CARIBBEAN / Caribbean Traditions and Customs
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Trinidad & Tobago's Carnival.
All peoples and nations have a cultural stamp that is the mark they leave on the world. Traditions and customs preserve the sense of identity that sustains any social group over the course of historic changes. This heritage includes expressions of culture that remain in use today but were handed down from our ancestors. Entertainment, gastronomy, arts and crafts, rituals and festivals are some of the reasons for the attachment and pride that communities feel toward their countries, generation after generation.

The Caribbean, with its broad cultural diversity, has managed to bring together several characteristics that appear to erase the geographic borders and difference between the countries of the region. This is despite the undisputable relationships the countries have with the countries that colonized them, which have led each island, directly or indirectly, to try to preserve its language, gastronomical culture, artistic forms and customs.

The climate of the Caribbean archipelago may be one of the decisive factors that have molded cultural expressions such as the music, social customs and even architecture in the islands. It is not hard to imagine that Caribbean architecture is a result of the tropical heat, which establishes various historical and social parallels with other colonized countries.

At the same time, language is an integral part of any culture and its forms shape the outlines of a country’s traditions. For example, there have been efforts of various kinds to prevent the disappearance of Creole — which arrived with the African slaves and grew from a combination of African and European languages —in the face of official languages such as French.

Awareness of the Creole language, however, has penetrated literary trends, linguistics and university specializations — in places such as Martinique — which has kept the language vibrant among those who speak it. French Creole is used in places such as Haiti, Guadeloupe, Dominica and St. Lucia. It remains alive even as its particular variations are spoken as distinctive elements of Caribbean traditions.

The African Heritage

Clearly the colonizing countries left a huge influence that characterizes many aspects of the culture, but the African slaves overwhelmingly demonstrated their existence in the Caribbean through their huge contributions to the folklore of the islands.

For example, many dances and certain cultural occasions were born in Africa. The Junkanoo Parade in the Bahamas emerged from African musical traditions during the 17th century in the form of masked dancers moving to the rhythm of percussion instruments. The Trinidad and Tobago Carnival — one of the most renowned in the Caribbean — also preserves the meaning that this festival had for Africans who danced their desires for freedom at a time when their practices and social expressions were prohibited, prior to emancipation in 1838.

The Puerto Rican bomba y plena dances, meanwhile, are the offspring of African musical and dance traditions. In the 17th century, the bomba took hold within the context of Spanish colonization in Puerto Rico and, from then on, it became an escape valve for African slaves. Later, in the 20th century, the plena emerged in southern Puerto Rico with a resonant Afro-Caribbean base that echoed the Africans who lived and worked on Puerto Rican soil.

Rhythm: Tradition Set to Music

Caribbean musical forms are markedly different from other traditions. Various characteristics of Caribbean musical genres are derived from Creole. Certain rhythms, in turn, such as the Cuban danzon, the Puerto Rican danza, calypso in Trinidad and compas or kompa in Haiti, show European influences.

Similar to plena, calypso emerged on the island of Trinidad, possibly from 19th century slaves, as a voice for the people. With African and European influences, calypso was sung in French Creole and later in English with touches of patois, a mix of English, Spanish and French. Between 1920 and 1930, this musical form broke down geographic borders and drew attention to Trinidadians. By 1950, it had become popular in the United States.

One of the best known kinds of Caribbean music that has gone beyond national borders is reggae from Jamaica. Pushed to the international level by the iconic figure of Jamaican singer Bob Marley, reggae was fed by musical ancestors such as ska and rocksteady and became known for its social content and its distinctive bass and percussion.

The rumba, meanwhile, is synonymous with Cuba, though like other Caribbean musical genres it has not lost its African musical origins. According to Giovannetti (2001), the rumba faced opposition in the 1800s when it was associated with lower classes and at certain times was branded by some as vulgar. Today, the rumba goes on with new forms — guaguancó, columbia and yambú —and is often part of folklore performances that are part of efforts to preserve Cuban heritage.

Without question, the genres discussed above, as well as meringue and salsa — which are linked to the Spanish islands — and the rest of the list of Caribbean rhythms are evidence that the Caribbean is an archipelago that continues to radiate musical joy and quality, not only to its own islands, but to the entire world.

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