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Jamaican Folksongs in the Caribbean

Jamaican Folksongs in the Caribbean

My interest in Jamaican traditions goes back to my early childhood training and education. It was during these early years that I became aware of two distinct culture that was and still is a part of my life. Among the many subjects that were discussed and narrated in my childhood were folk tales along with the singing of many folk songs. The Jamaican folk music is known as the earliest form of Jamaican music with its roots starting in the mid-17th century and maybe even before that. Jamaican folk music has come from far with respect as well as the love for all people. According to Baxter, Ivy (1970). The mix of Jamaican culture create different forms of Jamaican folk music, and the interesting is that the distinguishing tunes of Jamaican folk songs are still present today in our music and songs. Therefore, this paper aims at analyzing Jamaican folk songs and the impact they had in the society.

Fork music in Jamaica is said to be very powerful art form and culture heritage of the land. The folk songs of Jamaica is termed to be the earliest form of music and has unique beats and rhythmic tunes. The folk music of Jamaica has evolved over the years to being one of the major genres of Jamaican music to have huge history as well as cultural influence in the society. The folk music of Jamaica can be divided into four main areas of classification based on their movement dynamics or their functions in the society; Work songs, ritual and ceremonial songs, social and recreational songs and Instrumental songs. Below is an example of Jamaican folk song well analyzed.

The most common types of Jamaican folk songs consist of a verse of two or three lines for a solo singer with a repeated chorus or refrain which can be sung by everyone. The idea of a given Jamaican folk song can be a very short narrative but whole, most of the themes in Jamaican folk songs are descriptive, and deal with the immediate present, past, or future (Baxter, Ivy 1970).

One example of a Jamaican folk song is “Colon Man” by Rupert Kerr that revealed much information about the Jamaican way of life. This folk song talks about people who like to travel but more so out of the necessity so as to obtain work. The place where the people traveled to was the Colon which was the port of disembarkation for laborers on the Panama Canal. In those days, Rupert says in the song that it was very hard to secure a job and even if your do find a job, the wages were low thus people went to the Colon where the wages were large. The precious gift that Jamaican came home with was a watch. They had watched on their wrists as well as around their necks, and from that, a song was created about the “Colon Man” (Kerr, 1989).

“Colon Man,” sung by Rupert Kerr

One two three four Colon man a come (x3)

Wid him brass chain a lick him stomach pum pum pum

Ask him wa’ de time an’ him look up in de sun (x3)

Wid him brass chain a lick him stomach pum pum pum

According to Rupert Kerr, “pum pum pum” in the last line of the above stanza symbolizes the sound of the watch bouncing against the individual’s stomach. Rupert Kerr sang this song to show how the Jamaican faced challenges in getting employment in their areas to an extent they choose to go to the Colon to seek green pastures. Rupert repeated singing the last line of the song so as to emphasize how the watches bounced against their stomach and wrist. Instrumentation in Jamaican folk songs is a major feature in communicating the message as well the feel of the songs. Drumming plays an integral role in Jamaican folk music, Anne

Hickling-Hudson writes: “[drums] have epitomized the Jamaicanization of our arts and entertainment and have become an all-pervading symbol of the dominant African element in Jamaican’s culture. Another unique characteristic that can be found in some of the folk music Jamaica is that of rhythm that often differs from most of the Western European music having the accent on the unstressed rather than the stressed syllables (Dexter, Noel, and Godfrey Taylor 2007).

For example, the Jamaican folk song “I WILL FOLLOW BUSTAMANTE” can be accented in the following ways;

Third Stanza

If it’s bloodshed I will follow,

If it’s bloodshed I will follow,

If it’s bloodshed I will follow,

I will follow Bustamante till I die.

As seen in the above stanza, Jamaican folk songs are dominated by a very strong rhythmic component. In Jamaican folk music, the rhythm is determined by the purpose for which the music has been used regarding movement. The type of action that is required for working songs, a singing game, or for the old Jamaican version of schottische or mazurka, exerted differentiating rhythmic effects. According to Ettu Mento (2003) in both instrumental and work folk songs, the strongly marked rhythmic pattern is a notable feature. The Jamaican folk songs allow the singer to express his or her feelings as well as allowing the listener to gain insight into the life experience of another person.

Importance of Jamaican folk music

In Jamaica, folk music has historically been played and sung for many reasons. One of the reason why folk music is sung is to give a voice to the island’s working classes because the songs expressed their lifestyle, their stories of joy, friendships, celebrations as well as hardships (Lewin, Olive 2008). Also, Jamaican folk songs provide the same function by giving a voice to Jamaica’s underprivileged individuals in the society. For example Jamaican slaves used folk songs for both entertainment and communication. The songs helped them in communicating with each other as their masters had executed them form talking when practicing their duties thus, there needed alternative methods of communication which they found in folk songs.

Singing folk songs and drumming were encouraged as they gave the illusion of a speedier passing of time while they were working. Some songs conveyed information as Olive Lewin notes, “Even ridiculing the master and the man with the whip…” thus the folk songs played key role in the societies (Lewin, Olive 2008). The Jamaican folk sings always help to reveal the history of the people in various situations of the past. The folksongs that have been passed to this generation am hoping that they will not fade out or go out of fashion as they are very useful in preserving Jamaican’s culture.

In conclusion, though the Jamaican folk songs have survived for a long time, industrialization and modernization pose serious threats to the Jamaican traditions as the two movements have caused the lifestyle to change for the folksong preservers. Although current trend suggests that the thriving of the folk songs culture in Jamaica without the set systems in place to protect culture is a threat to their survival. However, through hybridization and Jamaica’s art composers, there is an assurance of the survival of the folksongs tradition in Jamaica.


Baxter, Ivy (1970). The Arts of an Island. New Jersey: Scarecrow Tree Press, 1970.

Lewin, Olive (2008). Rock it Come Over: The Folk Music of Jamaica. Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2008.

Ettu Mento (2003) Revival Kumina…Recordings from The Jamaican Folk Music Collection,

PAMAP 701/702, Compact Disc.

Dexter, Noel, and Godfrey Taylor (2007). Mango Time: Folksongs of Jamaica. Kingston, Jamaica: Randle.

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