Within the diversity that exists in what we call the Caribbean area, oral traditions are a common element in cultures throughout the region. It doesn’t matter whether oral traditions are passed down from one generation to the next in French, Creole, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, English, Papiamento or Sranan Tongo. What matters is that they have survived for hundreds of years, changing, adapting and evolving.

The African slaves brought to the Caribbean arrived in chains, with no material possessions. The plantation owners could not deprive them of their memories of their previous lives, however. Although they tried, they could not eliminate the traditions the slaves brought with them from their homelands, from the lives they lived “before” in freedom.

The harsh work schedule on the plantations did not allow the slaves to live as they had been accustomed to, and they were stripped of all family ties (it was common to divide families), but they could remember their legends, their songs, their dances and rituals, the religion of their ancestors and the use of medicinal plants. This knowledge was passed down to them orally in their countries of origin and they transmitted it to new generations in the new world. This also served as a means for securing their identities and not forgetting that, although they were now slaves, they came from cultures rich in customs and knowledge.

There are many and varied oral traditions in the Caribbean. One of the most obvious, without doubt, is music. The stories told with the drums (from the batá drums to the steel drums) and the lyrics of the songs are, in many cases, intrinsically narrations of the past, are examples of oral transmission. This can be seen in forms such as reggae, calypso, aguinaldos and bomba y plena.

Equally important are stories, fables and legends. Even today, due to the low rates of literacy in countries such as Haiti, religious instruction and story telling have long been the only educational methods on parts of some islands where population does not receive any formal education.

In fables, the main characters are almost always animals. The purpose of some of these stories is to educate, and others are intended to entertain. In Jamaica, Antigua, St. Vincent, Guyana and Nevis, the main character of these stories is called Anancy. In St. Kitts, Dominica, Trinidad, St. Lucia, Montserrat and Barbados, the character, who is usually a cheater, is called Rabbit.

Oral traditions persist because of their sensitivity to social change and their ability to express some of the most pressing concerns of each era. They are also examples of the survival techniques that developed under colonial rule and slavery to ensure the preservation of these cultures and their future existence.

Author: Neeltje van Marissing Méndez
Published: December 20, 2011.

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