Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Maroons, Musicians of Freedom

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Maroons, Musicians of Freedom

Article excerpt

Right from the beginning of the slave trade, black people in almost every part of the New World rose up against slavery and, whenever they could, escaped from the slave ships or from mines and plantations. They took refuge in the impenetrable tropical forests, where they set up more or less self-governing communities, in some cases with a highly organized ranking structure. The runaway slaves were called "Maroons", probably from the Spanish cimarron meaning "wild". These communities were given such African-sounding names as cumbes, mocambos, quilombos and candombes. In some countries, such as Puerto Rico, they were also known as palenques, from another Spanish word meaning "stockade", since they often built fortifications to defend themselves from attack. Some of them were short-lived, but others survived for several centuries. One of the most famous quilombos was that of Palmares in Brazil, between Alagoas and Recife, which featured in Carlos Diegues' film Quilombo. The population of Palmares chiefly consisted of blacks of Bantu origin. When they were attacked by the whites, their king, Zumbi, threw himself over a precipice rather than surrender.

In some cases, the members of these Maroon communities all had the same ethnic origins and, because of their isolation from other groups, were able to preserve musical forms going back to their Ashanti, Yoruba or Bantu roots. These forms, which generally evolved more slowly than in Africa, now provide us with an idea of the kind of music that used to be played on the continent in earlier times. In cases where peoples of different origins lived together in the cumbes and palenques, they produced original forms of music specific to their particular locality.


Four main groups of Maroons, each remarkable for its closely-knit social structure and the strength of its culture, have survived up to the present day. These are the Garinagu (singular: Garifuna), also known as Bush Negroes, who settled on the seaboard of Belize, Honduras and Guatemala; the Djukas and Saramakas of Suriname; the palenque of San Basilio, near Cartagena in Colombia; and the Maroons of Jamaica living in the Saint Elizabeth parish of Accompong Town and in Cockpit Country and the Blue Mountains.

The Garinagu took refuge with the Carib Indians of the island of Saint Vincent, intermarried with them, learned their language and shared their way of life. In 1797, some years after France had ceded Saint Vincent to Britain, the British deported these Maroons to the virtually barren islands off the coast of Honduras, from where they made their way to the mainland.

The Djukas and Saramakas escaped in 1633 when their Portugese Jewish planter owners hid them in the jungle in order to avoid paying taxes. Their ranks were swollen by fugitive slaves from the Dutch coastal plantations.

San Basilio was rounded in 1608 by slaves who had escaped from Cartagena under the leadership of Domingo Bioho (known by the name of "King Benkos"). Benkos was eventually captured and hanged, but the palenque survived.

In Jamaica the Maroon phenomenon began during Spanish colonial rule. When Oliver Cromwell seized the country in 1655, other slaves took advantage of the political disorders to escape in their turn. A number of chiefs, named Juan Lubola, Cudjoe, Johnny, Accompong, Cuffee and Quaco, took command and grouped their followers into "nations", each with its own political system, language and customs.

One distinctive feature of the Maroon communities is the overwhelming importance they attach to spiritual things. They worship their ancestors, along with forest and water spirits, animal deities and the gods of the Ewe, Fon and Congo "nations", a clear pointer to the ethnic origins of their members. …

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