Trinidad & Tobago's Carnival

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 — guaguancócolumbia 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.

Botany store San Isidro in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico

Botany store San Isidro in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico

Spiritual Customs

Cultural heritage, language and customs implemented by the colonizing countries are some of the variables that determine which religions are practiced on the Caribbean islands. These traditions maintain their roots without necessarily losing their standing in the present.
While the countries that were Spanish colonies, along with the Dutch islands, are essentially Catholic, the British islands show a greater inclination toward Protestantism. Houston (2005) notes that people of British or European descent are more likely to follow Judaism while in the eastern islands — such as Trinidad — the population tends to be Catholic, with population segments of Indian immigrants who are Hindu. Many scholars have proposed that although Catholicism and Protestantism are present on various islands, syncretism and religious practices tied to traditions are the true Caribbean norm.

Santeria in Cuba, a religion that originated with the Yoruba tribe in Africa, and the Rastafarian movement in Jamaica, have inspired followers around the world and their precepts include rejection of oppression and slavery. These beliefs are examples of how the African civilization has affected religions in the Caribbean. The influence of voudu in Haiti — a practice associated with magic, cannibalism and witchcraft, whose followers worship nature and ancestors — originated in African societies that were oppressed.

Spiritualism is another religion that aggregates elements from the complicated religious map of the Caribbean. Fernández and Paravisini-Gerbert (2003) assert that the spiritualism that is practiced in Puerto Rico and Cuba — as a religion, as a mixture of other beliefs, and as a means of healing — has roots in indigenous, European and North American practices. Communication with the dead and healing practices through levitation and trances were added to the Caribbean mosaic in the middle of the 19th century and show no signs of fading away.

In summary, the religions of the Caribbean are the result of cultural contact that molded them into localized versions in each site. This syncretism mixes symbols of Catholicism and African religions in the form of altars, candles, saints, crucifixes and vases containing the souls of the dead that are found in many Caribbean homes.

A celebratory people

Celebrations are a form of social cohesion that also provides a sociological snapshot of a people?s beliefs and customs.

One example is the similarities seen among various Caribbean cultures in terms of Christmas traditions. Meat pies are a dish that is always served around Christmas in Puerto Rico and in Trinidad and Tobago, and similar filled treats are an essential part of the holiday in Venezuela. Other festivities such as the Midnight Mass held on Christmas Eve are common to both Puerto Rico and Costa Rica, for example.

Similarly, certain practices are repeated on various islands, despite the huge differences that coexist in the Caribbean. Cockfighting —despite its detractors — is an activity that has endured for generations and has been followed enthusiastically in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico since those places were settled during the Spanish colonization.

Cuban gastronomy

Cuban gastronomy

Flavors of Folklore

History has shown that food, beyond providing sustenance, is one of the most prominent ingredients in any culture. Gastronomy is one of the most colorful and distinctive displays of how people live their lives.

The Caribbean is known for an abundance of condiments and spices, along with the central use of fresh ingredients. Considering the region’s wealth of languages and ethnicities, the diversity of the gastronomical cultures of its countries is not surprising. For the same reason, the cooking methods, the ingredients and the names of dishes show a fusion between Caribbean dishes and those that come from African, indigenous, Spanish, British, French and Dutch cultures.

As always, literature has drawn a portrait of the cultural settings and situations that in many cases have served as agents of historical change. Such is the case with Puerto Rican poet Luis Palés Matos (1889-1959), one of the best known proponents of the Antillean — negrista — poetry. In his poem Lamento, Palés mentioned quimbombó and callaloo, two of the Caribbean’s most distinctive dishes.

Callaloo is a heavily spiced soup that is made mostly of vegetables. Although it is made throughout the Caribbean — in Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti and Guadeloupe — it is also made differently on different islands, though it is often prepared with arrowleaf, amaranth, garlic and yams, among other vegetables and herbs. Its consumption varies and is sometimes linked to religious customs such as wakes for the dead in Haiti.

In Cuba and in parts of Brazil, people eat a traditional dish called quimbombó. Torres and Clavé (1997) note that this stew of chicken, plantains, tomato sauce and various vegetables, which has African origins, was one of the foods eaten by slaves and is still served today in Cuban homes. Other similar soups, based on meat and root vegetables, are ajiaco in Cuba and sancocho in the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico.

Rice is also a part of the culinary customs of the Caribbean region, particularly in the examples of Cuban congrí and rice and beans in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. These dishes are an integral part of those countries’ food traditions. Throughout the Caribbean, there are variations that mix rice with ingredients such as coconut and peas. Seafood and fish, as well as drinks based on ginger, are often pointed to as examples of fusion of the wide range of Caribbean gastronomy with that of the Latin American countries with Caribbean influences.


Author: Carmen Graciela Díaz
Published: June 10, 2012.

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