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Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Culcha: De Feelin Ov Chrismus.

Christmas is a good time to reflect on the bases of our culture. In the Caribbean, we are not one people with one history and have no single identity. Even within a Caribbean country the cultural roots can be very different.

Take Jamaica, for example. We have the African heritage from the ancestors of slaves brought some 400 plus years ago and that gives the biggest numerical influence, and that stretches through much of the language, the music, the dance, the food, and what people think of as ‘the face’ of Jamaica. But we also have Indians and Chinese—mainly indentured labour who started to arrive in the 19th century—who have given us more influences on the culinary and commercial side than on the social side.In Jamaica, we are not big on Hindu or Muslim festivals such as Diwali or Ramadan (like in Guyana or Trinidad) and we don’t get much into Chinese New Year. We have Lebanese/Syrians roots, too—look, example at one of our famous prime ministers, Edward Seaga. Again, commercial and political influences come from this strand. Jewish people have also been an important part of the nation. We have white Europeans bases too, many there from the original slave trade and owning and overseeing plantations.

Look at one of out great authors, Anthony Winkler,and his marvelous books written by this whiter-than-white man but in what we can term a black voice—Jamaican patois—such as “The Painted Canoe”, “The Lunatic”, and “Going Home to Teach”. I’m not going to get into the various divides on racial and ethnic basis,such as the difference between “white Jamaicans” (who may be recent descendants from Europe) and “Jamaica whites” (island born and probably at best ‘off-white’ or in Jamaican accents, ‘half white’). I wont talk about “red women”. I am not getting into the “browning” thing”. Nor am I going to say who looks like a “Coolie” or “Chinee”. Many of us are well mixed up.

But, come the biggest festivals it is the black and Christian cultures that dominate. What I like most about this time is the reversion to the past, and it is especially to the slave heritage past, to old customs and musical styles, like mento (which is not that old), or quadrille. Mento’s hey day was in the 1920s and 1930s so is the music of my parents’ generation. For me, this is as much the music of Jamaica, and it has its variants in other islands, such as The Bahamas, and I seem to hear its strains more at Christmas than at other times. One thing I like about it is that I can understand most of the lyrics, which is not the case with a lot of reggae, especially dance hall.

Christmas is a feeling as much as a festival. It makes sense to feel "Christmassy". That feeling comes with the music, increases with the black cake, widens with the platters of food (turkey, ham, rice and peas, fried fish, mince pies), getting higher with the going to church and singing carols, and ends when you are ready to get back to what we call real life.
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