The Culture of the USVI

The Virgin Islands blend many influences into their charming and distinctive culture

Photo credit: © Linda Morland | Dreamstime.com

Culture of the Virgin Islands
 

Many influences have shaped the heritage of both the British and the United States Virgin Islands, but European and African cultures have left the most visible imprint on these islands. The region's arts, language, cuisine, and the names of places reflect the African and European people who have shaped the Virgin Islands, history - a history that has endured slavery and sickness. But the islands have emerged as beautiful vacation destinations, each with a rich and fascinating culture and history to explore.

Heritage

Most of the population in the United States and British Virgin Islands is made up of people of African descent, and the rest are expatriates from places such as North America, Europe, Latin America, and other Caribbean countries. International immigrants, who are increasing in number, are primarily drawn to the swelling tourism and service industries on the islands, but there are a number of reasons to relocate here. The charm and appeal of these amazing tropical islands are hard to resist.

In the British Virgin Islands, citizens who are born in the country as well as naturalized citizens are called "Belongers." Belongers have an advantage over non-residents of the islands when it comes to job preference and land purchasing. This favoritism toward citizens of the British Virgin Islands has created some animosity among non-Belongers, who are often considered outsiders by locals and in turn are denied certain privileges by law. Yet these non-citizens are needed to fill the growing number of jobs on the islands.

Language in the Virgin Islands also reflects the area's diverse culture. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, English is the main language, spoken and written. But this form of English has an island twist and is infused with a Creole, or calypso, vernacular. Many of the islands' locals speak very quickly and with a thick accent, which can make it difficult for other English-speaking people to understand. Because the U.S. Virgin Islands are a melting pot of different cultures, it isn't uncommon to hear Spanish, French-Patois, and Creole spoken as well. The main language that is spoken on the British Virgin Islands is Standard English, which is used by everyone who lives on the islands, though West Indian dialects and some of the same eclectic banter heard in the U.S. Virgin Islands are spoken in this British nation as well.

When traveling to the U.S. Virgin Islands, vacationers will see some of the same fast-food restaurants found in the United States, along with local restaurants serving authentic island foods such as pates and boiled fish. You can also find wonderful dishes in the British Virgin Islands, which include meals prepared with West Indian spices and made with ingredients such as tropical fruits, vegetables, and fresh meats and seafood.

Religion

For the most part, people in the Virgin Islands are very religious, and the most popular segments of Christianity practiced in the region are Catholic and Baptist. Many of the same wide-ranging organized religions are practiced in the U.S. Virgin Islands as in the mainland United States. The Baptist, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Anglican, and Moravian faiths, as well as many others, are represented in the islands. And on St. Croix, a small group of Muslims resides, the majority of whom are businessmen from Palestine. The branches of Christianity found on the British Virgin Islands are a reminder of the colonial and missionary days. Methodist, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Seventh-Day Adventist, and various evangelical churches can be found around the country.

...some islanders still practice ancient African beliefs...

 

As in many parts of the Caribbean, some islanders still practice ancient African beliefs, such as animism, the worship of ancestors, spirits, and magic. Adults on the island will often tell children stories of jumbies and duppies, which are ghosts who walk around houses, streets, or anywhere the storyteller wants them to appear, and are believed to be the cause of misfortunes or even good luck. Obeah, or magic is practiced to encourage the spirits and ancestors to do good deeds. These supernatural practices are often combined with mainstream religion, for a mixed belief in both spirits of African tradition and in the God of contemporary Westernized religions.

Literature, Music, and Dance

For a comprehensive sampling of island music and dance, vacationers can experience the carnivals of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John, which also showcase international reggae, calypso, and soca artists. Quelbe music is the folk music of both the U.S. and British Virgin Islands that relies on Western and African cultures as primary influences for the instrumentals and vocal style. This blended genre of music comes from a mixture of jigs, fife-and-drum music from military bands, quadrille dances that originated from early European settlers, and the call-and-response songs of slaves. These slave songs were a subversive way for slaves to communicate and evolved into cariso melodies of the 19th century. Instruments used in this style of music include bamboo flutes, steel triangles, guitars, banjos, ukuleles, ribbed squash gourds, tambourines, bass drums, and in modern times, saxophones.

Fungi bands represent another form of African musical influence on the islands. Fungi is played by a traditional scratch band of guitars, bass instruments, African drums, bamboo flutes, scratch instruments, and washboards. You can find Fungi bands playing at carnivals and competitions, where performers sometimes inject provocative commentary about local events. For exciting musical performances in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Reichhold Center for the Performing Arts on St. Thomas often holds quelbe festivals, as do other venues on the island. In the British Virgin Islands, travelers can check out the annual Music in Steel - Steel Band Concert and the Scratch/Fungi Band Fiesta, which are both in December. Also, most hotel and bar bands provide great entertainment featuring steel drum and reggae performances.

For regional literature, St. Thomas' University of the Virgin Islands prints a literary magazine called The Caribbean Writer, which is a wonderful source for discovering the themes and new talent of Caribbean writing. The magazine was launched in 1987 and has published the works of many renowned authors and poets, including Maya Angelou. With so many inspiring cultural art forms to explore, the Virgin Islands promise to be a treat for the mind as well as the senses.

 

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