Art Music by Caribbean Composers: Bahamas


Christine Gangelhoff

Cathleen LeGrand

The College of The Bahamas[1]


The Bahamas is an archipelago of hundreds of islands extending over several thousand square miles.  Among the original settlers of the islands were the Eleutheran Adventurers, who settled in Eleuthera in 1648, and, a century later, British loyalists from the southern United States (Ingraham, 2007).  The Bahamas continued as a British colony until it achieved independence in 1973.  The cultural identity of the Bahamas owes much to its West African and British colonial heritages and to its physical proximity to the United States.


Music is included in many school curricula; several schools participate in Junior Junkanoo, held each year in December.  Other institutions fostering music education include The Bahamas National Youth Choir, The Bahamas National Children’s Choir, The Bahamas National Youth Orchestra, and The Bahamas Music Conservatory.  The College of The Bahamas offers an Associate degree in music as well as a Bachelor of Education in Music.  The E. Clement Bethel National Arts Festival, started in 1959 as the Bahamas Music Festival ("First Bahamas Festival," 1959), takes place annually and is a competitive event featuring music, dance, drama, and arts and crafts.  The Nassau Music Society promotes art music activities in New Providence by organizing concerts and by sponsoring scholarships for students of music.  The Grand Bahama Performing Arts Society plays a similar role on Grand Bahama island. 

Junior Junkanoo


Marching bands have long been established in the Bahamas.  The Royal Bahamas Police Force Band, first founded in 1893, became a fully-commissioned division in 1958 and the Royal Bahamas Defence Force Band made its first official appearance in 1986.  The Bahamas National Symphony Orchestra, a community orchestra for amateurs, was founded in 1991, and presents several concerts annually.


Bahamian folk music displays elements from African, European, and North American influences.  The main folk music traditions in the Bahamas can be categorized as either religious or secular.  Religious music of the Bahamas includes rhyming spirituals, anthems, rushin' music at watch-night services, wake and setting-up songs.  A proponent of Bahamian religious folk music is the late, internationally-acclaimed Joseph Spence (Charters, 2003).  Rhyming spirituals are still performed locally by the BBC singers and Dicey Doe singers, among others.  The secular music of the Bahamas includes ring-plays, fire dance, jump-in-dance, quadrille music (referred to locally as rake ‘n’ scrape music), goombay, and junkanoo music (C. Adderley, personal communication, June 9, 2011).


Goombay music, which gets its name from a single-headed goatskin drum, refers to “the entire spectrum of traditional music in the Bahamas before 1968” (Rommen, 2009, p.182).  Junkanoo, the most celebrated tradition in the Bahamas, is held on Boxing and New Year’s Days.  Incorporating music, dance and art, junkanoo comprises a major component of Bahamian cultural identity: “Although the music of junkanoo is reflective of a strong drumming tradition, the influence of other European instruments continues to be introduced into the music” (Justilien, 2004).

Goombay Music - Tilla performed by C Force

Traditionally, the instrumentation of rake ‘n’ scrape bands included the carpenter’s saw, the goombay drum, and the concertina; modern-day musicians often use the electric guitar and piano. “[R]ake 'n' scrape music is used to accompany the Bahamian Quadrille and the Heel and Toe Polka dances” (Justilien, 2004). This combination of African and European elements can be seen in musical traditions throughout the Caribbean, including art music.

Cat Island Rake 'n' Scrape

E. Clement Bethel, composer, pianist, ethnomusicologist, conductor, and first Director of Culture for the Bahamas, wrote the musical, The Legend of Sammie Swain, which premiered at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City (Ingraham, 2007).  Cleophas R. E. Adderley Jr., founder and director of the Bahamas National Youth Choir, composed the first Bahamian opera, Our Boys, and the first Bahamian concert mass, Missa Caribe

Sanctus (excerpt) from Missa Caribe

His works, which include several choral pieces composed specifically for the Bahamas National Youth Choir, often incorporate elements of Bahamian folk music.  As he explains, his music takes “the nuances of the Bahamas and the Caribbean”—a folk tune, folk rhythms, or folk materials—and uses “the classical vocabulary of music as a vehicle” to create an original work (C. Adderley, personal communication, 2011).  Adderley demonstrates this approach to composition in the overture to Our Boys.  The theme for the overture was originally composed as an organ fugue, a complex contrapuntal form, in which Adderley incorporates syncopations drawn from Caribbean rhythms.

Overture to Our Boys by Cleophas R.E. Adderley



Charters, S. (2003). The day is so long, the wages so small: Music on a summer island. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Marion Boyers.

First Bahamas festival. (1959). Music Educators Journal, 49, 90-92. doi:10.2307/3389244

Justilien, C. (2004). Bahamas entertainers. Retrieved from

Ingraham, V. (2007). The music of the Caribbean. In M. Kuss, (Ed.), Music in Latin America and the Caribbean: An encyclopedia history, Vol. 2: Performing the Caribbean experience (pp. 359-374). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Rommen, T. (2009). "Come back home": Regional travels, global encounters, and local nostalgias in Bahamian popular musics. Latin American Music Review 30(2), 159-183. doi:10.1353/lat.0.0043


[1]Christine Gangelhoff, Assistant Professor, School of Communication and Creative Arts, Cathleen LeGrand, Public Services Librarian, Libraries and Instructional Media Services; The College of The Bahamas, P.O. Box N-4912, Nassau, Bahamas.

Cathleen LeGrand is now Librarian at Royal Thimphu College, Ngabiphu, Thimphu, Bhutan.

Acknowledgments: The authors would like to thank the following for their contributions and assistance with this chapter: Cleophas Adderley, Virginia Ballance, Edward Bethel, Nicolette Bethel, William Fielding, Franz Hepburn, Shanderia Mckenzie, Jerquel Rolle, and Valdez Russell.

The authors are grateful to The College of The Bahamas for the grant that made this research possible.


How to cite this article in APA 6th ed. style: Gangelhoff, C., & LeGrand, C. (2011). Art music by Caribbean composers: Bahamas. The International Journal of Bahamian Studies, 17(1), 5-10. Retrieved from