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Caribbean Culture – Everything you need to know about it

Barranquilla Carnival parade Colombia

Updated on 02/16/2024

Dear reader,
I would also like to recommend our Colombia travel guide, which provides a perfect overview of the tourist attractions in Colombia. Enjoy reading it!

All about the Caribbean region

The Caribbean region, often referred to simply as “the Caribbean”, is a geographic region in the western part of the Atlantic Ocean. It comprises a group of islands, island chains and coastal areas stretching from the southern coast of the United States to the northern coast of South America. The Caribbean is known for its beautiful beaches, crystal clear waters, diverse cultures, rich history and tourist attractions.

The Caribbean covers an area of 138,288 square kilometers with a population of approximately 47 million people.

Consisting of around 31 countries and territories and 13 fully dependent countries, the Caribbean region includes popular travel destinations such as Jamaica, Cuba, the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, as well as many other smaller islands and archipelagos. These countries often share a colonial history shaped by European powers such as Spain, Britain, France and the Netherlands.

The Caribbean possesses a rich cultural diversity resulting from the mingling of indigenous peoples, European colonizers, African slaves and later immigrants from around the world. This cultural mix is reflected in the region’s languages, religions, traditions, cuisines and musical styles.

The economy of the Caribbean is often heavily based on tourism, agriculture, fishing and in some cases natural resources such as petroleum and minerals. Despite the breathtaking beauty and tourist appeal, many countries in the Caribbean are struggling with economic challenges, environmental problems and social issues.

The Caribbean culture

The Caribbean region had its origins in the indigenous cultures inhabiting the Caribbean region at the time, indigenous tribes such as the Tainos, Arawacos, and Caribs. The time of Christopher Columbus around 1492 was a turning point. This marked the beginning of European colonization throughout the Caribbean region. European powers such as Spain, France and the United Kingdom began to establish their colonies in the Caribbean in order to use all the natural resources such as minerals and timber and to have a presence in America. The Caribbean has had a history of struggles between colonial powers for control of the region. Likewise, the African slave trade was of great importance from the 15th to 16th centuries. There was a strong need for labor to grow commercial products. At the end of the 18th century there were struggles for independence, which ended in the 19th and 20th centuries with the formation of new Caribbean states. This means that the history of the Caribbean, shaped by conquest, colonization, slavery, struggle for independence and nation building, has shaped the cultural and socioeconomic identity of the Caribbean. It is now believed that there are around 30+ ethnic groups of African, Indigenous, European and Asian descent that make up the region’s identity. The most important cultural aspects include:

  • Festivals
  • Beliefs and traditions
  • Gastronomy
  • Art
  • Literature

In summary, the culture of the Caribbean is the result of the interaction of African, European and indigenous cultures.

The natural Caribbean environment

The beauty and natural environment of the Caribbean region is characterized by its tropical forests with a plethora of species of flora and fauna. The Caribbean Sea also has an extraordinary marine diversity. This natural beauty has had a profound impact on the lives of people in the Caribbean throughout history. People in the Caribbean have always depended on the use of scarce resources. According to records of indigenous groups such as the Taínos, Caribe, Arawak and Ciboney, the main activities were as follows:

  • Hunt: Hunt and capture wild animals for meat/resources.
  • Gathering: Gathering of fruits, herbs as natural resources for food/medicine.
  • Fishing: Fishing for sea creatures for sustenance.

These activities date back to about 2,500 BC. and served as a symbol of gratitude for prosperity. Unfortunately, today there are few indigenous descendants of these cultural ethnic groups. For generations, the mutual relationship between the people of the Caribbean and their natural environment has shaped their lifestyle and their own local economy.

The innovation of Caribbean agriculture

Agriculture in the Caribbean has played a crucial role throughout the region’s history. From the first indigenous settlers to the arrival of Europeans, farming practices have constantly evolved. The Taínos, Arawaks, and Caribs, who lived in the Caribbean before European colonization, were the pioneers of agriculture in the region. They developed advanced techniques such as terracing and crop rotation, in which different crops are planted one after the other on a single plot, improving soil health and also controlling pests. This maximized agricultural production. So they began to grow and domesticate crops like cassava, corn, sweet potatoes, beans, and tobacco. A significant change occurred with the arrival of the colonizers, and new crops such as sugar cane, cocoa, coffee and bananas were added, which became the main agricultural products of the region. Today, agriculture in the Caribbean encompasses a wide range of agricultural products, from tropical fruits to vegetables, grains and spices.

The spirituality of the Caribbean

The spirituality of the people in the Caribbean is characterized by its diversity. It is the result of the fusion of indigenous, African and European elements. It is rooted in the history and traditions of the Caribbean peoples and plays a central role in their daily lives. Before colonization, indigenous peoples practiced forms of spirituality based on connecting with nature and worshiping the spirits of their ancestors, as well as worshiping natural elements. They firmly believed in deities governing aspects such as fertility and health. With the arrival of African slaves, their religious traditions merged with indigenous and European beliefs, resulting in spiritistic practices such as Haitian voodoo, Cuban santeria, and Brazilian candomble. Currently, Caribbean spirituality is kept alive through ceremonies and festivals, considered by many to be modern, ancestral practices, and an important part of the cultural identity of many people in the Caribbean, preserving and providing four important aspects:

  • Sense of community
  • Old connection
  • Vision of the world
  • Nature and the divine

The typical handicrafts of the Caribbean region

Caribbean handicrafts have their origins in the pre-Columbian period, before the arrival of European colonizers in the region. Indigenous civilizations living in the Caribbean, such as the Taínos and the Arawaks, developed manual skills using the materials most available in their surroundings, such as:

  • Plant fibers
  • Volume
  • Stone
  • Shellfish
  • Fabrics

The crafts of the time had a functional and aesthetic purpose and were also used to make items such as ceramics, baskets, jewelry, textiles and sculptures. Caribbean handicrafts hold strong symbolism as it is a way of preserving their cultural heritage and passing it on to future generations. Each handcrafted piece carries with it many ancestral techniques and knowledge passed down from master to apprentice over time. Likewise, many of these manufactured items provided economic, social and environmental livelihoods for most communities. Today, thanks to tourism, many ancient crafts are still preserved in museums or in hometowns.

Customs and traditions of Caribbean culture

The customs and traditions of the Caribbean aimed to keep people connected and to preserve each of their stories and experiences through millennia. This served to instill in the generations to come important values, beliefs and skills to pass on their own cultural identity. Activities such as festivals, dances, meals, and rituals used to serve to meet communities and eventually find a way to connect with the ancestors.

Carnival celebrations in the Caribbean

Carnival is a popular festival that takes place in February or March every year in many Caribbean countries. Originally, Carnival in Europe began as a pagan festival before the Christian Lent. People dressed up and danced, believing this would ward off evil spirits. Europeans brought carnival to the Caribbean when they colonized America in the 15th century. It lasted until the 19th century and began as a Catholic holiday. Subsequently, the carnival was mixed with local cultures, creating new versions, each with its own style. Carnivals are very popular in the Caribbean today for the following reasons:

  • The carnival fits perfectly with the Caribbean culture.
  • The region’s unique multicultural identity can be expressed.
  • The tropical climate of the Caribbean favored outdoor celebrations.
  • It allows people to express their political and social concerns.

Among the most popular carnivals in the Caribbean we can highlight the following:

Barranquilla Carnival, Colombia

Origin: 19th Century
Frequency: Annual
Duration: 4 days
Characteristics: Happy and colorful festival with parades, music, dances, floats and fancy costumes with drums and flutes to the rhythm of Africa.
Recognition: Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2003.

Carnival in Havana, Cuba

Origin: 19th Century
Frequency: Annual
Duration: 17 days
Features: Happy, colorful festival with parades, music, dances, congas, artistic performances with African elements and traditional Cuban dances.

Carnival in Puerto Rico

Origin: 18th Century
Frequency: Annual
Duration: 7 days
Features: African and Spanish elements, festivals across the city, colorful parade with music, dances and floats.

Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti

Origin: 19th Century
Frequency: Annual
Duration: 4 days
Characteristics: It features handmade paper masks and colorful parades with music, dance and rhythm accompanied by big drums.

How is community and family reflected in the Caribbean?

Community and family in the Caribbean focus on the central role of everyday life, or in other words, living one day at a time. Even today, the locals will tell you this. It is also values such as solidarity and cooperation that define the Caribbean community. They tend to be a society focused on intrapersonal development. During personal development they become more collective, they build bonds that create a strong connection with their families and show this to other people as well.

Oral traditions in the Caribbean

Much of the oral tradition came from slaves in Africa. These groups adapted their stories through stories, songs, proverbs, and rhythms. This kept their culture alive during slavery. Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean such as the Arawaks and Caribs contributed legends and oral tales that blended with African traditions. Over time, the oral traditions of the Caribbean evolved and absorbed new influences from the new migratory flows in the region.

  • Tales: Popular tales featuring characters such as Anansi, the spider, who convey moral lessons and cultural values.
  • Spiritual Songs: They express the history of slavery and the struggle for freedom and convey ancestral wisdom, especially among Afro- Caribbeans.
  • Poetry: The Calypso is a clear example of this, addressing social and political concerns through catchy rhythms and rhymes with a satirical style.
  • Music and Dance: Rich styles of music such as calypso, reggae, zouk and soca, emanating from oral traditions, raise awareness of society with their lyrics.

How did music originate in the Caribbean?

The music of the Caribbean region began to develop significantly during the period of slavery from the 16th century. It is primarily characterized by the influence of indigenous, African and European rhythms, but Africa is the most influential. African slaves brought strong rhythms with them, accompanied by percussion. Percussion as a musical “base” has shaped many Caribbean genres today. The European settlers, on the other hand, changed some of the musical structures by adding their own instruments and melodies, eventually influencing many other genres over time.

The most popular instruments in the Caribbean

  • The Drum: It is a fundamental percussion instrument in Caribbean music, specifically the barrel drum, which is played with the hands.
  • The accordion: It is an instrument that has been used in popular music in the Caribbean for almost a century and is very representative of the region.
  • The maracas: These are percussion instruments made from dried gourds with seeds inside that produce a dry sound when shaken constantly.
  • Tiple: This stringed instrument resembles a guitar and was introduced by the Spanish conquistadors. Most often played with a tambourine, it is an integral part of the region’s music.
  • The guacharaca: Percussion instrument made from the trunks of small palm trees. It was invented by the Tairona natives of Guajira.
  • Bagpipe: Whistle made of “Guamacho”, a cactus typical of the region, with holes for the fingers and at one end a beeswax bowl for blowing, which produces the sound.
  • The Güira: Percussion instrument made of dry and empty gourd. It was carved, drilled and grooves formed so that it could later be scraped over with a solid object or stick, ultimately forming the güira ‘s characteristic sound.

Rhythms and musical genres of the Caribbean region

Prior to the current transformation of Caribbean genres, Caribbean traditional music had its origins with the indigenous and African communities, who created instruments based on natural materials. It is currently believed that there are more than 30 genres of music originating from the Caribbean, the main ones being:

  • Calypso: Afro-Caribbean rhythm originating in Trinidad and Tobago, generally satirical with a rhythm filled with celebration and joy accompanied by giant drums.
    • Artist: Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener
  • Salsa: Afro-Cuban rhythm originating in Cuba, products of the fusion of Caribbean rhythms such as montuno and guaracha.
    • Artists: Hector Lavoe, Celia Cruz
  • Reggae: Rhythm that originated in Jamaica in the ’60s, influenced by Mento and R&B, characteristic of a genre that relaxes the ears.
    • Artists: Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer
  • Bachata : Romantic rhythm that originated in the Dominican Republic and has its origins in Dominican country music
    • Artists: Juan Luis Guerra, Romeo Santos
  • Cumbia : Originally from the Colombian Caribbean coast with indigenous and African roots.
    • Artists: Carlos Vives, Pastor Lopez
  • Merengue : rhythm originating in the Dominican Republic, with Spanish and African influences, danced in pairs and full of energy.
    • Artists: Milly Quesada, Wilfrido Vargas

Culinary delights of the Caribbean

Given that many of the native African, European and Asian cultures have been part of the region’s multicultural makeup throughout history, this has given Caribbean cuisine a diverse gastronomic character. Many of these dishes have prehistory dating back to the 15th century colonization and slave trade. African cooking methods and ingredients brought by European settlers were combined with locally grown foods such as cassava, plantains, corn and fish to create a cuisine with a unique flavor. Caribbean cuisine was influenced by the region’s warm and tropical climate. The domestication of plants, vegetables, and other types of spice plantations has helped ensure that Caribbean cuisine has varied spices with plenty of flavor.

  • Coconut Rice: Typical Caribbean dish, a combination of rice cooked with coconut milk, usually served with main courses or meals such as chicken, fish or meat.
  • Ceviche: A dish of fresh seafood, usually fish, shrimp, or octopus, prepared with lemon juice, accompanied by onions, chili, and coriander. It is used for appetizers to main courses.
  • Arepas: Cornmeal fritters, circular in shape, can be filled with a variety of ingredients, corn, beans, avocado, and are usually an excellent meal for any time of the day.
  • Fish: Fish is perhaps the most well-known recipe in the Caribbean, as there are thousands of ways to prepare it. It is fried in most regions of the Caribbean and is the most common.
  • Plantain: The plantain is a staple of the Caribbean diet. It comes in different preparations, green, yellow, from fried to baked, and its culinary use is extensive, since it can be paired with everything from main courses to desserts.
  • Sancocho: It is a broth made from tubers and vegetables. Originally it has the taste of fish. It is usually served with avocado for lunch or dinner and can be paired with different ingredients depending on the region.
  • Tropical Fruits: Some of the most commonly used and originally domesticated tropical fruits in the Caribbean: pineapple, mango, guava, coconut, carambola, passion fruit, mamoncillo.

The typical dances of the Caribbean region

During the 16th-century conquest, European settlers brought African slaves to the region to work on the plantations. African and European influences mixed with the indigenous peoples who lived in the Caribbean region at the time. They were primarily artistic performances, in which messages, life lessons, or community stories were passed from generation to generation. Many of these communities associated with the gods through movements, thereby worshiping their ancestors for protection. Many of these dances are still practiced today. Of course, they have evolved! Still, you might have the opportunity to observe it for yourself! When you’re ready, we present you with the 9 most popular dances in Caribbean folklore.

Bachata

Origin: Dominican Republic.
Characteristics: Sensual couple dance, gentle and slow rhythm, marked in eight bars. It has become popular and evolved by mixing it with other genres.
Influences: Originating in African and Spanish music.

Mambo

Origin: Cuba
Characteristics: Fast dance, very synchronous and with a lot of energy, it is danced in pairs, it became popular in the 40’s and 50’s.
Influences: Roots in Afro-Cuban music, jazz and danzón.

Merengue

Origin: Dominican Republic
Characteristics: Fast and energetic dance, simple movements, it is danced in pairs, it is the official dance of the Dominican Republic, it is usually accompanied by drums and saxophones.
Influences: Roots in European music such as Spanish jaleo and traditional African rhythms.

Salsa

Origin: Cuba
Characteristics: Fast dance with complex steps, danced in pairs, became popular in the 70’s and 80’s and influenced genres like mambo and bachata.
Influences: Roots in Afro-Cuban music and Latin music in general.

Cumbia

Origin: Colombia
Characteristics: It is characterized by simple movements, rhythms to the beat, cheerful and festive rotating movements in a circle. It is one of the most popular dances in Colombia and is very popular throughout Latin America.
Influences: Roots in the music of the indigenous peoples living at the time and the African tribes in the use of percussion rhythms and drums.

Mapale

Origin: Colombia
Characteristics: It is danced in a group or in pairs, fast movements, short steps with a lot of energy and rhythms with tribal representations.
Influences: Music from African rituals, currently a symbol of Afro-Colombian culture.

Calypso

Origin: Trinidad and Tobago
Characteristics: Festive and joyful dance, danced in pairs or in groups, with a complex rhythmic combination.
Influences: Influences from traditional African slave music and Caribbean music in general.

Junkanoo

Origin: Bahamas
Characteristics: Vigorous and energetic movements, tribal dances accompanied by drums and bells, colorful outfits, takes place at Christmas time.
Influences: Mainly influenced by African music, although showing European and indigenous rhythmic influences.

Plenary

Origin: Puerto Rico
Characteristics: Simple, rhythmic movements, catchy rhythms and high energy, it is like a sung newspaper that reflects gossip and news, among other things, and has spread throughout Latin America.
Influences: Main influences from African and Spanish music.

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Frank

Frank

Hello! I'm Frank Spitzer, the founder and the heart behind Pelecanus, a specialized tour operator for Colombia travel. My journey in travel is vast and rich – I've explored over 60 countries, absorbing cultures, experiences, and stories along the way. Since 2017, I've been channeling this wealth of global experience into creating unforgettable travel experiences in Colombia.I'm recognized as a leading authority in Colombian tourism, with a deep-seated passion for sharing this beautiful country with the world. You can catch glimpses of my travel adventures and insights around Colombia on my YouTube channel. I'm also active on social media platforms like TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest, where I share the vibrant culture and stunning landscapes of Colombia.For professional networking, feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn. Join me on this incredible journey, and let's explore the wonders of Colombia together!

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