Caribbean Cultures

The Caribbean isn't just coconut palms and beach bars, it's a region of staggering cultural diversity. In many ways it's where the modern world was first born, where the peoples of the Americas, Europe and Africa first met – a product of globalization before the term was even invented. From Usain Bolt to Rihanna, the Caribbean is a place that still has an outsized impact on the wider world today.

People

The Caribbean's first human inhabitants were the Taíno and Arawak peoples, but aside from the Carib reserve (Kalinago Territory) on Dominica of some 3000 people, little vestige of the original inhabitants remains in the region. Instead, there is the complex swirl of cultures and colors from all the people who came after: English, Spanish, French and Dutch mixed with Africans brought over as slaves. When slavery was abolished, indentured laborers were imported from China, India and the Middle East, further blending islands’ identities. Regional immigration also adds to the mix: in the 20th century Haitians have settled in the Dominican Republic and Cuba following work as sugar cane cutters, while expats from the US have altered the makeup of some islands like the Caymans.

The stereotypical island slacker, swinging in a hammock with joint in hand, couldn’t be further from the truth in today’s Caribbean. On most islands, economic necessity or outright hardship means working in the fields, factory or tourism industry in a constant effort to make ends meet. Family is the hub on which life turns and many rely heavily on the remittances sent home from relatives living abroad. Often casual with time and commitments, many islanders prefer to converse with a friend over one last beer than rush to catch a bus. In the villages away from big cities and on the small islands everyone knows each other.

Chivalrous at best, misogynistic at worst, machismo is a complex cultural phenomenon on many islands such as Trinidad. Far from the simple domination of women – indeed, some social scientists argue, convincingly, that it’s really the women holding the reins in these societies – machismo embraces many facets of the human condition including emotional vulnerability and virility. It can also manifest itself in homophobia, which has reached alarming proportions on some islands. This is most notable in Jamaica, where 'traditional' masculine roles have butted up against an LGBT community increasingly asserting its rights to exist.

Religion

It’s quite probable that every religion known to, well, God is practiced somewhere in the Caribbean. Nevertheless, Christian religions are still the classic forces on islands with a strong European heritage. Meanwhile evangelical sects attract scores with the promise of a peaceful afterlife that appeals to those fed up with the tribulations of the here and now.

Many islands have uniquely Afro-Caribbean belief systems. Obeah in Jamaica, Santería in Cuba and especially Vodou in Haiti all trace their roots to Africa. Slaves brought their religions with them on the Middle Passage, which then became overlain and mixed with the Christian trappings of the European colonists. Masking tribal beliefs and traditions with those of the overseers ensured the survival of these religions. These roots still go deep – a popular saying has it that Haiti is 80% Catholic and 20% Protestant, but 100% Vodou.

Rastafari sprouted in Jamaica in the 1930s from Marcus Garvey's 'back to Africa' movement, but really took off in 1966 when Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, regarded as the religion's Messiah, made a state visit to Jamaica. Adherents – most famously Bob Marley – smoke ganja (marijuana) as a sacrament and believe that Africans are the 13th lost tribe of Israel who will be led from exile in Babylon (the West) to Zion or the ‘Promised Land’ (Ethiopia) by Jah (God).

Several islands have Jewish communities. The first Jews arrived in the Caribbean while fleeing persecution from the Spanish Inquisition in the 16th century. Curaçao's Jewish community dates from 1651, and has the oldest synagogue in the Americas.

Music

You’re on a beach and you’re listening to Bob Marley blaring out of the sound system of the bar that just sold you a cold one. You’re in Jamaica, right? Maybe. In fact you could be on any warm beach on earth, so pervasive has Marley become around the world. Even though he died in 1981, at any given moment his songs must be playing in thousands of sandy-floored beach joints worldwide.

Although each island has its own musical style, all Caribbean music is percussion-based, born as a lingua franca from Africans confronting their new, nightmarish reality where music formed one of the few links to their mostly lost cultures (religion was the other). It’s unsurprising that European and North American styles eventually began to infuse Caribbean rhythms. Thematically, sociopolitical commentary/criticism has always been a vital undercurrent but so too has sex – you’ll hear lots of salacious rhythms and raunchy rhymes permeating the Caribbean airwaves.

Calypso to Reggae, Salsa to Dancehall

With Jamaica as its fountainhead, reggae is driven by a kicking drum bass after-beat and is literally heard everywhere. It arose in the late 1960s from its predecessors ska and rocksteady. Reggae lyrics traditionally addressed problems facing Jamaica’s urban poor, including discrimination and marginalization, while also projecting self-affirmation. The reggae pantheon goes well beyond Bob Marley, including his old bandmates Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, Dennis Brown, Burning Spear, Gregory Isaacs and legendary producers such as Lee 'Scratch Perry' and King Tubby. Current artists such as Chronixx and Jah9 are leading the new roots reggae revival.

Dancehall – a raw, cheap-to-produce genre that’s like the bastard child of reggae and hip-hop – incorporates lewd lyrics with ghetto angst that created a whole new musical royalty in Jamaica, from Yellowman and Josey Wales to modern stars such as Sean Paul and the controversial Vybz Kartel. Dancehall's influence now spreads far and wide – where it's riddims meets modern R&B you get Rihanna, the world-conquering queen of Barbados.

Born in 19th-century Trinidad and Tobago among field hands who sang in French Creole to obscure the lyrics’ meaning from the landowners, calypso continues to rely on clever wordplay (though now in English), and the Carnival competitions are a hot highlight across the Caribbean. Calypso – too great a tradition to remain contained – eventually spawned soca, the high-energy mix of soul and calypso. These islands are also the birthplace of the steel (pan) drum.

The Caribbean's latin roots are a staple of the airwaves. Salsa, merengue and its offshoots burn up dance floors from San Juan to Santo Domingo, which sizzle with salsa’s up-tempo beat, sassy brass and smoking rhythm sections. It’s hit big with Puerto Rican superstars such as Marlow Rosado y La Riqueña, Dominican bachata star Juan Luís Guerra and Cuban bands like Los Van Van and NG La Banda. Merengue in turn has gone on to influence Haitian kompa and the zouk music popular in the French Antilles. And the scene, like a good Creole stew, just keeps changing as new forms blend old styles. Latino immigrants on Caribbean islands twist soca and salsa, Cuba's Gente de Zona fuses salsa and reggaeton, while Creole hip-hop is heard from New York to Rio.

Art

You’ll find a rich artistic culture on most of the islands, although you may have to peer past tourist-schlock to find it. Misunderstood Haiti is a perfect example. The Haitian Naive painters of the 1940s and 1950s (such as Hector Hyppolite) were internationally significant, changing Europe and America’s idea of Caribbean and art. The modern generation continues to build on those strong foundations with painters like Edouard Duval-Carrié. Some of the best works you’ll find in galleries (and tourist shops) on islands far away are by Haitian artists.

Cuba is another artistic powerhouse, with Wilfredo Lam its most significant painter. Best known to the wider world perhaps is the photographer Korda, who shot the indelible image of Che Guevara. The Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, both with arts schools, have a rich arts scene as well. One of the most celebrated Caribbean painters is impressionist Camille Pissarro, born on St Thomas in 1803 and known for his landscapes. In Jamaica, look for the expressive sculptures of Edna Manley, not least the statue Negro Aroused that's something of a national icon.

Four of the best museums for Caribbean art are the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico in San Juan, the Dominican Museo de Arte Moderno in Santo Domingo, Havana's Colleción de Arte Cubano and the National Gallery of Jamaica in downtown Kingston.

Literature

When the Jamaican writer Marlon James won the 2015 Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, his epic novel spun out from the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, he was just the latest in a long line of great Caribbean authors. In fact, the list of Caribbean literary giants is so long, your on-the-road reading could comprise only local writers.

The Caribbean has gifted the world two winners of the Nobel literature laureates, both of whom have firmly tackled the Caribbean's post-colonial world. Trinidad's VS Naipaul is the writer of witty novels such as A House for Mister Biswas, and a series of acerbic travelogues. Meanwhile Derek Walcott, from St Lucia, was honored as one of the 20th-century's greatest poets, notably for his epic Omeros.

CLR James, from Trinidad, is another great of Caribbean letters, and author of The Black Jacobins, his epic retelling of the Haitian Revolution. That epochal event also inspired Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier to produce the first magic realist novel The Kingdom of This World, long before there was love in a time of cholera.

The voice of the Caribbean disapora is equally strong. Check out the work of Junot Diaz (Dominican Republic, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), Edwidge Danticat (Haiti, The Dew Breaker) and Andrea Levy (Jamaica, Small Island).

Sports

You need only ask ‘cricket or baseball?’ to get your finger on the pulse. Closest to the US, baseball rules in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, with players by the dozens making the jump to the US big leagues. Catching a game in Cuba or the Dominican Republic is a window into the sport as a local passion.

Cricket is serious business in the Caribbean, where rivalries (and fans) are rabid and the sport attracts major dollars. Islands where cricket rules include Jamaica, the Leeward and Windward Islands, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago, and while there are no national clubs, the top players from these countries form the storied West Indies team. Antigua's Sir Viv Richards and Trinidad and Tobago's Brian Lara would sail into any cricketing all-time eleven. In recent years the rapid-fire Twenty20 game has become popular, with the formation of the Caribbean Premier League. Watch out for teams such as the Jamaican Tallawahs, Trinibago Knight Riders and Barbados Tridents.

Even more fast-paced than Twenty20 cricket has been the Caribbean's success in international athletics. Tour guides everywhere get visitors to make Usain Bolt's signature lightning pose, but behind him come a host of Jamaican runners including Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Elaine Thompson and Asafa Powell.

While volleyball (especially the beach variety) and soccer are popular in the Caribbean, basketball just seems to grow in popularity. Puerto Rico and Cuba have leagues and players regularly make the jump to the NBA, following in the size-15 footsteps of superstars Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Trinidadian descent), Patrick Ewing (Jamaica) and Tim Duncan (St Croix).

Feature: Get out of your shell

You can’t begin to experience the Caribbean until you get to know its people. And that doesn’t just mean the guy mixing the rum-punch or the woman handing you a conch fritter – although these folks are often fascinating in their own right. (People who run beach bars out of shacks on the sand easily have the highest average character quotient anywhere.)

Rather, to meet the locals you need to join the locals; something that often doesn’t happen when you’re in a whirlwind of package tours, resort-style ghettos and general frolic-filled days. Here are some simple, common-sense tips for getting past the smiles of the tourist industry and experiencing the culture of the islands.

  • Eat at lunch wagons or stalls. The food is cheap and you often get incredibly good local fare that hasn’t been watered down for foreign palettes. Plus you can break the ice just by asking what’s what.
  • Drop by a local bar for a drink. It’s perhaps not best for single women, but rum shops on places such as Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao are the de facto community centers and you’ll soon be part of the crowd.
  • Be loyal. So many tourists blow through just once so if the folks in a cafe or bar think you’re a regular (sometimes it takes but two visits), you’ll be part of the crew.
  • Look for community fish fries or barbecues. Typically held once a week, they’re big street parties in the Eastern Caribbean, especially Barbados.
  • Pick up people trudging along the road (hitchhiking is rare, so offer a lift to someone who needs it). As well as offering a helping hand, the resulting conversations can give you some unexpected insights about the island you're visiting.
  • Take the bus – locals love to show you their country and will go out of their way to show you things while you bounce down the road (and the jammed conditions of most buses mean you can’t help but meet people).
  • Be friendly, say hi. A no-brainer but why wait for others to welcome you? Icy resolve can melt when you make the first move.

Sidebar: Island People

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro's masterful Island People: The Caribbean and the World is the outstanding travelogue to come out of the region in recent years.

Sidebar: Rum & mangoes

The Caribbean might be diverse, but there are a couple of things everyone agrees to disagree on: their island has the best rum and the tastiest mangoes.

Sidebar: Running on Remittances

Remittances from family in the Caribbean diaspora are a vital part of the GDP of many islands. In 2016 alone, expat Dominicans, Jamaicans and Haitians sent home a staggering US$10 billion between them.

Sidebar: Vodou not Voodoo

In 2012 the US Library of Congress officially changed its classification of Haiti's religion to Vodou, consigning 'Voodoo', now considered a perjorative term, to the dustbin.

Sidebar: Fire in Babylon

Check out the extraordinary feature documentary Fire in Babylon, about the world-beating West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and '80s, to understand the importance of cricket to much of the Caribbean.

Sidebar: Dominican baseball

For some of the world’s most raucous baseball, catch a game in Santo Domingo and San Pedro de Macoris on the Dominican Republic.

Sidebar: Queen of Calypso

Tobago-born Calypso Rose is the undisputed queen of Caribbean calypso. She recorded her first album in 1964 – and the most recent in 2016.

Sidebar: Jamaica's James Bond

Jamaica directly inspired Ian Fleming to create James Bond – he wrote all the novels there and lifted the spy's name from the author of a guidebook to Caribbean birds.

Sidebar: Cuba's Generation Y

Yoani Sánchez is Cuba’s most famous blogger (and dissident) and her gritty blog Generación Y (www.desdecuba.com/generaciony) has been testing the mettle of Cuba's censorship police since April 2007.

Sidebar: Ripsaw

Played on the accordion, goatskin drum, guitar and sawblade, ripsaw is the national music of the Turks and Caicos Islands – also played in the Bahamas as 'rake & scrape'.

Environment

Viewed from space, the Caribbean islands form a string of green beads along a necklace that stretches across the blue from the Florida peninsula to the coast of South America. Biologically rich, both on the ground and below the waves, they're pretty but occasionally fragile, as a once-pristine region faces up to the environmental challenges of the 21st century.

The Land

You will see two main types of islands in the Caribbean: limestone and volcanic. This can directly affect your traveling experience. Limestone islands were formed by living coral forming layers of limestone that built up over millions of years. In fact the islands look organic; one needs only see the Byzantine shapes of the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, and Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao to understand that these were formed by complex processes (St-Martin/Sint Maarten looks like something left by a bird). The islands have rolling interiors but their real allure is the crenellated coasts, which can provide ideal shelter for boats and which are lined with countless beaches with brilliant white or even pinkish sand from the coral.

Volcanic islands form a crescent from Saba to Grenada. Although most are dormant, there are still eruptions: Martinique (Mt Pelée, 1902), St Vincent (Soufrière volcano, 1979) and Montserrat, whose Soufrière Hills volcano has devastated much of the island in a series of eruptions since 1995. Volcanic islands typically have one or more tall cones that drop steeply down to flatter lands near the coast. The nearly perfect conical shape of Nevis is a good example. The upper reaches of the peaks often still have swaths of rainforest that proved too difficult to clear during the plantation era. The coasts generally lack the intricate curves and inlets of the limestone islands, which means natural ports are uncommon. Beaches can be dark volcanic sand but also bright white from offshore reefs.

Wildlife

Animals

Except for large iguana populations and tree rats on certain islands, land animals have largely been hunted to extinction. Responsibility is shared between humans and other introduced species including the mongoose raccoons, cats, dogs and donkeys. Trinidad, home to 100 types of mammal, is the exception to the rule.

If you’re anxious to behold the Caribbean’s richest fauna, you’re going to get wet. One of the world’s most complex ecosystems is coral, a diminutive animal that lives in giant colonies that form over millennia. Fish pecking away at nutritious tidbits or hiding out in the reef include the iridescent Creole wrasse, groupers, kingfish, sergeant majors and angel fish. Hang – or float – around and you might see inflatable porcupine fish, barracudas, nurse sharks, octopus, moray eels and manta rays.

Other species you may see include pilot, sperm, blue and humpback whales, famous for their acrobatic breaching from January to March. Spinner, spotted and bottlenosed dolphins, and loggerhead, green, hawksbill and leatherback turtles are common sights for divers. Manatees or sea cows, herbivorous marine mammals so ugly they’re cute, are found in waters around Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. All of these animals are on the threatened or endangered species list – part of the reason the Bahamas and other islands like Curaçao are criticized for their captive dolphin facilities.

Hundreds of bird species, both endemic and migratory, frequent scores of islands. Look for iconic pink flamingos on the Bahamas and Bonaire. Common Caribbean seabirds include brown pelicans, white cattle egrets and herons. Hummingbirds and banana quits are always around, searching for something sweet.

Plants

The Caribbean has thousands of plant species. The tropics in bloom feel like an epiphany and you’ll see flowering trees such as the orange flamboyant, the crimson African tulip, the white frangipani with its intoxicating scent, and the dark-blue blossoms of the lignum vitae, the hardest of all known woods. Hundreds of orchid species bejewel damper areas (best January to March), and vermilion bougainvillea, exotic birds of paradise, hibiscus of all colors and spiky crimson ginger pop up everywhere.

Environmental Issues

The sheer popularity of the region as a destination creates or aggravates environmental problems. Specific sites suffering from overexposure include the reef around Tobago Cays off St Vincent and the Grenadines, a popular anchorage for sailors, and the reefs around the Virgin Islands, which have been damaged by careless snorkelers and divers.

Overfishing is a major problem. The Bahamas outlawed long-line fishing in 1959, the first Caribbean island to do so, but now struggles with poachers; some communities have established marine preserves independently of the government to curb the abuse. More than half of the reefs in the Caribbean are dead or dying and the rest are severely threatened. Global warming is the biggest threat, as record sea temperatures kill beneficial types of algae that corals depend on symbiotically to survive, which results in the process called ‘bleaching.’

Waste is also a big issue. Mountains of garbage crowd Havana, acrid refuse burns from Vieques to Puerto Plata, and sewage needs somewhere to go – too often into the sea, unfortunately. Larger islands, in particular, have had difficulty inculcating a culture of conservation. Deforestation is a problem in the Dominican Republic and Haiti alike. However, other islands have begun to take a lead in renewable energy, with increased solar generation in Barbados, the Dutch Antilles investing heavily in wind power, and Nevis, St Lucia and Dominica attempting to take advantage of their volcanic locations to try and develop geothermal energy.

Feature: Hurricanes

Caribbean hurricanes are born 3000km away off the west coast of Africa, where pockets of low pressure draw high winds toward them and the earth's rotation molds them into their familiar counterclockwise swirl. The storms start small but grow in strength as they cross the Atlantic, fed by warm moist air, as they bear down on the Caribbean and the North American eastern shore.

A low-level storm is called a 'tropical disturbance,' which may then grow into a 'tropical depression.' Faster winds upgrade the weather system to a 'tropical storm,' which is usually accompanied by heavy rains. The system is called a 'hurricane' when wind speeds exceed 74mph and intensify around a low-pressure center, the so-called eye of the storm. Hurricane systems can range from 50 miles in diameter to several hundred miles across.

The strength of a hurricane is rated from one to five. The mildest, Category 1, has winds of at least 74mph. The strongest and rarest of hurricanes, Category 5, most typically build up in July and August and pack winds that exceed 155mph. Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, was a Category 5 hurricane.

The Caribbean has often been hit hard by hurricanes. In 1988 Hurricane Gilbert tore through Jamaica, while in 1998 the destruction force of Hurricane Georges left around 340,000 people homeless in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. That country was most recently hit in 2016, when Hurricane Matthew wrecked buildings and agriculture across the southwest of the country.

The National Hurricane Center (www.nhc.noaa.gov), run by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is the place to head for current tropical storm information.

Sidebar: Monkeys of the Caribbean

Several Caribbean Islands, including Barbados, St Kitts and Nevis and Grenada, have wild monkeys originally introduced from Africa by sailors during the slave-trade era.

Sidebar: Barbudan frigate birds

The sight of thousands of frigate birds puffing out their distinctive scarlet throat pouches in hopes of luring a mate on Barbuda is one of nature’s great spectacles.

Sidebar: Lionfish

If you see lionfish on the menu anywhere in the Caribbean, eat up! This invasive species feeds on local fish and has few predators, so let your dinner contribute to pest control.

Sidebar: Breadfruit

The breadfruit tree was first introduced to the Caribbean from Tahiti in 1793 by Captain William Bligh (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame), as a source of cheap food for slave plantations.

Sidebar: Going Bananas

Dan Koeppel’s Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World explores the enormous impact of this ubiquitous fruit.

Side: The Size of the Sea

The Caribbean Sea is the world's fifth-largest body of water, just slightly bigger than the Mediterranean Sea.