Saint Lucian Music
Chak Chak band performing in Soufriere
Visitors coming to Saint Lucia can expect to hear a great variety of music. With today’s modern technologies it is of no surprise that locals – particularly the younger crowd – are keenly in tune with all of the latest styles, stars and hits that are popular with young people nearly everywhere. American pop and hip-hop are regularly heard on local radio stations or blaring from the windows of passing vehicles.
But, of course, there are several styles of music of Caribbean origin that also are very popular in Saint Lucia which visitors can expect to enjoy. Following are brief descriptions of the Caribbean music styles commonly heard on island:
Creole is the oldest style of music heard here, and unfortunately, like many aspects of Saint Lucia’s cultural heritage, seems to be a fading art form. Creole is played by Chak-Chak bands that feature a violin, guitar, banjo (called a quatro) and a couple of African style drums called taboos, which are made locally. The music generally is in 3/4 time sounding much like an up beat waltz. A few Chak-Chak bands still play on island, particularly in the south. A traditional local style, called quadrille, is danced to the music in very colourful time-honoured Creole apparel. A few resorts still feature Chak-Chak bands for guest entertainment.
Calypso is a true Caribbean art form. The distinguishing feature of calypso is the lyrics which make social or political commentary on topical issues of the day. The music, which is secondary and must not get in the way of the statement being made, is usually of medium tempo with a rhythm and instrumentation that feels Caribbean all the way. Plenty of percussion, rhythm guitar, keyboards, a horn section and background vocals are standard. Associated with Carnival celebrations each year, every island in the region holds local competitions to crown a Calypso King or Queen. The local winners then move on to regional contests which are quite competitive; many Caribbean people take calypso very seriously.
Soca is a very high energy style that originated in Trinidad. The up tempo, straight forward pounding beat is designed to make it nearly impossible not to dance. The lyrics are secondary and may not seem to have any particular significance and often that is the case. At other times the lyrics are sexually charged and are based on local Patois or slang expressions. When local dances really get going late at night, soca is the driving force that keeps things jumping often till dawn. Various island Carnival celebrations also include Soca Monarch competitions that, as with calypso, are taken very seriously all the way to the regional finals.
Reggae, which originated in Jamaica and was made internationally admired by the late Bob Marley, remains a very popular music style in Saint Lucia and throughout the region. Reggae is generally characterized by an emphasis on the upbeats and its positive lyrical content, which is referred to as ‘conscious’ or ‘roots’ reggae.
Dancehall (a.k.a. Dub)
Dancehall, or Dub as it is sometimes called, is an up tempo high energy form of Reggae that inspires dancing similar to that done to Soca. The origin was in the dancehalls of Jamaica where DJs would use a microphone to sing or rhythmically talk over the music. Rhyming, clever and seductive lyrics are the goal.
Zouk is a musical style that made its way to Saint Lucia from the neighbouring French island of Martinique. To the uninitiated, zouk sounds much like soca, but upon closer scrutiny it becomes apparent that zouk has a much more sophisticated rhythmic pattern that begs for an additional subtle sway in the dancing as compared to the straight forward hard-core pounding dance style of soca. Zouk often can be recognized as well by the traditional ‘tinny’ sounding melodic style of the lead guitar that is prevalent in many songs. Of course, if it gets too confusing, you can simply identify zouk by the lyrics usually being sung in French!
Trinidad is credited with inventing and further developing steel pan as a music form. The pan instruments were originally made from old oil drums and haven’t really changed much to this day. Drums of different sizes provide the various pitched sounds – high pitched lead, mid-range alto harmony and low bass, etc. – that makes up the steel pan orchestra or band. The repertoire for pan music is varied and includes Caribbean standards, reggae, soca, pop and oldie hits. Holiday music is played on the pans to give the season a true Caribbean feel. In many Lucian communities there are one set of pans that serve beginners, youth bands and the serious adult orchestras that compete for the top prize each year during Carnival.
To many, the most surprising aspect of Saint Lucian culture is its love for old style American country and western music. The origin of this enthusiasm, or obsession in many cases, comes from the 1950s when there were very few radio stations in the region. At night, strong AM radio stations from the deep south of the USA could be picked up. The music they were playing was what now is considered ‘old-style’ Country & Western. Locals quickly developed a very romantic style of touch dancing to the music that is very popular to this day. Don’t be surprised if at a street party an old country song is thrown in between high energy soca and hip-hop favourites.