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The Caribbean: A cultural melting pot

JOSEPH DOWAY

Published: Dec 28, 2012

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Caribbean culture is a term that explains the artistic, musical, literary, culinary and writing elements that are representative of the Caribbean, but now of the world.  The Caribbean’s culture has historically been influenced by European culture and traditions, especially British, Spanish and French. Over time, elements of the cultures of the African and other immigrant populations have become incorporated into mainstream Caribbean culture.

The Caribbean’s culture, like that of most countries around the world, is a product of its history, geography, and political system.  Being a collection of settler nations, the Caribbean has been shaped by waves of migration that have combined to form a unique blend of customs, cuisine, and traditions that have marked the socio-cultural development of the nation.

French Caribbean, Spanish Caribbean, Creole language and Patois’ early development was relatively cohesive during the 17th and 18th centuries, and this allowed the Francophone culture to survive and thrive within the Caribbean.

Multicultural heritage is enshrined in many islands.  In parts of the Caribbean, multiculturalism itself is the cultural norm and diversity is the force that unites the community.  Although officially one quarter of the Caribbean is English-speaking, the largest group is attributed to Spanish speakers (due to the inclusion of mainland Caribbean states); some 22 percent speak French whilst only one percent speaks Dutch.  However, though the Caribbean today is linked with 59 living languages, these are not spoken in the insular Caribbean, but on what is referred to as the continental Caribbean.

In the French islands, cultural identity is strong, and many French-speaking islanders’ commentators speak of a French culture as distinguished from English Caribbean culture, but some also see the Caribbean as a collection of several regional and ethnic subcultures.

Some of the freshest, most vital, and diverse new literature written in the twentieth century has emerged from the Caribbean.  And central to Caribbean literature is the short story, with its ties with the oral tradition.  Now, The Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories, edited by Stewart Brown and John Wickham, brings together 52 stories in a major anthology representing over a century’s worth of pan-Caribbean short fiction.  This breath-taking collection is unique – and indispensable – in its inclusion of authors from the English-, French-, Spanish-, and Dutch-speaking Caribbean.

“What we have here is a stunning collection of writers representing almost every region that is touched by the Caribbean Sea, and what we experience as we read this collection is the truth that we have always suspected but never ventured to say; that some of the best writing to have appeared in this century has come from this archipelago of complex histories and diverse traditions" (Kwame Dawes, University of South Carolina at Sumter).

“Caribbean authors come from a multicultural tradition, and this wide-ranging anthology collects 52 stories representing more than a century’s worth of ‘Pan-American’ short fiction.  Although the various authors explore similar themes of history, race, social justice, identity and migration, they do so in diverse ways” (The Orlando Sentinel).

From its earliest beginnings in the eighteenth century, Caribbean, or West Indian, poetry has been an elusive but dynamic art.  Though sometimes static, it has always been an evolving art form.  According to one scholar, Lloyd W. Brown, the first 180 years of West Indian poetry were uneven at best; however, Brown was appraising only the formal aspect of Caribbean poetry, a poetic tradition that was imposed on the peoples of the West Indies first by a slavocracy and later by an imperialist regime.

There has always been an oral tradition in the Caribbean, and although the writers have changed from slaves to the present educated and creative individuals of today, poetry has maintained the same strength, the same influence on its readers and through poetry, people are united.  In today’s world of writing, reunions are made, feelings are expressed and relationships are created.  Diehard lovers use the form of poetry to express their emotions and their pursuant of the other person.

The music of Caribbean has reflected the multi-cultural influences that have shaped the Caribbean.  The first historical figures to influence Caribbean musicians are from South America and to some degree Africa.  Nevertheless, the Caribbean’s first peoples, the Spanish, the French, and the British, have all made large contributions to the musical heritage of the Caribbean as well.  The Caribbean islands have produced their own composers, musicians and ensembles.  They have and still maintain a number of artists and poets, some writing to a comparison beyond Shakespeare.

The Caribbean has produced a variety of internationally successful performers and artists.  These individuals are honored at the awards, recognizing Caribbean achievement in popular music.  In addition, the Caribbean is home to a number of popular cultural shows and summer-time folk festivals.  The Caribbean has also produced many notable composers, who have contributed in a variety of ways to the history of Western classical music.

From the stories being told at nights under the mango tree or the light of the electric post, to the various staged plays, both Caribbean stories and poetry have taken the spotlight, exposing the creative culture of our people.  These artistic devotions have brought writings into the world of cinema and film.

The Caribbean film market was dominated by the American film industry for decades, although that film industry has since inception seen a prominent role for actors, directors, producers and technicians of Caribbean origin.

Filmmakers from the Caribbean have begun to challenge Hollywood by making innovative and relevant documentary, dramas and feature films.

Some Caribbean islands have developed a small but vigorous film industry that has produced a variety of well-known films, actors, and auteurs.  Also, the distinct French-Caribbean and Spanish-Caribbean society permits the work of directors to contribute very different film-forms.  At the awards some became the Caribbean’s first films to win the award for Best Foreign Language Film.  Many Caribbean people are employed in the film industry, and celebrity-spotting is frequent throughout many Caribbean cities.

Caribbean television, especially supported by the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation, is the home of a variety of locally-produced shows.  French and Spanish-language television, is buffered from excessive American influence by the fact of language, and likewise supports a host of homegrown productions.  The success of French and Spanish-language domestic television and movies in the Caribbean often exceeds that of its English-language counterpart.  Caribbean Media Awards honor the best feature broadcast placements, print and photography from Caribbean-based media outlets.

The avenue for expression is opening to a world where more Caribbean people are using the media to be spontaneous and write their stories.  These stories can be life experiences, the portrait of art or the posting of ideas.

Caribbean poetry, short stories and music have a very different flavor because of the diverse languages used.  A poem with a patois touch can never sound and mean the same if the same words were in English.  So does a story or music in Creole or French.  That way, stories whether in short story, poetry or lyrics, Caribbean productions are way ahead in expression.

 

• Joseph Doway is a professional business plan developer for individuals seeking to start new businesses.  He is a native of Dominica, and has been writing poems since 1972.  He has also written newspaper columns for various newspapers on Dominica, St. Maarten and Antigua.  He is working on a collection of poems and a novel.  Most of his poetic work can be found on DPC (Domnichen Poetic Circle), a page dedicated to writers on Facebook.  Published with the permission of caribbeannewsnow.com.

 

 


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