KINGSTON, Jamaica – This week Jamaican’s celebrate National Heritage Week, culminating in National Heroes Day on Monday, Oct 21 when the nation commemorates its National Heroes. The day is highlighted by pomp and ceremony at Kings House, the governor general’s residence, where selected Jamaicans are honored annually by the government for their national service.
But National Heritage Week remains relatively lowkey in Jamaica and its Diaspora. This is unfortunate as it’s doubtful whether the majority of Jamaicans understand or appreciate their heritage, especially their cultural heritage.
Jamaican culture is a profound heritage
Often when reference is made to Jamaica’s culture, it pertains to current Jamaican music and dance. In reality, Jamaican culture is very diverse, with a profound heritage,
Essentially, the term ‘Jamaican culture’ categorizes religion, music, dance, language, food, dress; essentially any social norm specific to Jamaica.
Steeped in African and Anglo influence
Jamaica’s culture is steeped in its slave history. Since most slaves were from West Africa, the nation’s early culture was influenced by Africa, reflected in religion- poccomania; several early music/dance forms like gerreh, dinki-mini, brukins, and the frequent use of drums.
Over the years the culture went through several transitions, mostly influenced by the Anglo(English) colonialists which governed Jamaica until independence in 1962.
The colonial–Anglo influence was very evident in religion, relegating poccomania and revivalism mostly to rural Jamaica, replacing it with various Protestant denominations, and Catholicism. However, the influence of Africa remained strong in the gradual growth and acceptance of Rastafarianism.
The Anglo influence also had a strong effect on the language as most Jamaicans, especially through the educational system, were commanded to “speak properly” meaning not speak Jamaican dialect or “broken English”, but the King’s or Queen’s English.
Aspects of the early Jamaican culture that best withstood the Anglo influence, remaining quintessentially Jamaican were music and dance. The early African forms of music and dance evolved into mento, then ska, reggae, and dance-hall.
Jamaican cuisine like jerk meats, stewed peas, curried goat, oxtail, ackee and codfish, and even mannish water also resisted foreign influence, and has grown in global popularity.
Challenge in overcoming classism
However, after Jamaica became independent in 1962, while several aspects of the culture still resisted outside influence, some areas were corrupted by possibly Jamaica’s most marginalizing force – classism.
Looking at the general Jamaican culture in recent years, there’s still evidence of poccomania, mento, traditional culinary delights like ‘blue draws’, roast yam and cod-fish, pot water, turn cornmeal, cocoa-bread and patty, but mostly among the poorer class, particularly in rural Jamaica.
Rum drinking is also part of Jamaican cultural heritage, but today mainly the poorer class consumes white rum, while the upper class aspires to whiskey, gin, vodka and brandy.
During the post-colonial era of the 60s and 70s, the upper class resisted the growing influence of reggae, especially when the genre was increasingly influenced by Rastafarian artists like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. Younger generations of Jamaicans and Marley fans may be shocked that at the time several upper-class Jamaicans rejected Marley and his music.
Jamaica’s dialect, patois, always seemed at odds with the majority of the upper class. Although Jamaican patois is now spoken by almost every Jamaican, to this day some educators and families frown on speaking patios publicly. Often leaders in various fields of Jamaican life are disrespected for not speaking “proper English.”
This bigotry was evident when the diction of former Jamaican Prime Minister, a woman with humble rural roots, was ridiculed as being “flat” or not “proper English.” Similarly, National Hero Sir Alexander Bustamante was often jeered for “battering” the English Language. However, both Bustamante and Simpson Miller led their parties to win general elections because they connected with the masses with whom patois is the customary form of communicating.
Although classism still divides aspects of the Jamaican culture, there’s no denying that cultural forms like patios, reggae, Rastafarianism, revivalism, commonly referred to as “clap hand” religion, have survived classism.
Today, more of the younger generation openly communicate in patois, symbolize Rastafarianism in their style of dress, their hairstyle, and music forms they enjoy, although their religious Rastafarian believes are questionable.
It’s remarkable despite strong debate over general acceptance of Jamaican patois, Jamaicans went giddy with pride in 2015 when former US President Barack Obama publicly greeted a youth rally in patois during his Jamaican visit.
The Cultural heritage survives
Jamaica’s cultural heritage has gone through several transformation, influenced throughout history by Africa, England, Asia, and more recently, America. And, an often too divisive class system made several attempts to erase the traditional heritage of the culture.
Still, despite this colorful and sometimes controversial heritage, Jamaica’s culture remain quintessentially Jamaican; a blend of patois, perfect English, traditional and non-traditional religions, peculiar dance forms, music and cuisine. This culture has influenced and bonded people of different races into one nation and should never be taken lightly. It has given Jamaican and Jamaicans a uniqueness that’s often craved and envied.