Curaçao and its Neighbors at 78 rpm

Entire histories have been written about early recordings from certain regions of the Caribbean. A wealth of truly excellent (and a few mediocre) restorations and reissues have been produced, especially when it comes to the 78 recordings from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, as well as the Martiniquan and Guadeloupean jazz recorded in Paris. Jamaica, which didn’t have a recording industry until the very early 50s, has also been the focus of some wonderful reissues from painfully rare 78s on minuscule labels, with great mento sides featuring rootsy bamboo saxophones and banjos.

What’s known about the nascent and confined 78 rpm industry based in Curaçao and neighboring Aruba is largely thanks to one person: Tim de Wolf of the Netherlands. Sometimes it takes just a single, dedicated individual to shed light on an entire world of uncommon discs. Although some of de Wolf’s writing on the subject is in Dutch, it’s because of his work from the late 1990s onward, including a discography and a single CD, that we have a better idea of how 78 production and distribution worked on the islands, as well as what types of music was recorded. In this entry, we’ll focus on two musical styles with examples that are much less known.

Prior to the 1950s, the music of Curaçao barely registered. The first appearances appear to be from 1928-1930, when compositions by Curaçaoan composers Charles Maduro and Rudolf Palm (1880-1950) were recorded in New York City by studio groups on Victor, Columbia, and Brunswick. The discs on Brunswick are perhaps more notable as the groups that performed the works had relevant names like “Orquesta Brunswick Antilleana” and “Orquesta Bogotana”; the latter was more of an upscale orchestra, but the former group, with their horn section, added a little more flair to Palm’s arrangements of tumbas, waltzes, and pasillos. Still, they were studio bands. Information is scant regarding the make-up of these groups; for at least one session, the Brunswick Antilleana group was led by Puerto Rican pianist Manrique Pagán. This lack of early recording for the “Leeward Antilles” is not really a surprise, especially since there was quite a bit of recording in nearby Trinidad, and by Trinidadian artists in New York. There may have been a feeling by major recording labels in the U.S. that the regional market was being filled due to the relative proximity of the islands, despite cultural differences. It may also have had something to do with the fact that Trinidad was a British colony, and Curaçao, Bonaire, and Aruba were Dutch colonies.

Local recording on Curaçao and Aruba did not begin until the mid- to late 1940s, right at a moment when the islands were seeing an influx of money from both tourism and the oil refining economy. It happened in fits and starts: a few discs were recorded for RCA Victor in Aruba in 1946 by the “Orquesta Alma Latina,” and a handful of discs on one-off labels were issued as part of local political campaigns. In 1948-1949, however, Horatio “Jacho” Hoyer (1904-1987) established his ‘Hoyco’ label in Willemstad, and his colleague Thomas Henriquez (1912-1955), also a shop owner in Willemstad like Hoyer, started his Musika label approximately one year later. A third significant 78 label, Padú, formed by musicians Padú del Caribe and Rufo Wever, ramped up in Oranjestad, Aruba, in 1952. There were several other related and/or smaller labels (such as Caribia, Benarsa, Sabaneta, and Cah’I Orgel), but their output was small in comparison. As Tim de Wolf has written, these labels were run as if they were an enjoyable hobby; profits were minimal, music was recorded on weekends, food and alcohol was served during the sessions, the records were distributed mostly in Curaçao and pressed in numbers of about 500 to 1000 each, and most seem to have been recorded in the back rooms of their local shops, in makeshift studios. Musika and Padú discs were pressed in Miami, Florida. By 1955 or so, these three labels had shuttered. Horatio Hoyer had started a radio station, Radio Hoyer (still in existence today), and no longer had the time for the label; Henriquez suddenly passed away, and Padú began recording with RCA.

At least 275 individual 78s were issued on these labels. Most were entirely from the islands, apart from a few sides by Venezuelan, Dominican, and Surinamese bands that were passing through. Most were sung in the local creole language, Papiamento, which is based on Spanish and Portuguese. Much of what was issued, and most of what has been restored and reissued on CD, is popular music by brass-led, Cuban-influenced bands like Sexteto Gressmann, Conjunto Cristal, and Estrellas del Caribe, performing terrific guarachas, tumbas, and merengues. There was, however, a wider variety of music that appeared on these labels; one example would be instrumental waltzes and pasillos that bear a strong resemblance and instrumentation to the same from Trinidad and Venezuela – languid, flowing, with a strumming cuatro. Another important local style is tambú.

Tambú originated as a music of the enslaved people of the Curaçao and neighboring islands, dating as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries. It is also the name of the corresponding dance, and the name of the primary instrument, the tambú drum, which is usually accompanied by a metal instrument, of which there are several types, known as the heru. It is unmistakably African in origin, and has a primary “cantor” and a “koro” (chorus) that responds throughout. Historically and up to today, lyrics of a tambú piece contain social criticism and sometimes unmitigated protest. The Dutch colonial government considered the music evil and outright banned tambú music (and their gatherings) over the centuries until 1952. Today it is considered important cultural heritage.

A total of eleven known tambú discs were issued by these local labels, most on Hoyco. This example is by the group led by Nicholaas Susanna, known as “Shon Colá,” considered one of the great tambú group leaders and vocalists of the 20th century. It features vocalist “Bea,” or Bea Maria Isemia, aka “Kalukreit,” with Gustaaf Doran, known as “Ta di Djudju” or simply “Ta,” on the tambú drum. Colá, according to an interview, began performing tambú when he was about fifteen years old and continued to give concerts well into his eighties. This piece was recorded circa early 1952.

Cola i su grupo, with Bea – Waja Den Cura

Bonaire is about twenty miles east of Curaçao. The Quinteto Bonaire recorded seven sides for Thomas Henriquez’ Musika label, including this piece of Simadan “folklore” with violin. The Simadan is an annual event on Bonaire from February to May with festive music and dance, that has its origins as a harvest festival when the inhabitants of the island would harvest sorghum. Little is known about the group except that it featured the group members “S. Nicasia,” “R. Hart,” and “D. Piar.” It was recorded in Willemstad in October 1950.

Quinteto Bonaire – Simadan

Label: Hoyco
Issue number: 12
Matrix: NWI 24

Label: Musika
Issue number: 1016
Matrix: HEN 128

Much information from Tim de Wolf’s website, release, and his Discography of Music from the Netherlands Antilles & Aruba (Zutphen: Walburg Pers, 1999).

Thanks to Shayne Schafer and Reto Muller.

3 thoughts on “Curaçao and its Neighbors at 78 rpm

  1. Wonderful post. If I’d heard the Hoyco blind, I’d have guessed it was Nigerian – it’s a bit like something in the Waka style, with the female voices. Always pleased to have my preconceptions undermined again!

    That emphatic rhythm on the Quinteto Bonaire side took a bit of settling into, but it’s a beautiful tune, and the fiddle is just lovely.

    Two for the price of one! Thanks again!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s