The Life that Sprang from Death: the Music and Dance of Sugar Work

Sugar = the Atlantic slave trade. African slavery = sugar.

Most of the over 12 million Africans who were shipped across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, Brazil, and South America owed their misery to sugar.

Most of the millions of people around the world who were growing accustomed to cheap sugar owed that sweet taste to the African slaves.

As Sugar Changed the World shows, this is a grim story of brutal conditions, constant abuse, and early death. But the Africans did not simply work, fight, flee, or die. They also made music and invented dances that were the very pulse of life. Music was woven into ceremonies, bringing African beliefs, beats, and worship across the ocean. Music mourned and defied, celebrated and uplifted. Every land where the Africans worked, where the cane grew, has its own form of beat, its own rhythms, its own songs and dances that can be traced back to sugar – and even to sources in Africa. And that was only the first step in the sugar-music-story. As workers traveled throughout the sugar lands – from Haiti to the Dominican Republic to Cuba; from the British islands to the Dominican Republic and Haiti – they brought music with them, creating ever new songs and dances blending traditions from each land.

Asian sugar workers who were indentures, not slaves, produced their own forms of music – new sounds, new expressions of life amidst difficult conditions.

Here we present an introductory guided tour to the music and dance of sugar – streaming audio where possible, links which allow you to hear or see more if you choose. Whether it is Bomba and Plena in Puerto Rico, the work songs of a konbit or the festive sounds of Rara in Haiti, which became Gaga in the Dominican Republic, the various African-religious forms such as Palo Mayombe and Yoruba in Cuba; or the tamboo bamboo of Trinidad; whether it is the Hole Hole Bushi of Hawaii or the many East Indian sacred songs of the Caribbean – here we offer a direct link from the grim cane fields to the pulse of life. We hope visitors enjoy the music – and join us in celebrating those who invented these songs, rhythms, dances, and beats in the shadow of the grinding mills.

We hope that teachers who find this site useful will reach out to the many cultural groups in their own communities who perform music and dance that can be traced to sugar. We would love to see sugar music assemblies in schools – to honor, celebrate, and share the life that came from death.


Haiti: Lomax Collection

“Se pou chante-a, yo bamwen twa degout-o” (audio track 2)

Alan Lomax is well known in the United States for recording and preserving folk music. But he also traveled widely in the Caribbean. IN 1937 he visited Haiti and made both film and audio tapes.

According to Dr. Gage Averill, an expert on music in Haiti,

“This is a wonderful example of a konbit [collective work gang] song that refers to the role of the sanba [lead singer whose singing guides the work]…The term batonyè (stick or cane wielders) refers to the cane cutters in the konbit or, less likely, the drummers that might accompany the sanba

In these video clips taken from Lomax’s films, members of the agricultural labor society, sosyete wou (hoe-blade society) and sosyete djouba take a break from the work of cutting cane to perform music and dance that has been passed down from one generation to another. Notice how the drummer uses his foot to alter the pitch of the drum. One can also see how the dancer(s) and drummer interact in a dance/drum dialogue.

Cuba: Palo Mayombe (Congolese Heritage)

“Ndudu dale vuelta al ingenio (The spirit is circling the sugar mill)”
Various Artists SFW40434. Havana & Matanzas, Cuba, ca. 1957: Batá, Bembé, and Palo Songs from the historic recordings of Lydia Cabrera and Josefina Tarafa

Cuba did not become a world-class sugar producer until the 1800s. As a result, the largest waves of enslaved workers arrived later than in the rest of the Caribbean. Perhaps that is one reason why many workers in Cuba were able to preserve the religions, cultural distinctions, and languages they practiced in Africa. One of the many distinct ethnic groups brought to Cuba as slaves were the Congolese. Cuban Congo religion is known as Palo and this excerpt is taken from a recording made at the Asturias sugar mill in Matanzas. According to the liner notes by Morton Marks:
“[This song] might be unique in that [it] place[s] an important Kongo ritual element in a rural sugar-mill context. The vulture is a religious symbol in a number of different traditions, both Old World and New. The turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) is the variety found in the Americas, and is a common sight in rural Cuba. The bird’s Afro-Cuban name, mayimbe, comes from the Ki-kongo ma-yimbi and the bird is called aura tiñosa in Spanish. In Cuba, it has been prized by paleros for its knowledge of the unknown, keen vision and mighty wings which can attain a span of up to 6 feet.

Cuba: Yoruba

“Mo juba ocha” by Inés Sotomayor and group
Various Artists SFW40490. Matanzas, Cuba ca. 1957: Afro-Cuban Music from the Countryside.

Slaves and former slaves on Cuban sugar plantations maintained Yoruba culture in Cuba by merging, or disguising, their orishas (deities of their religious system) with Catholic saints of the slave masters. It was common to worship and honor local saints who were ancestors that had worked there. According to the liner notes written by Morton Marks: “Slaves maintained ritual continuity between West Africa and Cuba by treating the barracón de patio [slave barracks] like the compound of a Yoruba village…It was these ‘resident orishas’ the collective ‘saints’ of the barracoon and the sugar mill that were still being honored in the Matanzas countryside [in this recording].
(This song is sung by a Inés Sotomayor) a surviving member of the work
gang…at the now-closed Arrati sugar mill. Here she offers prayers to her orishas, her ancestors, and her natural parents and godparents, whose names must be
mentioned in every ceremony and whose permission must be sought to carry out any rite.

Cuba: Changüí

“Fiesta en Cecilia” Grupo Changüí de Guantánamo
Various Artists SFW40461 Cuba in Washington

Sugar cane workers needed to relax and express themselves
creatively in an ordinarily harsh and backbreaking environment. The changüí genre of Guantánamo is one of the oldest styles of music we know, for the earliest references to changüí date to the mid-1800s. Changüí uses the tres, a guitar-like instrument with three pairs of strings, a marimbúla (large lamellaphone), guayo (metal scraper), maracas, and the bongó de monte (a local low-tuned bongó). This song is about a party at a Sugar central on May 21, 1927 where cane workers who also played the Cuban tres frequently had informal musical competitions and parties for recreation. The four musicians mentioned in this song are Julio Nuñez, Mario Estrada, Montalvo, and Pedro Masó. Even though the protagonists described in these songs are no longer living these songs are still performed in Guantánamo today and this perpetuates community memory and local history. Many changüiseros are descendants of Haitians who have migrated to Eastern Cuba at various time in Cuban history.

Puerto Rico: Bomba

Various Artists  SFW 40460 Puerto Rico in Washington

Bomba and Plena are two genres of music that are often discussed as a pair although they are quite distinct. Bomba is traditionally played with barriles (drums made from barrels used to cure molasses or rum) as well as a cuá or fuá (wooden cylander struck with two sticks), a large maraca, and call and response vocals. The two main drums are called the buleador and seguidor, the former performing a supporting role while the latter improvises and engages in a dance/drum dialogue with solo dancers. Bomba’s lyrics, execution and instrumentation reflect a strong connection to Haitian music as a result of migration between the islands. Bomba gatherings were also used as opportunities to plan slave uprisings in the 1820s. Bomba was largely played in coastal regions of Puerto Rico where sugar cultivation reigned but later spread throughout the island.
Plena is believed to have developed in Ponce in the 1900s as a result of West Indian migration to Puerto Rico. It is performed with three panderetas (jingle-less tambourines) of different sizes and tunings. The punteador, seguidor, and requinto (high solo drum) are accompanied a güiro (wooden scraper) and call and response vocals. Plena is a topical genre which was played at informal gatherings of workers and is now often heard at protests and political rallies as well as during parrandas (Christmas caroling) and plenazos (plena gatherings). Like bomba, plena began in coastal regions and spread throughout the island with the movement of seasonal agricultural workers.

Jamaica: Work Songs

Songs from the British West Indies, sung and played by “The Caribbean Chorus.”

Work Songs serve many functions. They are principally used to maintain a steady pace and coordinate the speed and repetition of group work, but they can also provide social and political commentary as we have seen in the Haitian examples. In the case of Chi Chi Bud, which means a flock of birds, the singer-man or lead singer relies upon an almost infinite list of bird names that he can call out one by one to keep the crew working. According to Louise Bennett the song is usually concluded with John Crow. In this song the main rhythmic accent coincides with the physical movement of chopping, digging or cutting. The rhythm of the language and its use in this work song foretells the present-day speech rhythms of dancehall reggae especially when considered along with folk genres such as mento, kumina, and children’s songs.


“Chi Chi Bud”

Historical Songs Commenting on Sugar Work

Tumba Francesa
Three Rituals Cook01043

From 1789 to 1803, during the Haitian Revolution, roughly 30,000 Haitians migrated to Cuba. This movement would alter the landscape of Cuban music and agriculture in numerous ways including the eventual development of the son, contradanza, and danzón. Subsequent Haitian and Jamaican migration to Cuba in the twentieth century was essential for the sugar cane-centered economy. The tumba francesa began as a cabildo (mutual aid society) that featured Afro-Haitian music for ritual and recreation in the days of slavery, but it is now largely a recreational music. A battery of Haitian-derived percussion instruments accompanies call and response vocals sung in Haitian kreyòl. These drums are the premier (lead drum), bulá and segón (two supporting drums), catá (a cylander struck with two sticks like the Puerto Rican cuá/fuá), and the tcha-tcha (metal rattles). In some of the dances there is a dynamic dance/drum dialogue.

Dominican Republic & Haiti

“Main Street of Haina”
Various Artists Folkways 4531 Caribbean Revels: Haitian Rara and Dominican Gaga

Since sugar cane cultivation has always required immense quantities of manual laborers seasonal migration from Haiti and the British Caribbean to Spanish Caribbean has been ongoing and constant. In the following examples, one can hear how rara (carnival music from Haiti) is performed and maintained in the bateyes (cane fields) of the Dominican Republic.

CHOPPING SONG from the Domincian Republic: Canto de Hacha
Music from the Dominican Republic Volume 4, Songs from the North FW04284
This is another work song used to accompany axe men chopping down trees in the Dominican Republic. Notice how the lead vocalist dictates the pace of the labor and sings of sugar cane, coffee, and cocoa.

Music from the Dominican Republic, Volume 3 Crade of the New World FW04383

The Mummies or Mummers is the musical/dramatic practice of migrant workers from Nevis and St. Kitts who settled in the Dominican Republic. The plays involve colorful costumes and characters such as Prince George and the Turkish Knight and were traditionally performed during the Christmas season. The music that accompanies the plays is similar to jonkanoo in that it uses fife and drum ensembles that come from the colonial military tradition.

Trinidad and Tobago

“We goin’ to cut the wood”
Bamboo-Tamboo, Bong and Belair Cook05017

Tamboo Bamboo is a Trinidadian musical tradition that uses pieces of bamboo of different lengths (fullers, cutters, and chandlers) and that are struck on the ground. The syncopated rhythm of the bamboo percussion accompanies call and response vocals. The tamboo bamboo ensemble is one of the immediate predecessors to the modern steel band in Trinidad. Tamboo bamboo also accompanies the bongo dance at a wake.

Bamboo-Tamboo, Bong and Belair Cook05017

Calinda or Kalinda stick fighting is a Trinidadian tradition that contributed significantly to the development of calypso. Historically, rival groups of stick fighters would challenge one another to the accompaniment of drums while the chantwells (singers) for each side would sing taunting lyrics.


Hole Hole Bushi

The singer here is Allison Arakawa, an award-winning modern performer.

Should I go to America, or should I return to Japan?
This was my problem here in Hawaii.

Hawaii, Hawaii the best
I even dreamed of Hawaii
But what a disappointment
I wept in the sugar cane field.

It started to rain
And my clothes that I washed are getting wet.
The child is crying
On mother’s back, and rice is burnt.

When I left Yokohama,
I cried as I sailed out, but no
I have children and grandchildren.
(translation supplied by Ms. Arakawa).


Free Internet Resources: Youtube Videos and Websites

In this section we provide links to youtube videos. Visitors should realize that these videos may be taken down. If a link we provide does not work, try making your own Youtube search using words similar to the titles we provide, for example, “Bomba,” or “Rara in Haiti.” You are likely to find new and interesting resources. Be sure, of course, to check with a librarian, teacher, or parent, because you may find something with a similar name that has nothing to do with sugar. For example, Lady Gaga is not playing Gaga, the music from the Dominican Republic.

East Indian musical traditions in the Caribbean

This is a multi-part documentary on Indian music in the Caribbean based on the excellent work of the scholar Dr. Peter Manuel, well worth clicking through each of the videos


There are many choices here, from recordings made in Puerto Rico to celebrations of Puerto Rican heritage in America, to drumming lessons for playing bomba. This video captures a live performance.

If you click on Explore Folkways on the Smithsonian Folkways site, you see an option for video. Click there and you can find many interesting choices. Under the Caribbean, every video from the fifth one on (and leaving out the three Bahamian videos) takes you into the musical worlds of Bomba and Plana.

Rara in Haiti

An extensive website created by Dr. Elizabeth McAllister of Wesleyan includes a 15 minute video of Rara.

For Dr. McAllister on Haitian music today:

Dr. Elizabeth McAllister’s webpage


Bahia is the state in Brazil most influenced by African traditions. Zumbi, the leader of Palmares whom we discuss in the book, is the subject of this song – the video images give a sense of how African the people and culture of Bahia is. Some of the images are disturbing.

To see Maculele

There are many choices, here is one:


The same Smithsonian Folkways site discussed above has a video of Maroon music in the Guianas and Jamaica.

For a modern Jamaican song looking back to work in cane, Burning Spear, Slavery Days


Eva Ayllon is a very popular Afro-Peruvian singer, and this song is about a love between sugar workers.

Barbados: Vernon Cadogan

“Cut Sugar Cane ‘Tll it Burn My Hand”

For a modern film (in German) that re-enacts a typical sugar slave plantation

A modern Louisiana song about sugar cane:


This is an evolving site, made possible through the generosity of real scholars who have shared their expertise with us. We are especially grateful to the ethnomusicologist and performer Dr. Benjamin Lapidus who made the musical selections and provided the scholarship for the comments on each song. Most of the selections that appear here have been licensed with the permission of the actual rights holders, either the Smithsonian Folkways archive or the Association for Cultural Equity. We are grateful to both organizations for their cooperation and support. We have licensed the right to stream the music, it is not available to be downloaded. We are especially grateful to the award-winning singer Allison Arakawa for allowing us to share her version of a sugar song created by Japanese women working in sugar in Hawaii. Many ethnomusicologists and members of the LAMSEM listserv were helpful to us, including Dr. Michael Marcuzzi, Dr. Gage Averill, Dr. Hope Munro Smith, Dr. Peter Manuel, Dr. Jerome Camal, Dr. Elizabeth McAlister, Thank you, too, to Verna Gillis, who made some of these original recordings, for her support and encouragement.