[Caribbean Literature]

Polyrhythm and the Caribbean: Intersections of Culture, History, and Literature

General Introduction

David P. Lichtenstein '99, Brown University, Contributing Editor, Caribbean Web

POLYRHYTHM, also called CROSS-RHYTHM: the simultaneous combination of contrasting rhythms in a musical composition.

- Britannica Online

The steel drum, first created from oil drums in Trinidad's poorer urban areas as a means of cultural resistance to economic hardship and oppression, has quickly become the instrument most clearly identifiable with the Caribbean. Visitors to the region regularly encounter the steel drum (or pan as it is also called), from tourist welcomings in the airport, to performances at local fish fries, to the three day Trinidadian barrage of steel and soca music known as Carnival. But one never finds a solitary steel pan. Rather the instruments commonly exist as but one piece in a community of percussions that make up a steel pan band. In the days and weeks before Trinidad's Carnival, one can hear these bands warming up in the Panyards, perfecting the tunes and rhythms that will fire the streets of Port of Spain (the capital city) and shake the bones of all participants.

But there is nothing new about this phenomenon. In fact one could say that the multiple rhythms which from the beginning have shaken the Caribbean gave birth to the steel drum, rather than the other way round. Most obviously one finds this sense of polyrhythm in geography. The fact remains that multiple islands, many geographically and geologically quite different from the others, all unite to form the West Indies region. But this rhythmic structure also lies far deeper than what one could find on a map. Historically, rhythms from around the world have clashed and combined to make up the modern day Caribbean. Digging through the layers of history, one first locates the shadowy presence of American Indians. Tribes such as the Caribs and the Arawaks once flourished on these islands. However, with the arrival of the second major rhythmic group -- the Europeans -- the American Indian rhythm largely disappeared, preserved only in a handful of ancestors in places like Guyana. But the arrival of the Europeans only increased the diversity this region possessed, for with them, as slaves and indentures, they brought the world. Black African, Indian, and Chinese peoples arrived in Caribbean as servants of a growing empire. Though the Europeans commonly attempted to cut these people off from their roots, nonetheless traditions and cultural practices did in some cases survive.

Today the people of the Caribbean have taken remnants of rhythms of the past -- African influences in drumming or storytelling, festivals such as Carnival which originated in the Catholic church, etc.-- and synthesized them, added to them, in order to create a distinctly Caribbean, polyrhythmic society, in which the roots of history, though twisted and amplified, shine through. Multifaceted linguistics define the region. Nearly every (former British) island has, in addition to the common, standard English, some form of patois, creole, or dialect -- a "nation-language" as Kamau Brathwaite calls them -- that, while sometimes similar to those on other islands, remains distinct for the inhabitants of each given island. Ethnic diversity functions as another polyrhythmic hallmark of the Caribbean -- while many of the islands are predominantly black African, most have at least a ten to fifteen percent European population. In addition, two of the larger nations -- Trinidad and Guyana -- have populations composed of at least forty percent East Indian. Furthermore, ethnic mixing has forced even these distinctions of ethnicity to only superficially define the heritage of Caribbean people.

From literature to music, revisioning history to understanding culture, the possibilities for interpretation under this schema seem endless. It is fitting, however, that in a region so complex and so multifaceted, the emerging cultural productions should reflect its diverse roots and the myriad opportunities once those roots begin to come together. In the end, then, this process of coming together is central to the concept of polyrhythms. Cultural productions (music, writing, etc.) do not merely toss contrasting rhythms into one unit. Rather, they seek harmony, a harmony wide enough to encompass distinctly conflicting rhythms, but harmony nonetheless. Each composition functions like the various drums in a steel pan orchestra, which borrow rhythms from each other, open up new avenues for others to follow, and finally produce one varied, complex sound for the ears of the audience. Differing currents of thought, differing waves of emotion, are forced or eased into one composition, even one body of compositions, after which they strike each other, slough off characteristics from one to another, and finally unify, but loosely, into the culture and tradition we know as Caribbean.


"Polyrhythm" in Brittanica Online. [Accessed 02 July 1998].

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