The Culture of Jamaica

The unique Jamaican culture is kept alive by its extraordinary people

Photo credit: © camshafter

Jamaica's Culture
 

Nowhere else on earth will you find a culture as dynamic as the one visitors encounter in Jamaica. Its people are a mixture of the many ethnicities that have landed on the island's shores over the past several centuries. Weathering enslavement and oppression, the Jamaicans are survivors, and their past is full of fascinating stories just waiting to be told.

Cultural Heritage

Whether they are the descendants of the colonists or recent immigrants from the Middle East, people of all nationalities live and work together in Jamaica. Cultures have been mingling on Jamaica's shores for hundreds of years. And while this mixture inspires pride, it is also the source of Jamaica's characteristically brassy banter that, to an outsider, might seem inappropriate at times. The Taíno, who inhabited the island long before European discovery, also left behind a cultural history.

Most Jamaicans are always willing to talk about subjects most find uncomfortable, peppering their speech with terms such as 'browning,' 'redman,' 'coolie,' 'whitey,' 'blacka' or 'Miss Chin.' It is not uncommon to find people of all ethnic backgrounds on Jamaica, and the islanders are comfortable with their outward racial differences because they know this is part of what makes their culture unique.

Dig into the island's past and learn more about its present by reading our guide to Jamaica's History.

Language

Language is another way in which Jamaica demonstrates its melded culture. Although Jamaica's official language is English, many of its residents speak with their own linguistic style. There are even differences from village to village. The main ingredients of Jamaica's language stew are Spanish, African, English (including Irish, British and American idioms), and even Rastafarian. On Jamaica you might hear your shoes referred to with the Spanish word, "zapatos," and you might talk about where to "nyam," an African word meaning "eat." However, you may also hear terms you're more familiar with, like "cool." The language also has roots in slavery, as the slaves found ways to combine the language of their owners with their own African tongues.

Click here to get more information about the spoken word in Jamaica.

Traditional Clothing

Traditional wear includes colorful and usually handmade dresses from calico cloth. Calico is generally striped, similar to a plaid. These dresses include tiered skirts, but another important aspect is the head scarf. This scarf is carefully wrapped around the head to keep hair in place. Rastafarian-influenced clothes are of particular interest to tourists and generally include red, green, and gold, which are the colors of the Ethiopian flag. One of the most important aspects of Rastafarian clothing is that it is made from natural fibers. Also important in this attire is the "tam," a hat that covers the dreadlocks.

You can learn more not only about the island's traditional clothing style, but also how locals dress today and tips on what you should wear as a visitor by reading our guide to Jamaican Clothing.  

Traditional Food

Culinary Styles on Jamaica

Jamaican culture is also richly flavored by its cuisine. The aromatic spices of the Caribbean have allowed the island's kitchens to create one of the most unusual fusions of flavors in the world. Most popular on the menu is jerk, a marinade that can be added to almost anything, but usually meat. The spicy sauce includes many of the island's native ingredients. Seafood is also prevalent on the island, but most truly Jamaican dishes, which intimidate most visitors, include cow foot stew and goat's head soups.

Everything you need to know about the cultural culinary offerings of Jamaica can be learned here

Religion

...not every member believes in all of these things...

Spirituality takes many forms in Jamaica, but all are reflected in the local culture. The Guinness Book of World Records determined Jamaica to have the most churches per square mile of any place on the planet. The island hosts many different Christian denominations, including Anglicans, Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, Seventh Day Adventists, and Presbyterians. But the religious are not only Christians: Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Bahai's, and Rastafarians all call Jamaica home.

Read more about religions in Jamaica, especially including details about Rastafarianism by clicking here

Visual Arts

Jamaica Past and Present

Jamaicans take pride in their artistic style. Influenced by the island's unique culture as well as European, American, and African art forms, islanders have mastered a style all their own. The nation has produced many famous artists including sculptor and painter Edna Manley, painter Albert Huie and the self-taught artist Kapo.

You can read more on the subject here.

Crafts

Although equally artistic, local crafts fall out of the visual arts category and into one of their own.  On the island, there are many artisans who create goods of local, natural materials and they do so by hand.  You can get your own hands on any number of these goods by visiting a local crafts fair where you will find such items as glazed pottery animals, straw hats made of palm leaves, embroidered linens and batik clothing, and shell jewelry.  If the Rastafarian culture is of particular interest to you, you'll also be able to find wood carvings that are typically made of red hard woods.  

If crafts interest you, you'll be able to read more about what locals have been known to create by clicking here

Dance

Of course, Jamaicans are also known for their willingness to dance. Dances found on Jamaica fuse the styles of Europeans and Africans into a unique form. Some of the local dances are the "jonkonnu," a dance practiced by slaves at Christmas time, "bruckins," from the period after emancipation, and the newer "ska." European dances like the maypole and quadrille are performed with "mento" music, while African dances like the "gerreh," "dinki-mini," and "ettu" were turned into commentaries on plantation living. New dances crop up constantly, but these older styles are the basis for new moves. Dance halls are the best places to find new styles, but the traditional dances of Jamaican culture are kept alive by organizations such as the National Dance Theater Company.

A more comprehensive overview of Jamaica's dance style can be read when you click here.  

Music

...influence of Jamaica's multifaceted culture.

Where would dancers be if it weren't for music, the most popular form of Jamaican music is reggae, which has a sound is so easy to enjoy that it has gained popularity throughout the world. Many reggae musicians have grown to international fame, most notably Bob Marley, who worked with and influenced many other local musicians before his death in 1981. The popularity of this genre has continued to this day. Dancehall, a variation of reggae, is also growing in popularity.

Jamaica Events and Festivals

Reggae may be the most well-known style of music, but there are many more. Jamaican folk music has come from many sources over the years. The most notable influence on many of the sounds found here is Africa, in celebrations of birth, death, and harvesting. However, the different types of music performed now fall into three groups: dance, religious, and work and entertainment.

For a more extensive overview of the importance of music to the people of Jamaica, click here.

Film

Thanks to the picturesque landscape and the unique culture, Jamaica has always been a popular location to shoot scenes for Hollywood films.  There have also been films made by locals in recent years that discuss social issues and every-day-life on the island.  If this is a subject of interest to you, you can read more and get a full list of movies that have been shot even partially in Jamaica by clicking here

Theater

It may come as a shock to some visitors, but Jamaica has a very rich theater history.  The island's first theater opened back in the 17th century, hosting theater troops from Europe and America.  Locally put on performances were not popular at first, but soon writers that lived on the island found their niche in discussing the tumultuous social issues and popularity boomed.  Today, there are more than a half a dozen live theaters on the island, and visitors are always invited to stop in and see a play or musical.  

If live theater is one of your passions, you won't want to miss out reading our guide to Theater in jamaica

Literature

The literary world of Jamaica got its start with folk tales told as a form of oral history that was passed down from generation to generation, often as cautionary tales for youths to hear and heed.  What we find in the literary world of Jamaica today, however, is that the local dialect is interwoven with elevated prose to create pieces of written work that is unlike anything you'll find elsewhere in the world.  Like many things that become important to the arts and culture scene of the island, it is discussion of social issues that catapults local literature to the top.
A more in depth discussion of the past and present of local literature can be read here

From painting to music, language to food, the Jamaican people have so much to offer the world. Once you leave, you'll never lose the lasting influence of Jamaica's multifaceted culture.

Learn more about the rich culture in Jamaica by reading the detailed articles listed below:

 

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