Jamaican culture represents a combination of cultures that have inhabited the Greater Antilles island, Jamaica. The original Taino Settlers, followed by their Spanish conquerors (who were in turn conquered by the British), all made major contributions. However, it is the blacks and slaves who became the dominant cultural force as they suffered and resisted the harsh conditions of forced labour. After the abolition of slavery, Chinese and Indian migrants were transported to the island as indentured workers, bringing with them ideas from the Far East. The official local language is English, however a local dialect called Patois (pronounced ‘patwa’) is spoken by some residents.
Religion in Jamaica
By far the largest religion in Jamaica is the Christian faith. The Anglican Church, baptist and the Church of God are throughout the country. Many old churches have been carefully maintained and/or restored. The Rastafari movement is a derivative of the larger Christian culture, but its origins were influenced by rising consciousness of Africa and an awareness of political events in that continent. There are also a small number of Jewish synagogues in Jamaica, dating from 17th century. Elements of ancient African religions remain in remote areas throughout the island, most of which practices are described generally as Obeah, Kumina or Pocomania. Though the congregations are small, they are visited by many Christian and non Christians seeking an experience that they have not found in the churches. It is estimated that as much as 80% of the population secretly seek the services of the African traditional religious healers when confronted with serious problems that conventional society cannot remedy.
The Bahá’í Faith in Jamaica begins in 1942 with the arrival of Dr. Malcolm King. Public recognition of the religion came when Governor General of Jamaica, Sir Howard Cooke, proclaimed a National Bahá’í Day on 25 July in 2003 and held annually since. In 2005, the community of about 5000, celebrated their activity and presence in Jamaica with the international Bahá’í choir Voices of Bahá. The choir performed at Ward Theatre and the University’s Chapel with proceeds earmarked to two Jamaican charities serving families of policemen slain in the line of duty and the Denham Town Golden Age Home.
Other religions practiced in the country of Jamaica include Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.
Ganja is their superior source of life. Originating in the 1930s, one of the most prominent, internationally known aspects of Jamaica’s African-Caribbean culture is the Rastafari movement, particularly those elements that are expressed through reggae music. In the 1970s and early 1980s Bob Marley became the most high-profile exponent of the Rastafari culture and belief system. His reputation as an innovative musician devoted to his faith has continued to grow since his death, so that by 2004 his greatest hits compilation Legend had sold 20 million copies worldwide, making him arguably the world’s most famous Jamaican, and certainly the nation’s biggest-selling recording artist.
Rastafari itself is a monotheistic belief system, based on teachings found in the Old Testament and the New Testament – particularly the Book of Revelation. However, what distinguishes Rastafari from Christianity, Islam and Judaism (which also cite Abrahamic beliefs) is that Rastas believe in the divinity of the Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.
Hailed by Rastas as H.I.M. (His Imperial Majesty), Haile Selassie I is regarded as God himself, the true descendant of Solomon, and the earthly embodiment of Jah (God) – in what believers see as a fulfillment of prophesy regarding the second coming of the Messiah.
It should be noted that those Rasta beliefs which are not explicitly mentioned in the Bible (such as the specific name of H.I.M. ‘Haile Selassie’) are not gathered into a single holy text. Instead, Rasta beliefs are primarily shared through a community of songs, chants and oral testimonies, as well as in written texts (including websites). The extensive use of song makes Rastafari a particularly musical source of Jamaican culture.
Rasta cultural traditions include wearing their hair in uncut, uncombed strands known as dreadlocks (in adherence to the Nazarite vow), as well as eating unprocessed (natural) foodstuffs which are known as Ital. However, neither tradition is regarded as compulsory – many people who wear dreadlocks are not Rastas and many Rastas do not wear them.
One of the most controversial cultural traditions is Rastas’ use of ganja as a sacrament which is smoked to aid in reasoning (contemplation and discussion). Cannabis is a strictly prohibited substance in Jamaica so its use by Rastas means the movement is in a more-or-less permanent state of tension with police agencies.
In its Jamaican homeland, Rastafari is a minority culture and receives little in the way of official recognition. Jamaica is an overwhelmingly Christian country, so Rasta beliefs and practices – such as the divinity of H.I.M Hailie Selassie – are sometimes regarded as pagan by Christian Jamaicans (although some Rastas can also express hostility towards aspects of Christianity). Nevertheless, the artistic contributions of the movement, particularly Bob Marley are widely respected. The rasta singer was awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit in 1981 and there are two official monuments to him.
Rastas can be found in many countries outside Jamaica and among many non-Jamaicans. Because it is not a centrally organised religion, there is no way of knowing how many devotees there are.
Dance has always been important to Jamaica – from colonial times until the present. Early folk rhythms and movements often enhanced Christian religious celebrations, or were associated with Christian holidays. More recently, dances have become associated with the music of Jamaica, particularly dancehall styles.
Dance theater is also growing in importance. Rex Nettleford, Eddy Thomas, Olive Lewin, and Edna Manley are four Jamaicans whose influences on the arts – music and dance in particular – has been extremely important. Nettleford, Thomas, and Ivy Baxter formed the National Dance Theatre Company in 1962. Other important Jamaicans in dance theater have included the Tony-Award-winning choreographer Garth Fagan (The Lion King on Broadway).
Dancehall, or reggae, music has inspired a number of dance styles as well. To understand the evolution of popular dance, it helps to understand the musical progression. Ska music, with fast beats, also had fast dances. The slow to rocksteady also developed slower dances, allowing dancers to stay on the floor longer. Reggae is associated with many things, including the Rastafarian movement, but influenced the newer styles. Dancehall music often creates its own dances based on moves in the lyrics of the songs themselves. Soca music from Trinidad and Tobago is popular with most of the popular artists from Trinidad, but many soca Jamaican artist such as Byron Lee, Fab 5, and Lovindeer are famous but also represent Jamaican music.
Jamaica’s earliest theatre was built in 1682. Several more theatres opened in the 1700s and 1800s, attracting performances by both professional touring companies and amateur groups. But performances weren’t limited to official venues. Many took place in houses, stores, court houses, and enclosed outdoor spaces large enough to hold them. During this period, classic plays such as Shakespeare were most often produced. However, the Jewish and French communities became large enough to merit productions aimed at them, too.
After the abolition of slavery, Jamaicans began fusing music, humor, and dance into public theatrical performances. Although it took many years for true Jamaican styles to develop, eventually they became more prevalent than European works. Today’s most popular theatrical form in Jamaica, pantomime, began in the 1940s as a fusion of English pantomime with Jamaican folklore. Another popular style, “Roots” (Grassroots) Theatre, evolved in the 1960s and 1970s. These riotous bawdy tales full of sexual innuendo remain crowd favorites in Kingston’s open-air theatres.
One artist involved in root plays is Winsome (code name), a Jamaican writer and producer chronicled in Deborah Thomas’ book “Modern Blackness”. Winsome handled all the publicity for her plays herself, and ended up putting them on in the rural areas surrounding Kingston – the city theaters refused to house her plays because of their controversial nature. In her plays, Winsome explores how sex, money, and power interact everyday for Jamaicans. In 1997, Winsome wrote and produced a root play entitled Ruff Rider, in which family, sexual abuse, love, work, and friendship all intersect. According to author Thomas, author of, “In all of her work, the sympathetic characters are those she portrays as struggling to balance their own pursuit of individual gain with ‘living well together’ with others. As they negotiate the fine lines between egalitarianism and hierarchy, her characters also contribute to the public debate regarding the gendered dimensions of respectability and reputation.”
Other notable root play figures include Ralph Holness, Ginger Knight, Balfour Anderson, Michael Denton, Ian Reid, Paul Beil, Everton Dawkins, Buddy Pouyat and the late Hyacinth Brown.
Literature and Writing
Derek Walcott, a Nobel prize laureate, born and educated in St. Lucia, attended college in Jamaica. Other significant writers from the island include Claude McKay and Louis Simpson. Plays and works in Jamaican English, or patois, attract special attention. Louise Bennett, Andrew Salkey and Mikey Smith have contributed to this phenomenon by writing works in patois. Ian Fleming wrote his famous James Bond novels while living in Jamaica.Jean Rhys is also well-known for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which was set in Jamaica. Jamaican authors are always faced with the decision of writing in standard English for a huge worldwide audience, or in the local patois, for a much smaller, but more trendy, audience. Jamaican films with patois sound-tracks such as The Harder They Come require sub-titles for export to general markets. In general, the use of patois severely limits the potential audience for the otherwise universal Jamaican message. Pauline Wills, author of the book, “The Imperils of the Maxfield Terrain,” sections written in patios about the garrison community of Maxfield Avenue. She was born in the parish of St Andrew, Jamaica and a past student of Immaculate Conception High School.
Jamaica’s film industry is not widely known, but it is growing. The Harder They Come, Rasta Rockett, Shottas, Third World Cop, “Rockers”, “Countryman”, Dancehall Queen & ” Real Ghetto Youths” are a few of the best-known Jamaican movies. However, many popular Hollywood movies have also been filmed in Jamaica. A short list includes The Blue Lagoon, Cocktail, Cool Runnings and James Bond films, Dr. No and Live and Let Die. Jamaica’s leading annual film event The Reggae Film Festival takes place each February in Jamaica’s capital city, Kingston. Members of Jamaica’s film industry gather here to make new links and many new projects have grown from the event. Jamaica has many talented film makers but there is a great lack of available funds and resources for film makers. Since the creation of the Reggae Film Festival there have been many new films made in Jamaica and the event has given the industry a real boost, this combined with the recent CARICOM European film treaty which enables Jamaican film makers to seek funding in Europe, has opened up a new door for film makers looking to apply for funding and this will hopefully make a real difference to the future of the industry. Other more recent feature films made in Jamaica are: ‘Almost Heaven’, ‘Roots Time’, ‘Wah Do Dem’, ‘Concrete Jungle’, ‘Redemption Paradise’, ‘Real Ghetto Youths’, and ‘Smile Orange’.