Jamaican Landscapes

Jamaica is the third-largest island in the Caribbean, and one of its greenest. The original Taíno inhabitants gave it its name, Xaymaca, meaning 'land of wood and water', and it certainly lives up to its billing as an immensely fertile garden of a country. It's rich in plant and animal life – especially birds – but like other countries in the region faces a host of delicate environmental challenges.

Animals

Amphibians & Reptiles

Jamaica harbors plenty of both amphibians and reptiles. The largest are American crocodiles (called ‘alligators’ in Jamaica), found along the south coast, but also in and around Negril’s Great Morass and adjacent rivers. Abundant until big-game hunters appeared around the turn of the century, crocs are now protected. Crocodile river-safaris are big business in Black River.

Jamaica has 24 species of lizard, including the Jamaican iguana, which hangs on to survival in the remote backwaters of the Hellshire Hills. Geckos can often be seen hanging on ceilings by their sticky feet. Local superstition shuns geckos, but their presence in your hotel room means fewer bugs.

Jamaica has five snake species, none venomous and all endangered thanks mostly to the ravages of the mongoose, which has entirely disposed of a sixth species – the black snake. The largest is the Jamaican boa, or yellow snake – a constrictor (called nanka locally) that can grow 2.5m in length.

There are 17 frog and one toad species. Uniquely, none of Jamaica’s 14 endemic frog species undergoes a tadpole stage; instead, tiny frogs emerge in adult form directly from eggs. All over Jamaica you’ll hear the whistle frog living up to its name. While it makes a big racket, the frog itself is smaller than a grape.

Birds

When it comes to sheer variety of color and song, birds are Jamaica’s main animal attraction. More than 255 bird species call Jamaica home, 26 of which are endemic, while others are passing through on migration routes to and from North America, making Jamaica a particularly rewarding destination for birdwatching.

Jamaica's national bird is the 'doctor bird' or red-billed streamertail – an indigenous hummingbird with shimmering emerald feathers, a velvety black crown with purple crest, a long bill and curved tail feathers. It's image is reproduced everywhere. In total, four of the 16 Caribbean species of hummingbird are represented in Jamaica.

Stilt-legged, snowy-white cattle egrets are ubiquitous, as are ‘John crows,’ or turkey vultures, who are the subject of many proverbs. The patoo is the Jamaican name for the owl, which many islanders regard as a harbinger of death. Jamaica has two species: the screech owl and the endemic brown owl. There are also four endemic species of flycatcher, a woodpecker and many rare species of dove.

In the extensive swamps, birdwatchers can spot herons, gallinules and countless other waterfowl. Pelicans can be seen diving for fish, while magnificent frigate birds soar high above the coast.

Insects

Jamaica has mosquitoes, bees and wasps, but most bugs are harmless. A brown scarab beetle called the ‘newsbug’ flies seemingly without control and, when it flies into people, locals consider it a sign of important news to come. Diamond-shaped ‘stinky bugs’ are exactly that, advertising themselves with an offensive smell. Fireflies (called ‘blinkies’ and ‘peeny-wallies’) are also common.

Jamaica has 120 butterfly species and countless moth species, of which 21 are endemic. The most spectacular butterfly is the giant swallowtail, Papilio homerus, with a 15cm wingspan. It lives only at higher altitudes in the John Crow Mountains and the eastern extent of the Blue Mountains (and in Cockpit Country in smaller numbers).

Mammals

Jamaica has few mammal species. Small numbers of wild hogs and feral goats still roam isolated wilderness areas, but the only native land mammal is the endangered Jamaican coney (hutia), a large brown rodent akin to a guinea pig. Habitat loss now restricts the highly social, nocturnal animal to remote areas of eastern Jamaica.

The mongoose is the one you’re most likely to see, usually scurrying across the road. It was imported from India in 1872 to rid sugarcane fields of rats. Unfortunately, they proved more interested in feeding on snakes, a natural predator of the rat, and are now considered a destructive pest.

Marine Life

Coral reefs lie along the north shore, where the reef is almost continuous and much of it is within a few hundred meters of shore.

More than 700 species of fish zip in and out of the reefs: wrasses, parrot fish, snappers, bonito, kingfish, jewel fish and scores of others. Smaller fry are preyed upon by barracuda, giant groupers and tarpon. Sharks are frequently seen, though most of these are harmless nurse sharks. Further out, the deep water is run by sailfish, marlin and manta rays.

Three species of endangered marine turtle – the green, hawksbill and loggerhead – lay eggs at the few remaining undeveloped sandy beaches.

About 100 endangered West Indian manatee – a shy, gentle creature once common around the island – survive in Jamaican waters, most numerously in the swamps of Long Bay on the south coast.

Environmental Issues

Like many Caribbean nations, Jamaica faces significant environmental issues.

In the mid-1990s Jamaica had the highest rate of deforestation (5% per year) of any country in the world and, although there is now greater awareness of the problem, it is still a threat. Many of Jamaica’s endemic wildlife species are endangered, largely due to habitat loss, including the American crocodile, Jamaican boa, Jamaican iguana, coney, green parrot and giant swallowtail butterfly.

Bauxite mining – the island’s second-most lucrative industry after tourism – is considered to be the single largest cause of deforestation in Jamaica. Bauxite can only be extracted by opencast mining, which requires the wholesale destruction of forests and topsoil. The access roads cut by mining concerns are then used by loggers, coal burners and yam-stick traders to get to trees in and around designated mining areas, extending the deforestation. Local pressure has blocked periodic attempts to open Cockpit Country to bauxite (and limestone) mining. Deforestation has also damaged parts of the Blue Mountains, where farmers felled trees to clear land to grow lucrative coffee plants.

The National Environmental & Planning Agency (NEPA) is entrusted with responsibility for promoting ecological consciousness among Jamaicans and management of the national parks and protected areas under the Protected Areas Resource Conservation Project (PARC).

Feature: The Marvellous Mangroves

The spidery mangrove, which grows along the Jamaican coast, is crucially important to coastal preservation, besides functioning as a nursery for countless marine and amphibian species. By acting as a shield between the ocean and the mainland, mangroves maintain the integrity of the Jamaican coast; it is estimated their destruction, due to agriculture, resort development, timber cutting, human settlement and pollution, has resulted in the erosion of up to 80 million tons of topsoil per year. This habitat destruction obviously sets off an ecological chain reaction of disaster; as mangroves die, so too do the nurseries of important fisheries. As a result, the National Environment & Planning Agency (www.nepa.gov.jm), in concert with local community organizations, has identified more than a dozen areas for mangrove rehabilitation across the country; check the agency’s website for more information.

National & Marine Parks

Jamaica’s park system comprises four parks: Blue Mountains-John Crow National Park, Montego Bay Marine Park, Port Antonio Marine Park and Negril Marine Park. There is also a fistful of other wilderness areas with varying degrees of protection, such as the Portland Bight Protected Area.

The 780-sq-km Blue Mountains-John Crow National Park (Jamaica’s largest) includes the biologically diverse forest reserves of the Blue and John Crow mountain ranges. All marine parks are situated around resort areas and were developed to preserve and manage coral reefs, mangroves and offshore marine resources.

Proposals to turn Cockpit Country into a national park have been met with stiff resistance from the Maroons who live there and fear increased governmental authority will infringe on their hard-won autonomy.

Plants

Jamaica is a veritable garden, with some 3582 plant species (including 237 orchids and 550 species of fern), of which at least 912 are endemic. Although much of the island has been cultivated for agriculture, there are large stretches, especially in the interior, where the flora has largely been undisturbed since human settlement. Probably the most famous indigenous plant species is pimento (allspice), the base of many Jamaican seasonings.

Introduced exotics include bougainvillea, brought from South America via London’s Kew Gardens in 1858; ackee, the staple of Jamaican breakfasts, brought from West Africa in 1778; and mangoes, which arrived in 1782 from Mauritius. Breadfruit was introduced in 1793 by Captain Bligh (of 'Mutiny on the Bounty' fame), as a food crop for the slave population. Closer cousins to local plants are cocoa, cashew and cassava, native to Central America and the West Indies. A native pineapple from Jamaica was the progenitor of Hawaii’s pineapples (the fruit even appears on the Jamaican coat of arms).

Needless to say, ganja (marijuana) is grown in remote areas to evade the eyes of law enforcement, although the hope is that legalization may soon turn the herb into an important cash crop. The harvest season runs from late August through October. Ganja was originally imported to the island by laborers from India, although the Rastafari will tell you the plant was first cultivated off the grave of King Solomon in Ethiopia.

Tree Species

The national flower is the dark-blue bloom of the lignum vitae tree, whose timber is much in demand by carvers. The national tree is blue mahoe, which derives its name from the blue-green streaks in its beautiful wood. You’ll also want to keep your eyes peeled for the dramatic flowering of the vermilion ‘flame of the forest’ (also called the ‘African tulip tree’).

Logwood, introduced to the island in 1715, grows wild in dry areas and produces a dark-blue dye. Native species include rosewood, palmetto, mahogany, silk-cotton – said to be a habitat for duppies (ghosts) – cedar and ebony; the latter two have been logged to decimation during the past two centuries. Over the last decade, deforestation has also led to the deterioration of more than a third of Jamaica’s watersheds.

The Island

At 10,991 sq km (roughly equal to the US state of Connecticut, or half the size of Wales), Jamaica is the largest of the English-speaking Caribbean islands. It is one of the Greater Antilles, which make up the westernmost Caribbean islands, and is a near neighbor to Cuba and Haiti.

‘Mainland’ Jamaica is rimmed by a narrow coastal plain, except for the southern broad flatlands. Mountains form the island’s spine, rising gradually from the west and culminating in the Blue Mountains in the east, which are capped by Blue Mountain Peak at 2256m. The island is cut by about 120 rivers, many of which are bone dry for much of the year but spring to life after heavy rains, causing great flooding and damage to roads. Coastal mangroves, wetland preserves and montane cloud forests form small specialized ecosystems that contain a wide variety of the island’s wildlife. Offshore, small islands called cays offer further habitats for marine life.

Feature: Caves

Two-thirds of the island’s surface is composed of soft, porous limestone (the compressed skeletons of coral, clams and other sea life), in places several miles thick and covered by red-clay soils rich in bauxite (the principal source of aluminum). The constant interplay of water and soft rock makes Jamaica an especially good destination for spelunkers.

Feature: Tips for Travelers

  • Never take ‘souvenirs’ such as shells, plants or artifacts from historical sites or natural areas.
  • Keep to the footpaths. When hiking, always follow designated trails. Natural habitats are often quickly eroded, and animals and plants are disturbed by walkers who stray from the beaten path.
  • Don’t touch or stand on coral. Coral is extremely sensitive and is easily killed by snorkelers and divers who make contact. Likewise, boaters should never anchor on coral – use mooring buoys.
  • Try to patronize hotels, tour companies and merchants that act in an environmentally sound manner, based on their waste generation, noise levels, energy consumption and the local culture.
  • Many local communities derive little benefit from Jamaica’s huge tourism revenues. Educate yourself on community tourism and ways you can participate. Use local tour guides wherever possible.
  • Respect the community. Learn about the customs of the region and support local efforts to preserve the environment and traditional culture.

Sidebar: Caves

If you’re into caving, burrow into the website of the Jamaican Caves Organisation (www.jamaicancaves.org).

Sidebar: Birds of Jamaica

Birdwatchers should turn to Birds of Jamaica: A Photographic Field Guide by Audrey Downer and Robert Sutton and the classic Peterson Field Guide to Birds of the West Indies.

Sidebar: Jamaica's Butterflies

Those captivated by Jamaica's astonishingly beautiful butterflies should grab a copy of An Annotated List of Butterflies of Jamaica by A Avinoff and N Shoumatoff.

Sidebar: Pimento

The pimento tree provides the wood whose smoke gives Jamaican jerk its distinct flavor. The leaves are crushed to produce intoxicating allspice.

Sidebar: Southern Trelawny Environmental Agency

To visit Cockpit Country in an ecologically responsible manner, check out the Southern Trelawny Environmental Agency’s website, www.stea.net.

Sidebar: Conservation Organizations

The Jamaica Conservation & Development Trust (www.jcdt.org.jm) and the Jamaica Environment Trust (www.jamentrust.org) are at the forefront of environmental issues in Jamaica.

Jamaican Way of Life

Spliff-puffing Rastas, violent rude boys from the Kingston ghettoes, deep reggae vibes and slack dancehall lyrics – people sure can arrive in Jamaica with a basketful of clichés. However, the reality is a lot more interesting and complex, and the island is home to a culture as diverse as the island’s geography is varied. It's a country as smooth as a cup of Blue Mountain coffee, and as buzzing as a shot of white overproof rum.

A Woman’s Lot

While Jamaican society can appear oppressively macho to outsiders accustomed to dancehall lyrics, women tend to be strong, independent and economically active. This spirit often translates into the kind of self-assurance so apparent in Portia Simpson-Miller, the former prime minister. Jamaican women attain far higher grades in school and have higher literacy rates than Jamaican men, and middle-class women have attained levels of respect and career performance that are commensurate with their counterparts in North America and Europe.

The darker side of a Jamaican woman’s life is the proliferation of sexual violence. According to statistics, one in four women is subject to a forced sexual encounter during the course of her life. While Jamaica has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the region (18% of all births are to teenage mothers), abortion remains illegal except on medical grounds.

Jamaica’s Sporting Legacy

If anyone can wrest away Bob Marley's mantle as the world's most recognizable Jamaican, it's the ultra-charismatic Usain Bolt, currently the fastest man on the planet and 'triple-triple' Olympic gold medalist, winning gold in the 100m, 200m and 400m relay at the Beijing, London and Rio games. He's part of Jamaica's astonishing home-grown crop of athletics champions, along with Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Elaine Thompson (both Olympic 100m and 200m gold-medal holders).

Jamaica is cricket mad, and cricketers such as fast bowler Courtney Walsh and batsman Chris Gayle are revered. Jamaica plays nationally as part of the West Indies team, who were quarter-finalists in the 2011 and 2015 World Cups, and champions in the 2012 and 2016 World Twenty20. Jamaican cricket's home is Sabina Park in Kingston, which hosts national and international test matches as well as the Caribbean Premier League (CPL) – of which the Jamaican Tallawahs are the 2016 champions.

Football is also madly popular. The Reggae Boyz – Jamaica’s national soccer team – took part in the 1998 World Cup, though they haven’t qualified since. Spirited international matches are played at Kingston’s National Stadium.

Jamaican Arts

The rest of the region might not agree, but for many visitors Jamaican culture is synonymous with Caribbean culture as a whole. There's more to the island than just an endless Bob Marley mixtape however: from dancehall vibes and a rich visual arts tradition to a literary scene that's currently enjoying international acclaim, Jamaicans prove time and again the strength and depth of their cultural scene.

Film

For many, Jamaican cinema begins with cult classic The Harder They Come (1973), starring Jimmy Cliff as a 'rude bwai' in Kingston’s ghettoes. Smile Orange (1974) tells the story of Ringo, a hustling waiter at a resort – a theme not irrelevant today. Rockers (1978), another music-propelled, socially poignant fable, is a Jamaican reworking of The Bicycle Thief featuring a cast of reggae all-stars.

The Lunatic (1991), based on the Anthony Winkler novel, is a humorous exploration of the island’s sexual taboos.

Rick Elgood’s 1997 film Dancehall Queen found an international audience for its tale of redemption for a struggling street vendor, who escapes the mean streets of Kingston through dancehall music. Jamaica’s highest-grossing film is Chris Browne’s 2000 crime drama Third World Cop, in which old friends straddling both sides of the law must come to terms with each other. Shottas (2002) follows in its footsteps, featuring two Kingston criminals trying their luck in the US. One Love (2003) explores Jamaica’s social divides against the backdrop of a controversial romance between a Rasta musician and a pastor’s daughter.

Currently making waves on the Jamaican movie scene is director Storm Saulter, whose communal approach to film-making has brought many admirers, most notably for his 2013 movie Better Mus Come, about Kingston's gang troubles in the 1970s, one of the most critically acclaimed films to come out of the Caribbean in the last 10 years.

Literature

The current star on Jamaica's literary scene is undoubtedly Marlon James, author of A Brief History of Seven Killings and The Book of Night Women, but other hot names to look out for include Kei Miller (The Last Warner Woman, August Town), Olive Senior (Dancing Lessons), Garfield Ellis (For Nothing At All) and Diana McCaulay (Huracan). Nicole Dennis-Benn's debut novel Here Comes the Sun announced the arrival of another great Jamaican writer in 2016.

The novels of Anthony Winkler are celebrated for the wry eye they cast over Jamaican life, most notably in The Lunatic, The Duppy and The Family Mansion.

Through the years, Jamaican literature has been haunted by the ghosts of slave history and the ambiguities of Jamaica’s relationship to Mother England. Best known is Herbert de Lisser’s classic Gothic horror, White Witch of Rose Hall.

The streets of Kingston are the setting for the gritty novels of Roger Mais, notably The Hills Were Joyful Together and Brother Man. Orlando Patterson’s The Children of Sisyphus mines the same tough terrain from a Rastafari perspective.

Jamaica has produced a fine crop of female writers. They include Christine Craig (Mint Tea), Patricia Powell (Me Dying Trial), Michelle Cliff (Abeng, Land of Look Behind) and Vanessa Spence (Roads Are Down).

Bridging the gap between literature and performance is the patois-rich genre of dub poetry. Louise Bennett (Selected Poems) and Linton Kwesi Johnson (My Revolutionary Fren) are essential texts.

Feature: A Brief History of Marlon James

Jamaica is used to punching well above its weight in the cultural sphere, from reggae and dancehall to the athletics track. To its crown it can now add literature, thanks in no small part to Marlon James, who won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 for his rolling, cacophonous novel A Brief History of Seven Killings.

James, who grew up in Kingston, nearly didn't become a writer. His first novel, John Crow's Devil was rejected 78 times before an agent at the Calabash literature festival in Treasure Beach finally signed him up (resigned to rejection, he had already tried to destroy every copy of the manuscript). The Book of Night Women, a harrowing account of the life of an enslaved woman in colonial Jamaica, followed, and then his prize-winning epic A Brief History, centered on the 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley.

As well as being a poster boy for the current crop of Jamaican writers, James has also became an unwitting figurehead after coming out as gay in the searing From Jamaica to Minnesota to Myself in 2015. James' current project is a much-anticipated fantasy trilogy, loosely titled the Dark Star sequence, inspired by ancient African mythology.

The Birth of Visual Nationalism

British trends and colonial tastes traditionally shaped Jamaican art, but in the 1920s the Jamaican School of local artists began to develop its own style, shaped by realities of Jamaican life. There were two main groups: the painters who were schooled abroad, and island-themed ‘intuitives.’

Jamaican Independence leader Norman Manley’s wife, Edna, an inspired sculptor and advocate for indigenous Jamaican art, became a leading catalyst for change. Through the example of seminal works such as Negro Aroused (1935) and Pocomania (1936), which synthesized African and Jamaican archetypes within a deeply personal vision of the national psyche, Manley provided an electrifying example of the potential of Jamaican art. At a grassroots level, Manley organized free art classes and training courses to energize and organize rising talent.

This fertile ground gave birth to three of Jamaica’s great painters. Self-taught artist John Dunkley was ‘discovered’ by Manley in his brilliantly decorated Kingston barbershop. His brooding landscapes of sinister tropical foliage, never-ending roads and furtive reptiles and rodents spoke of a vision that resonated with the historical traumas of the nation. In contrast, Albert Huie produced intricately detailed and beautifully composed works depicting an idyllic dreamscape of rural scenes far removed from the urban strife of his native Kingston. More rooted in his immediate surroundings, David Pottinger’s primary interest is in the urban landscape. His portrayals of downtown life reveal the melancholy of poverty while also suggesting the indomitable spirit of life.

Leading lights of the contemporary Jamaican visual arts scene currently include the painter Ebony Patterson and the photographer Marvin Bartley. Both have strong links to Kingston's Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts, which remains an important crucible for the country's artistic scene. Good annual events for taking the temperature of Jamaica's visual arts are the Kingston on the Edge festival and the National Gallery of Jamaica's Biennial Art Exhibition.

Living in Jamaica

Jamaica is classed as a middle-income country, and it has a small but significant middle class – well educated, entrepreneurial and frequently with close ties to the UK and America.

Despite this, many Jamaicans live in pockets of extreme poverty, either in the countryside, eking out lives as farmers, fishers or plantation laborers, or scraping by in Kingston’s ghettoes and shanties. Job opportunities are difficult to come by without a proper education, which doesn’t come cheap, so many low-income Jamaicans hustle, waiting for an opportunity to present itself. The average per capita income is less than US$5000 a year and many Jamaicans are reliant on remittances sent by family members living abroad.

Music

Few places are as defined by their music as Jamaica. Thanks to Bob Marley, reggae is the island soundtrack that went on to conquer the world, helping permanently brand the country and bestow on it a global cultural influence well out of proportion to the island’s tiny size. In fact, there’s a lot more to Jamaican music than just reggae, as Jamaica’s relentlessly busy studios attest. Per capita, Jamaica is the world’s most prolific creator of recorded music. Or as the patois proverbs put it, ‘We likkle but we talawah’ (We're small, but we're powerful.)

A Brief History

Modern Jamaican music starts with the acoustic folk music of mento. In the early 1960s this blended with calypso, jazz and R&B to form ska, the country’s first popular music form. This evolved, via the intermediate step of rocksteady, into the bass-heavy reggae of the 1970s, the genre that ultimately swept all before it. Dancehall, a faster and more clubby sound than its predecessors, followed thereafter, and continues to dominate the contemporary music scene today. For all that these styles are distinct, they constantly blend and feed off each other – this syncretism is the true magic of Jamaican music.

Dancehall Culture

The modern sound of Jamaica is definitely dancehall: rapid-fire chanting over bass-heavy beats. It’s simplistic to just call dancehall Jamaican rap, because the formation of the beats, their structure and the nuances of the lyrics all have deep roots in Jamaica’s musical past.

The new sound sprang up at the close of the 1970s with DJs such as Yellowman, Lone Ranger and Josey Wales, who grabbed the mic, and powered the high-energy rhythms through the advent of faster, more digital beats. This was a period of turmoil in Jamaica, and the music reacted by moving away from political consciousness towards a more hedonistic vibe. The scene centered on the sound systems and ‘sound clashes’ between DJs, dueling with custom records to win the crowd’s favor and boost their reputation.

By the 1990s the success of artists such as Shabba Ranks turned dancehall global, but stars including Buju Banton, Beenie Man, Bounty Killer and Sizzla continue to be criticized for lyrics celebrating violence and homophobia. This came to a peak in 2014 with the conviction for murder of 'World Boss' Vybz Kartel, dancehall's biggest and most innovative star. Curiously, his prison sentence has barely slowed his music release schedule. Criticism of dancehall’s more outlandish facets is a staple of the Jamaican press, but for all this, dancehall remains in rude health – Sean Paul and Konshens have long ascended into international stardom, while acts such as Cham and Tommy Lee ride the riddims at home.

Experiencing Jamaican Music

It’s a surprise to some, but the live music scene in Jamaica is relatively small. The sound system rules supreme here; many working musicians often head to the resort hotels to earn a crust playing reggae for package tourists, although in recent years the roots revival has seen more club nights in Kingston featuring live acts. There are also some excellent reggae festivals, most notably Montego Bay’s SumFest every July, and Rebel Salute held every January in St Ann. February is designated ‘Reggae Month’ in Jamaica (in part to honor Bob Marley’s birthday on the 6th), when there’s lots of live music to be had, especially in Kingston.

If you want to hear dancehall, there are plenty of clubs, but the street parties in Kingston are by far the most vibrant. For the sound systems, the toasting, the street fashion and the dancing, they're hard to beat. Ask locals, especially those working in your hotel or guesthouse, where you'll find the best parties and promoted events. On the whole they're well-run, community-policed events. Parties run late though – don't even think of arriving before midnight.

Jamaican Music Glossary

dancehallfast, beat-led offspring of reggae, currently Jamaica's most popular form of music
duba subgenre of reggae with more emphasis on mixing reverb, echo and other production techniques, plus ‘dubbing’ instrumental and vocal sections
dubplatea specialized version of a popular tune recorded specifically to bug up a sound system, especially in a clash!
jonkonnua carnival parade with West African and Bahamian origins; particularly associated with Christmas
mentotraditional folk music that predates modern Jamaican genres. The sound is acoustic: guitar, fiddle, banjo, drums and rhumba box (a wooden box with metal keys)
raggasynonymous with dancehall, but more commonly used in the UK rather than Jamaica
reggaeJamaica’s most famous music, generally played in 4/4 time with a dominant bass. The guitar is (usually) played on the second and fourth beat; this ‘plink…plink’ sound is known as a ‘skank.’
riddimcan just mean ‘rhythm,’ but also refers to instrumental versions of songs, the beat and bass line to be toasted over; popular riddims spread like wildfire
rocksteadythe genre bridge between ska and reggae, rocksteady is characterized by strong bass lines and a mellow sound
roots reggaesubgenre of reggae that focuses on Rastafarian spirituality and social change
selectorbasically, a DJ (in the sense that they ‘selects’ the riddims)
skaa uniquely Jamaican genre, blending mento, calypso and American R&B, with a walking bass line and strong upbeat
slacknesswhile ‘slack’ can refer to any kind of vulgarity (particularly sexual), it is often used as an adjective to describe dancehall lyrics
socacombination of soul and calypso music
sound systemmobile disco/party using giant speakers, such as a dancehall; sound systems tend to have specific names, sounds and followings.
toastingat a party, a toaster starts a rhythmic chant over a prelaid beat (riddim); there’s a convincing case to be made that this is the origin of modern rap and hip-hop

Feature: Our Top Dancehall Playlist

Who Am I Beenie Man

Murder She Wrote Chaka Demus and Pliers

Sycamore Tree Lady Saw

Get Busy Sean Paul

Ting-a-Ling Shabba Ranks

Under Me Sleng Teng Wayne Smith

It’s a Pity Tanya Stephens

Ring the Alarm Tenor Saw

Clarks Vybz Kartel ft. Popcaan and Gaza Slim

Zungguzungguzeng Yellowman

Feature: Our Top Reggae Playlist

007 (Shanty Town) Desmond Decker & the Aces

Picture of Selassie I Khari Kill

Legalize It Peter Tosh

One Love Bob Marley and the Wailers

Cool Rasta The Heptones

The Harder They Come Jimmy Cliff

Rivers of Babylon The Melodians

Pass the Koutchie The Mighty Diamonds

Funky Kingston Toots & the Maytals

Is This Love Bob Marley and the Wailers

Reggae Roots

In his song ‘Trench Town,’ Bob Marley asked if anything good could ever come from Jamaica’s ghettoes. In doing so, he challenged the class-based assumptions of Jamaican society, with the minority elite ruling over the disenfranchised masses. Of course, the answer came in the message of pride and spiritual redemption contained in the music itself, as reggae left the yard to conquer the world, in the process turning Bob Marley into a true global icon.

Bob Marley’s band, The Wailers, sprang from the ska and rocksteady era of the 1960s. Producers Lee ‘Scratch' Perry, Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd and King Tubby played a key role in evolving the more spacious new reggae sound, while the resurgence of Rastafarianism that followed Haile Selassie’s 1966 visit to Jamaica inspired the music’s soul. Through his signing of The Wailers, the Jamaican-born founder of Island Records, Chris Blackwell, helped introduce reggae to an international audience.

Reggae is more than just Marley. His original bandmates Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer both became major stars, joining a pantheon that runs from Desmond Dekker and Dennis Brown to Burning Spear and Gregory Isaacs. While dancehall has since taken over as Jamaica's most popular domestic music, in recent years there has been something of a roots reggae revival, with artists such as Chronixx, Proteje and Jah9 bringing back some rasta consciousness to rejuvenate the genre for the new century.

‘Out of Many, One People’

The nation’s motto reflects the diverse heritage of Jamaica. Along with the many West Africans imported as slaves, the population was salted with English, Scots, Irish, Welsh and Germans, along with Hispanic and Portuguese Jews and ‘Syrians’ (a term for all those of Levantine extraction), as well as Chinese and Indians, who arrived as indentured workers following emancipation.

Jamaica proclaims itself a melting pot of racial harmony. Still, insecurities of identity have been carried down from the plantation era. The issue of class lines drawn during the colonial era has left profound societal divisions and is closely tied to color: lighter-skinned Jamaicans are far more likely to hold better-paid jobs, and skin bleaching is a common phenomenon. The middle classes have always sought to distance themselves from the inhabitants of shanty towns. There is some lingering resentment against whites, particularly among the poorer segment of society, and disillusionment with postindependence Jamaica.

Jamaicans can be the most gracious people you’ll ever meet: hardworking, helpful, courteous, genteel and full of humility. However, charged memories of slavery and racism have continued to bring out the spirit of anarchy latent in a society divided into rich and poor. Jamaicans struggling hard against poverty are disdainful of talk about a ‘tropical paradise.’

Jamaicans love to debate, or ‘reason.’ They tend to express themselves forcefully, turning differences of opinion into voluble arguments with some confounding elliptical twists and stream-of-consciousness associations.

Jamaicans’ sarcasm and sardonic wit is legendary. The deprecating humor has evolved as an escape valve that hides their true feelings. In a hard country in which to make a living, the saying that ‘everyt’ing irie’ – no problems – can mark black humor indeed.

Homophobia in Jamaica

Ever since Buju Banton’s 1990s dancehall hit 'Boom Bye Bye' made international headlines for its apparent celebration of the murder of gay men, Jamaica has gained an unfortunate reputation as a deeply homophobic country.

Dancehall homophobia is merely a reflection of deeper currents within Jamaican society. This is a deeply devout Christian country, where homosexuality is preached against as a biblical sin, and often seen as a Western colonial import – a threat to the fabric of society itself.

Homophobic violence is common, from verbal and physical abuse to ‘corrective rape’ against lesbians (in a country where sexual violence against women is sadly all too commonplace). Pejorative terms like ‘batty man’ and ‘fish’ are still thrown about despite attempts to strip dancehall of its homophobic elements. Homelessness is a particular problem for young gay men, who are often ostracized by their families. Jamaica has the highest rate of prostate cancer in the world, with anecdotal evidence suggesting a link to a perceived homosexual stigma attached to getting a rectal checkup.

Despite this, Jamaica’s LGBT community is increasingly visible and assertive, from organizations such as J-Flag (Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays; www.jflag.org) and Quality of Citizenship Jamaica (www.qcjm.org), to the continued campaign to repeal the 1864 Buggery Law, which criminalizes all anal sex. Despite pushback from Christian organizations, societal attitudes remain in flux, from the wild popularity of the outrageously camp comedy actor Keith ‘Shebada’ Ramsey and the celebration of openly gay Booker Prize–winning author Marlon James, to the influence that gay fashion has had on the hyper-masculine dancehall world. Since 2015 Jamaica has successfully held gay pride events, with public support from government ministers. Like many things in the country, homophobia is a lot more complicated than it first appears.

Religion & Spirituality

Jamaica professes to have the greatest number of churches per square kilometer in the world. Although most foreigners associate the island with Rastafari, more than 80% of Jamaicans identify themselves as Christian and the Church remains a powerful political lobby group in the country.

Feature: A Unique Lexicon

One of the 21 tenets of Rastafari is the belief that God exists in each person, and that the two are the same. Thus the creed unifies divinity and individuality through the use of personal pronouns that reflect the ‘I and I.’ ‘I’ becomes the id or true measure of inner divinity, which places everyone on the same plane. Thus ‘I and I’ can mean ‘we,’ ‘him and her,’ ‘you and them.’ (The personal pronoun ‘me’ is seen as a sign of subservience, of acceptance of the self as an ‘object.’)

Rastafari reasoning sees the English language as a tool in the service of Babylon, designed to ‘downpress’ the black people. The belief that language itself is biased has led to a whole lexicon laced with cryptic intent and meaning, which has profoundly influenced ‘Jamaica talk.’

Christianity

On weekends, it’s common to see adults and children walking along country roads holding Bibles and dressed in their finest outfits. Every church in the country seems to overflow with the righteous, and the old fire-and-brimstone school of sermonizing is still the preferred mode. It's hard to over-emphasize the social and cultural influence of the Church in Jamaica.

The most popular denomination is the Anglican Church of Jamaica, followed by Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostals, Baptists, Methodists and Catholics.

Feature: Obeah & Myal

Jamaica has its own folk magic system, based on practices derived from West Africa, and similar to Haiti’s Vodou or Cuba’s Santería. Myal is essentially ‘white magic’ to obeah’s ‘black magic.’ Largely a rural practice, it involves invoking the services of a practitioner who can cast or dispel a curse, bring you luck, or force your partner to be faithful, using an arsenal of herbs, powders (including grave dust), specially shaped candles and power rings to achieve their objective.

The summoning of duppies (spirits) is central to the practice. Jamaicans believe that your spirit roams the earth for nine days after you die, and in that time it can be summoned to do good or evil. Many Jamaicans still observe Nine Night, a ‘wake’ held for nine nights after someone’s death to ensure that the spirit of the deceased (duppy) departs to heaven – these can be pretty big parties complete with sound systems.

Invoking duppies involves a ritual circle comprised of bottles topped with candles. The entrance or ‘gateway’ to the circle is barred with a cutlass or machete and the circle may contain food offerings to the spirits, as well as chalked symbols.

Nonbelievers dismiss obeah as superstitious nonsense, but everyone knows where the nearest obeah shop is, and local newspapers often feature hilarious 'duppy' stories in their news roundups. Judging by the charms you find in many Jamaican homes, obeah still has a powerful grip on the nation’s psyche.

Rastafari

Dreadlocked Rastas are as synonymous with Jamaica as reggae. Developed in the 1930s, the Rastafari creed evolved as an expression of poor, black Jamaicans seeking fulfillment, boosted by Marcus Garvey’s ‘back to Africa’ zeal.

Central to Rastafari is the concept that the Africans are one of the displaced 12 Tribes of Israel. Jamaica is Babylon, and their lot is in exile in a land that cannot be reformed. The crowning of Ras Tafari (Haile Selassie) as emperor of Abyssinia in 1930 fulfilled the prophecy of an African king and redeemer who would lead them from exile to the promised land of Zion, the black race’s spiritual home.

Ganja smoking is a sacrament for many (if not all) Rastas, allowing them to gain wisdom and inner divinity through the ability to ‘reason’ more clearly. The parsing of Bible verses is an essential tradition, helping to see through the corrupting influences of Babylon. The growing of dreadlocks is an allegory for the mane of the Lion of Judah.

Despite its militant consciousness, the religion preaches love and nonviolence, and adherents live by strict biblical codes advocating a way of life in harmony with Old Testament traditions. Some Rastas are teetotalers who shun tobacco and keep to a strict diet of vegetarian I-tal food, prepared without salt; others, like the 12 Tribes Rastafari, eat meat and drink beer.

Revivalism

Jamaica has several sects that are generically named Revivalist cults after the post-emancipation Great Revival, during which many blacks converted to Christianity. The most important Revivalist branches are Zionism and Pocomania (Pukkumina), the former being more Bible-centered, and the latter involving ancestor worship.

A core Revivalist belief is that spirits live independently of the body and can inhabit inanimate objects and communicate themselves to humans.

Revivalist ceremonies are characterized by the flowing robes of the congregation, chanting, drumming, speaking in tongues and spirit possession. They are held in designated poco yards, led by a ‘shepherd’ or ‘mother,’ who interprets the messages of the spirits.

Rarer these days, Kumina is the most African of the Revivalist cults, combining evocation of ancestral spirits with call-and-response chanting and intricate drumming rhythms and dancing.

Sidebar: Patois Patterns

When Jamaicans speak patois, often they drop their ‘h’s (thus, ouse instead of ‘house’) and add them in unexpected places (eg hemphasize). Jamaicans usually drop the ‘h’ from ‘th’ as well: hence, t’anks for ‘thanks.’ ‘The’ is usually pronounced as de and ‘them’ as dem. They also sometimes drop the ‘w,’ as in ooman (woman).

Sidebar: Bob Marley Bio

Timothy White’s Catch a Fire remains the go-to Bob Marley biography. Pair it with a screening of Kevin Macdonald's superb 2012 feature documentary, Marley.

Sidebar: Dancehall Culture

Carolyn Cooper's Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large is a key text for exploring contemporary Jamaica's dominant music form.

Sidebar: Reggae Explosion

The gorgeous coffee-table book, Reggae Explosion: The Story of Jamaican Music, by Chris Salewcz and Adrian Boot, traces the evolution of Jamaican music in words and (amazing) photographs.

Sidebar: Music Compilation

Listen to the story of Jamaican music, from ska and rocksteady to roots reggae and dancehall, with Reggae Golden Jubilee, a 100-track retrospective released in 2012 to celebrate 50 years of independence, compiled by ex–prime minister (and record producer) Edward Seaga.

Sidebar: First Reggae Track

The Maytals’ 1968 song ‘Do the Reggay’ was one of the first records to use the term ‘reggae.’ Prior to this the music was known as rocksteady.

Sidebar: Dancehall Dance Moves

Dancehall's iconic dance move is the (female only) dutty wine. Wining involves bending over and gymnastically rotating posterior and head. The male equivalent is 'daggering' – rough dry sex on the dance floor. Prudes need not apply.

Sidebar: Jamaica Art Book

Jamaica Art by Kim Robinson and Petrine Archer Straw is a well-illustrated treatise on the evolution of the island’s art scene.

Sidebar: Tallawah Cricket Team

Follow the cricketing progress of the Jamaican Tallawahs in the Caribbean Premier League at www.cplt20.com.

Sidebar: Jamaican Proverb

Jamaican proverbs are a proud celebration of heritage and dialect. A sample: ‘So cow a grow so him nose hole a open.’ This roughly translates to ‘Live and learn.’

Sidebar: Theater

Jamaica’s most celebrated theater company is the National Dance Theatre Company, which performs at the Little Theatre in Kingston and incorporates Kumina movements into routines.

Sidebar: Reggae Routes Book

The lavishly illustrated Reggae Routes: The Story of Jamaican Music by Wayne Chen and Kevin O’Brien Chang is required reading for anyone exploring the island's musical culture.

Sidebar: Rastafari Books

Barry Chevannes' Rastafari: Roots and Ideology and Rasta Heart: A Journey into One Love by Robert Roskind are noteworthy books on Jamaica’s most-talked-about creed.

Sidebar: Folk Hero Anancy

Originally from West Africa, the spider Anansi is Jamaica's celebrated trickster folk hero. Check out the patois folktales of Louise Bennett for the best of his fables.

Sidebar: Mutabaruka

One of the most electrifying voices of Jamaican dub poetry today is that of Mutabaruka. Learn about his work and read his poems at www.mutabaruka.com.

Sidebar: Athletics Powerhouse

Get the scoop on how Jamaica became an athletics powerhouse with Richard Moore's The Bolt Supremacy: Inside Jamaica's Sprint Factory.

Sidebar: Riddim Magazine

To keep on top of what's hot in the Jamaican reggae and dancehall scenes, pick up a copy of the excellent Riddim magazine, published quarterly.