifty years old or under thirty-five, which indicates an ongoing revival of previously declining traditions. Music is evaluated based on both characteristics of the music, such as complex syncopated rhythms, as well as social factors, such as the ability of the performers to improvise and respond to their surroundings and to keep the audience excited and participating in the music.

Characteristics of Dominican music include the West African use of call and response singing, clapping as a major part of rhythm and lyrical, dance and rhythmic improvisation. Lyrics are almost all in French Creole, and are traditionally sung by women (chantwèl), while the instrumental traditions are predominantly practiced by men. Drums, generically known as lapo kabwit, are the most prominent part of Dominica's instrumental tradition.

Folk music

A Dominican drumming band

Dominican folk music includes, most influentially, the French Antillean quadrille tradition, the jing ping style of dance music, as well as bélé and heel-and-toe polka. Traditional Carnival music includes chanté mas and lapo kabwit. Folk music on Dominica has historically been a part of everyday life, including work songs, religious music and secular, recreational music.

The quadrille is one of the most important dance of the Dominican folk tradition, which also includes the lancer and distinctive forms of several dances, many of them derived from European styles. The bidjin ( biguine), mereng ( merengue), sotis ( schottische), polka pil (pure polka), vals o vyenn (Viennese waltz) and mazouk ( mazurka) are particularly widespread.


Bélé are folk songs of West African origin, traditionally performed recreationally in the evening during the full moon, and more rarely, lavèyé ( wakes). The bélé tradition has declined in the 20th and 21st century, but is still performed for holidays like Easter, Independence Day, Christmas, Jounen Kwéyòl and patron saint festivals held annually in the Parishes of Dominica, especially in the Fèt St.-Pierre and the Fèt St.-Isidore for fishermen and workers respectively.

All bélé are accompanied by an eponymous drum, the tanbou bélé, along with the tingting ( triangle) and chakchak ( maracas). Bélés start with a lead vocalist, who is followed by the responsorial chorus (lavwa), then a drummer and dancers. Traditional dances revolve around stylized courtship between a male and female dancer, known as the kavalyé and danm respectively. The bélé song-dances include the bélé soté, bélé priòrité, bélé djouba, bélé contredanse, bélé rickety and bélé pitjé.


The quadrille is a dance form that is an important symbol of French Antillean culture, not just in Dominica, but also Martinique, Guadeloupe and other Francophone islands. Dominican quadrilles are traditionally performed by four sets of couples in subscription picnics or dances, and in private parties. However, the quadrille tradition now only survives at holidays and festivals.

The Dominican quadrille generally has four figures, the pastouwèl, lapoul, lété and latrinitez. Some regions of Dominica, such as Petite Savanne, are home to local variants such as the caristo. Many quadrilles are found across Dominica under a wide variety of names. In addition to the standard quadrille, the lancer is also an important Dominican dance.

Accompaniment for the quadrille is provided by a four instrument ensemble called a jing ping band, or less commonly, an accordion band; jing ping groups also accompany the flirtation, a circle dance. Jing ping bands are made up of a boumboum ( boom pipe), syak or gwaj ( scraper- rattle), tambal or tanbou ( tambourine) and accordion. The double bass and banjo are also sometimes used. Bamboo flutes led the jing ping ensembles before the 1940s, when accordions were introduced. The Dominican flute tradition declined as a result, despite their additional use in serenades, until being revived after the National Independence Competitions.

Other folk music

Dominica's folk musical heritage includes work songs, storytelling, children's music and masquerade songs. Dominican work songs are accompanied by the tambou twavay drum, and are performed by workers while gathering fruit, building roads, fishing, moving a house or sawing wood. Many are responsorial, and are generally short and simple, with the lyrical text and rhythm tying into the work to be accompanied. On modern Dominica, work songs are rarely performed.

The kont, or storytelling, folk tradition of Dominica was focused around entertainment for night-time festivals, funeral wakes and feasts and festivals. Modern kont is mostly performed during major festival competitions. Most kont storytellers work with local traditions, such as legends and history, and provide an ethical or moral message. A one line theme song, often based around a duet between two characters, recurs throughout most kont performances.

Unlike most Dominican folk songs, children's songs and musical games are mostly in English. They were originally in the same Creole as the rest of the island, but have come to be primarily of English, Scottish, and Irish derivation. Children's musical traditions include ring games and circle dances, and music accompanied by thigh-slapping and circle dancing.

The chanté mas ( masquerade song) tradition is based around pre-calypso Carnival music performed in a responsorial style by partygoers. The Dominican Carnival masquerade lasted for two days of parading through the streets, with a singer dancing backwards in front of the drummer on a tanbou lélé. Chant&eacute mas lyrics are traditionally based on gossip and scandal, and addressed the personal shortcomings of others.

Popular music

The first internationally known bands from Dominica were 1970s groups like Exile One and Grammacks. These bands were the stars of the cadence-lypso scene, which was the first style of Dominican music to become popular across the Caribbean. By the 1980s, however, Martinican zouk and other styles were more popular. In 1988, WCK formed, playing an experimental fusion of cadence-lypso with the island’s jing ping sound. The result became known as bouyon, and has re-established Dominica in the field of popular music.

Early popular music

Dominican popular music history can be traced back to the 1940s and 50s, when dance bands like the Casimir Brothers and later, The Swinging Stars, became famous across the island. Their music was a dance-oriented version of many kinds of Caribbean and Latin popular music, such as Cuban bolero, Brazilian samba, the merengue of the Dominican Republic and Trinidadian calypso and funk.

By the beginning of the 1960s, calypso and Trinidadian steelpan became the most popular styles of music on Dominica, replacing traditional Carnival music like chanté mas and lapo kabwit. Early recording stars from this era included Swinging Busters, The Gaylords, De Boys an Dem and Los Caballeros, while chorale groups also gained fans, especially Lajenne Etwal, Siflé Montan'y and the Dominica Folk singers. These early popular musicians were aided by the spread of radio broadcasting, beginning with WIDBS and later Radio Dominica.

Of these early popular musicians, a few pioneering the use of native influences. The Gaylords’ hits, like “Ti Mako”, “Pray for the Blackman”, “Lovely Dominica” and “Douvan Jo”, were either English or the native Creole, kwéyòl. By the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, American rock and roll, soul and funk had reached Dominica and left lasting influences. Funky rock-based bands like Voltage Four, Woodenstool and Every Mother's Child became popular.

Calypso has been popular in Dominica since the 1950s; the first Calypso King was crowned in 1959. Popular calypso in Dominica has always been closely associated with steelpan music. The first wave of Dominican steelpan includes bands like Esso, Shell and Regent, Vauxhall and Old Oak.

Cadence-lypso developed in the 1970s, and was the first style of Dominican music to find international acclaim, eventually becoming a part of styles like zouk. The most influential band in the development of cadence-lypso was Exile One who combined calypso with compas and cadence, styles derived from Haitian music. Cadence-lypso was influenced by nationalist movement that espoused Rastafari and Black Power. Many groups performed songs with intensely ideological positions, and much of the repertoire was in the vernacular kwéyòl language.

Recent popular music

During the 1980s, cadence-lypso’s popularity declined greatly. Some Dominican performers remained famous, such as Ophelia, a very renowned singer of the period. Popular music during this time was mostly zouk, a style pioneered by the Martinican band Kassav, who used styles of folk music of Martinique and Guadeloupe. Soca, a kind of Trinidadian music, was also popular at the time, producing bands like RSB, Windward Caribbean Kulture (WCK) and First Serenade. The 80s also saw a rise in popular for jazz and the formation of several jazz bands, while groups like Exile One began exploring tradition rhythms from jing ping and lapo kabwit.

Bouyon is a fusion of jing ping, cadence-lypso and other styles of Caribbean music, developed by a band called Windward Caribbean Kulture (later WCK). WCK was among the most prominent of 80s Dominican soca bands. They began using native drum rhythms and elements of the music of jing ping bands, as well as ragga-style vocals. Bouyon is popular across the Caribbean, and is known as jump up music in Guadeloupe and Martinique. A modern offshoot of bouyon, bouyon-muffin, uses more prominent elements of Jamaican raggamuffin music. Modern bouyon bands include Rough and Ready, Wassin Warriors and Seramix.

Religious music, influenced by American gospel, has become an important part of Dominican popular music in the 1990s. Performers include Cegid, Exeters, Agnes Aaron, Leon Esprit, Jerry Lloyd and End Time Singers. Calypso has also retained much popularity in Dominica, as has jazz. The band Impact has fused jazz with Caribbean music. Other styles include steelpan, which has declined popularity despite the efforts of groups like Phase Five, and dancehall, which includes performers like Puppa Tino, Miekey Moreau, Cecil Moses and Skinny Banton.

Music institutions and festivals

The Caribbean Carnival is an important part of the Dominican culture. Originally featuring masquerade songs (chanté mas) and other local traditions, traditional Carnival, Mas Domnik, came to be dominated by imported calypso music and steel bands in the early 1960s; calypso appealed to Carnival-goers because the lyrical focus on local news and gossip was similar to that of chanté mas, despite a rhythmic pattern and instrumentation which contrast sharply with traditional Dominican Mas Domnik music. After a fire in 1963, the traditional Carnival was banned, though calypso and steelpan continued to grow in popularity. Modern Carnival on Dominica takes place on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, and is a festive occasion during which laws against libel and slander are suspended. The modern Dominican Carnival is heavily based on the Trinidadian celebration, but is not as commercialized due to a lack of corporate sponsorship.

The World Creole Music Festival takes place on the island of Dominica, in Festival City, Roseau, which is run by the governmental Dominica Festivals Commission. The National Independence Competitions are an important part of Dominican musical culture. They were founded by Chief Minister of Dominica Edward Olivier Leblanc in 1965, and promote the traditional music and dance of Dominica. The government of Dominica also promotes Dominican music through the Dominican Broadcasting Station, which broadcasts between 20% and 25% local music as a matter of policy.

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