Do you know the songs of your people? Have you sung and danced to the melodies that brought them hope, peace, and joy?

Cuban musician playing trumpet in the street

The release of the movie Bob Marley: One Love in 2024 caused me to reflect on the significance of music in my life, as someone who grew up in Jamaica. This movie inspired me to look at the ways I have taken for granted the emotional, psychological, physical, and social benefits of art forms like Jamaican reggae, Trinidadian calypso, and Cuban and Puerto Rican salsa. While these genres originated in a specific place, the impact expands beyond these regions and offers insights into happiness and well-being to the world.

Music from the islands

The Caribbean (also known as the West Indies) is a popular tourist destination. According to the Caribbean Tourist Organization, approximately 32 million tourists visited the Caribbean in 2022 and an estimated 31 million cruise visits occurred in the region in 2023. 

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Genres like mento, reggae, calypso, soca, and steel pan music emerged as integral parts of Caribbean culture, embodying the spirit and vibrancy of the region. These sounds have found their way into luxury hotels and resorts, becoming synonymous with the experience of visiting the area.

For example, meditative portrayals of these musical styles have incorporated elements inspired by nature, from the rhythmic sway of palm trees to the gentle lapping of waves against the shore. Research supporting the calming and tranquil effects of Caribbean music, such as reggae, underscores its therapeutic potential and universal appeal beyond the hotels.

Scholars have also highlighted the multifaceted role of Caribbean music beyond its appeal to visitors to the region. This includes the significance of music as a source of resistance, resilience, solidarity, and healing for everyday Caribbean people facing adversity.

Calypso music, for example, originated in Trinidad and Tobago and has a rich tradition of addressing social and political issues. Calypsonians often use witty lyrics and satire to critique authorities, challenge colonial oppression, and advocate for social change. During the colonial era, calypso served as a means of social commentary and resistance against British rule, with songs like “Jean and Dinah” by Mighty Sparrow and “Shame and Scandal” by Lord Melody.

Similarly, reggae music, born in Jamaica, emerged as a powerful voice for marginalized communities and a vehicle for promoting social consciousness. Artists like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Burning Spear used reggae as a platform to address issues such as poverty, racism, and political corruption. Songs like “Get Up, Stand Up,” “Redemption Song,” and “War” became anthems of resistance and solidarity, inspiring movements for social justice around the world.

In those ways, Caribbean music has always been a rich tapestry of different influences, reflecting the joys, struggles, and aspirations of its people. Combining soothing and mood-enhancing songs with politically charged ones creates a holistic portrayal of the Caribbean experience. It acknowledges both the need for relaxation and escapism, as well as the urgency to address systemic social and political issues that affect people’s lives.

By looking through the lens of Caribbean culture, we can see the many research-tested ways music enhances our well-being. Here are some examples.

Promote fitness with music and dance

Listening to music that aligns with one’s personal preferences and mood can elicit positive emotions and enhance motivation to engage in physical activity. For example, studies find that music with a strong, steady beat or tempo can help to synchronize movement and increase motivation during physical activities. High-tempo Caribbean music such as dancehall, soca, and salsa are just a few examples of ways to make exercise more exciting.

Zumba, though created by a Colombian, is one of the most popular uses of Caribbean music in exercise worldwide. Zumba includes Caribbean and Latin American musical genres and influences like soca, salsa, merengue, mambo, and reggaeton. The tagline “Ditch the Workout, Join the Party” encapsulates the essence of Zumba, emphasizing the idea of exercise as an enjoyable experience rather than a chore.

By engaging in Zumba classes, individuals can not only lose calories, they can tap into the mood-boosting effects of endorphins released through movement and music, allowing them to alleviate stress and embrace a positive mindset. Research finds that the widespread popularity of Zumba, with an estimated 15 million people participating weekly in 180 countries, underscores its effectiveness as a form of exercise that combines fitness with fun. The high energy and joyful music of the Caribbean have also inspired exercise instructors to create island-style aerobics like Socacize, which is reminiscent of Carnival to make exercise fun.

Exercise, including activities like Zumba, has numerous health benefits, including heart health. One study provides insight into the potential impact of Zumba in reducing the risk of high blood pressure. Another study comparing Zumba to other forms of exercise like yoga shows similar positive benefits in terms of health conditions like high blood pressure.

That’s just an example of how music for exercise can help to enhance well-being. Consider reflecting on what genres of music from within or outside your own culture inspire you to exercise and have fun with movement. High-energy exercise can release those feel-good hormones and, when combined with music, the effects can be magnified.

Cultivate memory, cognition, and growth

Playing, listening, and dancing to music can have numerous cognitive benefits. This has been observed in activities like salsa, a form of dance whose roots can be traced back to Cuba. Salsa includes a combination of music, choreography, and social interaction that requires mental focus and concentration. Regular participation in music and dance-style physical activities could help improve attention span and cognitive control, leading to better focus both during and outside of exercise or dance sessions.

Listening to Caribbean music could also help to improve mood and focus to enhance memory and creativity. For example, the timbre and texture of instruments such as the popular steel pan’s sound carry a tropical quality that is reminiscent of the vibrant and colorful landscapes of the Caribbean. The sounds of steel pan can transport listeners to sandy beaches, swaying palm trees, and warm ocean breezes, evoking a sense of relaxation and escape. For native Trinidadians and many throughout the Caribbean and Caribbean diaspora, the sound of the steel pan is synonymous with the happiness, fun, and good times of Carnival and home.

More than soothing sounds and fun-filled memories of Carnival, steel pan represents a deep-rooted history of musical innovation, achievement, and cultural expression. Steel pan (or just pan) is often hailed as the only acoustic instrument invented in the 20th century. Steel pan emerged as a creative response to the prohibition against African drumming in Trinidad and Tobago during the colonial era. Under social repression, musicians literally “put their minds together” and experimented with percussion using bamboo and tin cans at first. Eventually, they repurposed discarded oil barrels, which would have otherwise been industrial waste, to create early versions of the steel pan.

During Carnival season, musicians in steel pan bands, known as “steel orchestras,” perform at various events and competitions, showcasing the versatility and creativity of this unique musical tradition. Moreover, the establishment of the first steel pan examination in 1995 marked a significant milestone in the formalization and standardization of steel pan education in Trinidad and Tobago. This initiative aimed to provide structured learning opportunities for students interested in mastering the art of playing the steel pan. The steel pan examination syllabus quickly gained recognition and adoption in other Caribbean countries and the United States, reflecting the widespread appeal and cultural significance of the instrument across the region.

How do you play? Do you play a musical instrument? Whether or not you enjoy steel pan or other Caribbean musical forms, you might consider once again picking up that flute you learned to play in junior high, or just joining a playful drumming circle at the local community center. Or just take a dance class. Don’t do it for a sense of accomplishment—and don’t even think about the benefits I’ve described, even if that might be your motivation. Do it for fun.

Forge and strengthen social connection

Caribbean music serves more than an entertainment or mood-enhancement function; it has played a crucial role in fostering and strengthening social bonds within diaspora communities. For example, while the Caribbean is home to over 44 million residents; there are nearly 4.5 million Caribbean immigrants living in the United States.

For Caribbean people living far from their homelands due to migration, music becomes a powerful tool for reconnecting with their cultural roots and maintaining a sense of belonging. Caribbean music carries the rhythms, melodies, and stories that reflect the shared experiences, struggles, and triumphs of the Caribbean diaspora. Through music, individuals can re-member (literally, put back together) parts of themselves that may feel fragmented or disconnected in their new surroundings.

Caribbean music also often involves collaborative creativity, with musicians, dancers, and artists coming together to create and perform music in various genres and styles. Whether in steel pan orchestras, reggae bands, or soca ensembles, the process of making music together fosters teamwork, cooperation, and mutual respect among participants, strengthening social bonds and fostering a sense of belonging.

Moreover, researchers have begun to study how events create a sense of belonging during Trinidadian and American Carnival, Jamaican reggae and dancehall parties, and Barbadian Crop Over festivities. As they’ve discovered (and as people have always known), Caribbean music can serve as a powerful catalyst for social connection, uniting individuals through shared cultural identity, community celebrations, dance and movement, collaborative creativity, and cross-cultural exchange.


Every culture has its own musical forms that help to make it special. Recognizing and celebrating the cultural heritage embedded within our music can foster a greater sense of connection and appreciation among individuals, regardless of their background. Embracing diversity and exploring different cultural perspectives can enrich our understanding of the world around us and help us recognize the beauty and significance of traditions that may have previously gone unnoticed.

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