Ruk A Tuk: The His­tory of Tuk Music in Barbados

Ruk A Tuk: The His­tory of Tuk Music in Barbados

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A tuk band is a col­lec­tion of musi­cians, adorned in bright coloured cloth­ing play­ing sev­eral instru­ments. The instru­ments they play are the bass drum, ket­tle drum and the pennywhistle/​tin flute. As indica­tive of our cul­ture, the music and the rhythm ema­nat­ing from these instru­ments forces per­sons to get up and dance or move in some fash­ion. Accom­pa­ny­ing the tuk band are sev­eral cos­tumed char­ac­ters with African ori­gins and sym­bol­ism as well as to the for­mer enslaved peo­ple on the island:

tuk 2 The Shaggy Bear (rep­re­sen­ta­tive of bush doc­tors or tra­di­tional heal­ers from African vil­lages)
tuk 3 The Mother Sally (rep­re­sent­ing female fertility)

tuk 4The Green Monkey

tuk 5 The Don­key Man (rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the trans­porta­tion that was used by locals of Bar­ba­dos in the past)

tuk 6Stilt­men (rep­re­sent sur­viv­ing hard times)

While the mother sally was orig­i­nally a man dressed as a woman and wear­ing a mask, today’s mother sally’s are mask-​less women. Tuk bands are very preva­lent at major Bar­ba­dos fes­ti­vals: The Hole­town Fes­ti­val, Crop Over Fes­ti­val and Oistins Fish Fes­ti­val. The music they play is a unique blend of African and British folk music, reflec­tive of the fact that our cul­ture is a blend of West African and British cultures.


The name tuk is derived from an old Scot­tish word “touk”: the beat/​tap of a drum. Hav­ing its ori­gins in the slave cul­ture of 17th cen­tury Bar­ba­dos, tuk is one of the most tra­di­tional forms of folk music; a local ver­sion of the com­mon fife and drum march­ing band. In the days of slav­ery, Africans used drums and drum pat­terns to com­mu­ni­cate with each other across plan­ta­tions. When the slaves and inden­tured ser­vants rebelled using conch shells, horns and drums, slave own­ers in 1675, banned the use of drums and then in 1688, laws were enforced to burn all drums and loud instru­ments. It has been spec­u­lated that in place of the drum­ming and the danc­ing, slave own­ers intro­duced the march­ing fife and drum bands and mil­i­tary drill in order to rein­force British iden­tity in the slaves and also instil a sense of dis­ci­pline. This would cer­tainly explain the mil­i­tary type rhythm evi­dent in tuk music today. Due to this influ­ence, the slaves then were able to use the instru­ments they did have access to and blend the mil­i­tary style beats they learned with the rhythms of their tra­di­tional African beats. Herein forms what we know today as tuk music.

The slaves did not only use the colo­nial instru­ments. How­ever, they cre­ated new instru­ments by using indige­nous mate­ri­als such as goat and cow skins to pro­duce drums. Today, the two most impor­tant drums used in the tuk bands are the bass (num drum) and the snare (ket­tle drums). Orig­i­nally there were two ket­tle drum­mers, one to main­tain the basic, con­sis­tent rhythm and the other to add a bit more pizazz to the music. There­fore, despite this type of music being seen as infe­rior by the Eng­lish even in the days past eman­ci­pa­tion, today, it has become a sig­ni­fier of Bar­ba­dos’ cul­ture, reflec­tive in the fact that it is played at major func­tions and show­cased to tourists.

©Arti­cle of Caribbean Dreams Mag­a­zine
© Pho­tos 1 repeating​is​lands​.com
© Pho­tos 2 crop​over​bar​ba​dos​.com
© Pho­tos 3 mrd​.gov​.bb
© Pho­tos 4 mrd​.gov​.bb
© Pho­tos 5 clothestell​sto​ries​.com
© Pho­tos 6 pre​mier​at​trac​tions​.bb

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