Black and white photograph of two female dancers leaping in the air

Traditional Irish dancing in Liverpool's Irish Centre in 1991.
© Derek Massey

Cities are places of migration. Migrants have often taken to cities musical sounds and traditions from the place they have come from. Once there, these migrants may interact with other groups and exchange musical influences. This can result in the mixing together of musical sounds and styles and the creation of something new and different.

Port cities have typically been a focus for migration and sites of musical diversity and innovation. The American city of New York demonstrates this very well. As wave after wave of immigrants arrived in New York from different parts of Europe and elsewhere in the 19th century, many of them moved on but large numbers remained, creating a hugely varied cultural environment involving music from places as different as Ireland, Italy, Germany and Russia. To this mix was added the influence of African-Americans from the southern states migrating to the city and especially to Harlem in the 20th century in search of work and bringing their musical traditions - ragtime, blues, gospel, early jazz - with them. Later came large-scale immigration from the Caribbean, bringing musical traditions from Cuba, Puerto Rico and Jamaica. Out of these encounters came New York's deserved reputation as a pre-eminent centre of popular music with its traditions ranging from jazz to Broadway musical theatre, from gospel churches to salsa dancing, from hip hop to klezmer.

In fact many forms of modern popular music have arisen in connection with migration to cities from rural areas, including Argentinean 'tango', Greek 'rembétika', Dominican 'bacháta', Turkish 'arabesk', Thai 'luktoong' and Peruvian 'chichi'.

Not all migration is voluntary. Sometimes people are forced to flee for political or economic reasons; others are forced to become migrants against their own wishes, as happened during the slave trade. In these circumstances music can become especially important. The enslaved Africans who were brought into the port of Havana in Cuba in the 18th century used music to keep their identity alive during enslavement. Especially after the end of slavery their music interacted with that of the European colonisers, producing a variety of distinctive Cuban sounds such as rumba.

The experience of migration is therefore addressed through music in many different ways. There are songs about homesickness and displacement but also those that tackle the realities and challenges of life in new surroundings or express dreams and hopes for a better future. In these and in other ways music can help migrants to maintain connections to a homeland but also adapt to a new environment and way of life.

Cities have been places not just of migration but places where the music of migrants has been produced and distributed. John Connell and Chris Gibson (2003: 191) describe how reggae music, which has been connected to Africa, emerged from Jamaica and travelled to London, where it was taken up by West Indian migrant communities and eventually had a strong influence on punk bands such as the Clash. Later still it was taken up in New York where sound systems that were developed in Jamaica became the basis of local hip hop performances. This is just one example of how music continually reflects and combines the different and diverse sounds and styles of migrants and other social groups:

"Over time music has been transformed in a variety of ways (in lyrics, instruments, rhythms, format and so on) into something quite new, especially when it was taken up by other minority, and migrant, groups, without ever losing some link to 'home', whatever the degree and duration of displacement." (Connell and Gibson: 2003: 191).