Art Music by Caribbean Composers:



Christine Gangelhoff

Cathleen LeGrand

The College of The Bahamas[1]



Jamaica is among the Caribbean islands that Columbus claimed for Spain.  The island was captured by the British in 1655 and remained a British colony until its independence in 1962 (Jamaica, 2005).  Jamaica was settled by Europeans who brought in a large number of African slaves to perform agricultural work, mainly on sugar plantations.  Workers from Asia, predominantly from India and China, who arrived after Emancipation also contribute to the nation's diversity.  In response to its rich diversity, the motto of Jamaica is: Out of Many, One People.

"Jamaican music is as varied as the people who inhabit the island... [M]uch folk music retains features and functions of black African music, blended with elements of European (primarily British) music" (Lewin & Gordon, 2007-2011).  Jamaican musical genres, such as ska, rocksteady, reggae, and dancehall, are popular and influential internationally.


The classical music tradition in Jamaica dates back to the 18th century.  The "first oratorio written in the Americas," Jonah, was composed by Samuel Felsted sometime around 1773 (Lumsden, 2004).  Sir Frederic H. Cowen, the most prolific Jamaican classical composer, created a long list of works including several operas.  Cowen moved to England during his youth and, in addition to composing, had a notable career as a performer and conductor (Lumsden, 2003).  Peter Ashbourne is the most versatile of the younger generation of composers born and living in Jamaica.  One of his recent works, Mikey, a reggae opera, displays his innovative approach to composition.  Ashbourne points out that "when you consider that, in terms of popular culture, Jamaica has an unusually high profile, [and] art music is easily overshadowed by the more conspicuous and populist genres.  There is very little in the way of financial support [or] sponsored training [for art music]" (P. Ashbourne, personal communication, May 6, 2011).


Describing his compositional approach, Ashbourne states:

Jamaica is a small island in the Caribbean basin that is remarkably rich in folk material.  The quality and quantity are both impressive.  [This richness helps to explain] why I want to examine this folk tradition [as a] resource.  Some very interesting music can result when these tuneful, mostly diatonic melodies are subjected to various compositional techniques.  The tonal basis of this traditional music can be conveniently integrated with my current approach to the musical poles of tonality and atonality. (Personal communication, May 6, 2011)

Oswald Russell’s Three Jamaican Dances is an example of a classical work that incorporates folk music; the piece is based on Jamaican folk songs. Jamaican pianist Paul Shaw discusses the second movement, which is based on the folk song, Sammy Dead:

As simple as that folk song is, Oswald Russell takes the melody … he layers over it a rhythm (like this, an ostinato), and as it turned out from some of the research that I’ve done … that rhythm – you hear it in a lot of Caribbean music – comes all the way from West Africa (Shaw, 2010).

Jamaican pianist Paul Shaw discusses Oswald Russell's Three Jamaican Dances

Paul Shaw performs Oswald Russell's Three Jamaican Dances

The Edna Manley College offers several music-related degrees: an Associate of Arts in Music, a Bachelor of Music in Classical Performance, Jazz and Popular Music Studies, and a Bachelor of Music Education.  Two other institutions, Northern Caribbean University and Mico University College, also offer a Bachelor of Music Education.  The National Youth Orchestra of Jamaica (NYOJ) trains young people to play orchestral instruments.  The NYOJ is a private non-profit orchestra, offering no-cost music lessons, and uses the El Sistema program of orchestral instrument education pioneered in Venezuela.



Jamaica. (2005). In Continuum: Encyclopedia of popular music of the world. Retrieved from

Lewin, O., & Gordon, M. G. (2007-2011). Jamaica. Grove Music Online / Oxford Music Online. Retrieved from

Lumsden, J. (2003). Frederic H. Cowen: a famous Jamaican composer. Jamaica's classical musicians. Retrieved from

Lumsden, J. (2004). Samuel Felsted, organist and composer. Jamaica's classical musicians. Retrieved from

[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 Peter Ashbourne, Rosina Moder, Paul Shaw, and Roger Williams for their help in compiling this chapter.

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: C. Gangelhoff, & LeGrand, C. (2011). Art music by Caribbean composers: Jamaica. The International Journal of Bahamian Studies, 17(1), 43-52. Retrieved from

Copyright (c) 2011 C. Gangelhoff & C. LeGrand