How Did African Ancestry Influence Jamaican Dance and Art

Jamaican Dance and Art

The existing culture among the population of Jamaica exists as a forced melding of African and English cultures that date back to the days of slavery, oppression and revolt. Art and music that has derived from the Jamaican population is rooted in the ancestral history of black slaves that constituted a majority of the island’s population during the 19th century. Although many other island nations with similar histories have abandoned their history directly influenced by African history, either through will or force, Jamaica has proudly displayed its African roots in art, literature and music. In fact, most argue African culture was fundamental to Jamaica’s identity from the time of slavery to present date.[1]

Jamaica is located in the Caribbean about 90 miles south of Cuba and 120 miles west of Hispaniola. At the size of about 4,200 square miles, it is the fifth largest island nation in the area. The island’s current population is 2.8 million people, making it the third most populous English-speaking country in the Americas.[2]The population is comprised mostly of black people.

The island’s original human population dates back to a period from 4000 to 1000 B.C., which comprised of the Arawak and Taino tribes that migrated there from South America. These original inhabitants of the island existed when Christopher Columbus arrived on the island in 1494, in which he found over 200 villages within several chieftains. Although most of the Arawak descendants moved on to other Caribbean islands, a large amount of Taino people still inhabited the island up to when the land was taken over by the Spanish in 1509. The Spanish enslaved the Taino people, and used them for such difficult, laborious tasks, the last of the indigenous people died after just 50 years.[3]The first Africans arrived soon after, having predominately taken from West Africa. The slaves were forced to work as servants, headers of livestock, as well as hunters.

However, during these periods of rule by foreign powers, the island’s population grew substantially because of the import of slaves, primarily black people originally from the African west coast. The vast expansion of the island’s slave population was mostly driven by the lucrative business of agricultural exports. During the first two centuries in which the British ruled Jamaica, the island became the world’s leader in the export of sugar, producing more than 77,000 tons annually during the first part of the 19th century. Due to the high volume of slaves shipped to the island, people with African ancestry formed a large majority of the island’s population as early as 1670. During the many years of forced slavery up to its abolishment in 1807, the island gaining its independence from England in 1962, and even to present day, the influences of African culture can be seen in Jamaican art and music.

Other Africans caught and sold as slaves were Akon and Fon from the Ivory Coast, the Yoruba from southern Benin in West Africa, the Efik from southeastern Nigeria, and the Bantu from central Africa. After the British took control of the island from the Spanish in the mid-17th century, the slave population quickly changed to be mostly comprised of Akan people. Even though some specific African cultures were more attributed to rebellions than others, the Akan slave population was still maintained because they were considered better workers by British plantation owners. A large portion of these Jamaican slaves become known as the Coromantee, derived from the name of an African slave fort near which the Akan slaves were captured and loaded onto ships destined for North America and the Caribbean. Prior to becoming enslaved, Coromantins were usually part of highly organized, layered groups. Akan states in Africa were not all the same, although they did share a common language which became known as Twi (“chee”), representing a structured organization of people who heavily socialized and helped one another.[4]This also contributed to the development of a mutual aid societies, burial groups, and places to enjoy social entertainment among the Akon population.[5]These groups also had shared the common mythology of a single, powerful god. Spiritual stories of this god, known as Ananci, would represent him in the shape of a spider, which uses cunning intelligence to prevail over foes and demons.[6]The depiction of this spiritual being survived through the centuries and is often represented in modern literature and children stories throughout the world. It is commonly shown the cartoon, fictional hero Spiderman found his power originated from a direct descendant of Ananci (named as such in one of the cartoon’s 2003 publications). The lore of Ananci is also credited for the origination of the trickster figure Br’er Rabbit that eventually became part of western folklore through the Uncle Remus stories by American journalist Joel Chandler Harris in the first part of the 20th century. In Jamaica, the many modern parables involving Ananci have been found to have originated from the Coromantee.[7]

The Akon were also traditionally militaristic in their African homeland, which resulted in the Coromantee to be associated with a majority of the Jamaican slave rebellions during the 18th century. Of the several major slave uprisings on the island, the first notable event occurred in mid-1760 and became known as Tacky’s War. The leader of the rebellion, known as Tacky, organized several hundred black slaves to steal firearms and kill several white plantain owners before being either killed or captured themselves days later. Even though not successful, the rebellion demonstrated ability of the slaves to successfully organize and cause fear in their white oppressors. This gave support to enact future rebellions, the most notable being the Baptist War, or Christmas Rebellion, of 1831. This 8-day rebellion involved as many as 60,000 black slaves, which was more than a quarter of the island’s slave population at the time.

 The British forces stationed on the island suppressed the rebellion with relative ease, by the Jamaican government executed about 500 slaves to serve as an example to the rest of the population.[8] The brutality of this response is believed to have accelerated the process of emancipation, which was finally enacted in 1838. The struggles of life as a Jamaican slave during the 19th century led to these and other rebellions, and solidified.

The Coromantee’s fierce, rebellious nature became so notorious among Caribbean plantation owners, a ban was eventually enacted that disallowed importation of slaves from the Akon region of Africa. This also resulted in slave-owners to integrate Akon slaves to pair with other slave groups in an attempt to dilute the noted violent personalities.[9] After the British abolished slavery in 1833, the Coromantee influence and reputation began to decline as decedents began to fully integrate into the larger British-influenced island society. However, the slave rebellions enacted by the Coromantee before emancipation directly influenced Jamaican art and culture throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. These survivals of these specific influences are mostly attributed to the descendants of who escaped to the island’s mountains, known as the Maroons.

The Maroon population started on Jamaica when the Spanish colonist fled the British take-over in 1655. The slaves living on Spanish plantations at this time were set free, and quickly organized several major settlements in the mountainous terrain in the central portion of the island. Their survival was mostly supported by limited farming and periodic raids of British plantations. The Maroon population grew with the acceptance of escaped slaves and production of offspring in large numbers, which quickly resulted in the group controlling a majority of the island interior.[10] The response of plantation owners of repeated Maroon raids resulted in the First Maroon War in the early 18th century. One of the Maroon leaders during this time was known as Queen Nanny, who was known for her exceptional leadership skills and guerrilla warfare tactics. Her exploits during the war became so famous through story and song; she became the first female listed among Jamaica’s National Heroes.[11]The First Maroon War ended with a treaty signed by the British governor that promised the Maroons land and an agreement not to accept any more escaped slaves. Through this treaty, the Maroons became the first legally-recognized freed slaves in the New World. Peace lasted until a new British governor began to mistreat the Maroons, which resulted in the Second Maroon War in 1795. Using over 5,000 imported troops, the British destroyed the Maroon population with the exception of one group that had decided to stay neutral during the conflict. However, a majority of these people were relocated to a British colony in Nova Scotia, effectively removing most Maroons from the island. Due to this treatment, the remaining Maroons became isolated, and remain as such to this day. They still maintain their traditional celebrations and practices, many of which have their origins in West Africa. Native Jamaicans and some island tourist are allowed to be present of some of these Maroon events, but some are still held in secret. Singing, dancing, and drums play a central part of most of these rituals.[12]

The Jamaican communities that descended from Africa led to some movements that sought to have these people return to their ancestral lands. A Jamaican-born publisher, journalist and entrepreneur, he created the Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism movements that sought to empower and unify all people of African descent under a common cause and voice. This ideology, which came to be known and “Garveyism”, was promoted throughout the Caribbean, North America and Africa, and at its height included members in the millions. His dreams of reducing discrimination of African descent and inspiring them to establish their own infrastructure and economies had a major impact on similar movements within the Caribbean and Africa that progressed after his death at the beginning of World War II. Twenty years later, he was proclaimed Jamaica’s first national hero.[13]

Even though the slave population was comprised of people from different African cultures, some common cultural beliefs and practices were performed and taught to following generations.

Spiritual practices that usually involved consumption of palm wine, a common alcoholic beverage in Africa, was substituted by the Jamaican slaves with rum, which was easily made from highly available sugarcane juice.[14]Musical instruments patterned from African culture were made from common materials found on the island, such as calabash, conch, and bamboo. Eboe, or Ibo, drums were introduced to island based on uses by the Igbo in Africa,[15]as well as the double-headed bass drum, used extensively in Maroon and present-day Rastafarian music. Other types of drums based on African culture include the Funde (one-headed), Kete (small), Kbandu (large), and Kromanti (cylindrical), all of which are still used in present-day Jamaican culture.[16]The link between African and Jamaican musical instruments was discovered by an English physician, Hans Sloane. He attended a festival held by the island slaves and realized the music sounded much like African music he had studied in earlier years. His sketches of the instruments used by Jamaican slaves showed were made in the same way by other African cultures.[17]

The first African cult to be founded in Jamaica was kumina and it is presumed that it was in some ways influenced by Christianity. The language used in kumina music is presumed to have origin in Kongo. Theories revolving around its origin suggest that it was either developed after the emancipation or it originated in the 18th century and was well established by the African influence in the region. Most of the area where it is practiced includes St. Thomas, St. Catherine, St. Mary and Portland. It is practiced in to honor all stages of human experiences such as birth, death and even thanksgiving ceremonies. Sessions of kumina involves dancing; drumming and singing are usually divided into two types. The first type kumina is bailo which is considered to be less sacred and more public and songs are mostly sung in the dialect of Jamaicans. The second type of kumina is country which normally involves possession among couples.

When performing Bailo dances, spirits are called to possess the dancers to enable other dancers to identify the tempo of the dance. The dance constitutes propelling actions of the hip, posture of the erect back and the feet flexible above the grounds. The dancers are expected a circular pattern moving around a centre pole and musicians either as a couple or a single. The use of hips, shoulders, rib cage and arms are employed to enable the dancer adapt to the rhythms and variations of the music. The instruments that are used alongside kumina dance music sessions include Shakas, Catta sticks, Scrapers and tin can rattles. These are used to maintain rhythm and tempo of the music.

Many cultural events recognized by the slaves involved the use of drums, but they also served as a long-distance communication device for coded messages between plantations. For this reason, white slave-owners viewed all slave music with distrust and often restricted the use of drums except for work and religious services. This resulted in a majority of Jamaican music to have roots in work and ceremonial songs passed on throughout generations of slaves and their decedents. Some of Jamaica’s musical genres were derived from this common root. Mento was derived from a mixture of West Africa and European musical traditions. Slaves who could play musical instruments were often required to play for their masters.[18] Being taught certain songs derived by their owners of European decent, the slaves created a type of Creole music by melding it with their own traditional style. The lyrics of mento songs often dealt with the aspects of everyday life in an uplifting way, making light of poverty, poor living conditions and other otherwise dark social issues. This music style heavily influenced the creation of the calypso genre that become popular in the Caribbean and North America during the early 19th century. Even though most white European and North American people associated mento music to represent a lazy life style thought to be prevalent throughout the black community, its actual use was to lighten spirits by using humor and innuendo to highlight difficult situations and depressed living conditions.[19]The lyric used in later forms of Jamaican musical genres, such as ska and reggae, was more direct and truly reflective of the island’s black population. Even though these musical types were derived from the ability for island residents to listen to American jazz during World War II, the songs contained lyrics that continued to reflect the culture of the Jamaican people that was derived from their slave ancestors. Well-known Jamaican musical artists, such as Bob and Ziggy Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Dennis Emmanuel Brown, and Desmond Dekker all publicized their African ancestral roots and all included songs they learned through family members that were passed down from generations dating to the 18th and 19th centuries.[20] Many of these artist’s original songs also gave reflection of Jamaican slave culture, often giving reference to the rise against oppression and enslavement.

There are other types of dances that were played alongside some of these dances that were very important in the integration and development of the Jamaican culture. Traditional dances are traced back to two origins that is England and Africa. The dances that originated from African culture is known as African derived, while the ones that were introduced by the slave owners from England were known as English derived. The combination of both English and African origins led to a production of another dancing style known as Creole. Dances that had African origin were mainly played for religious purposes whenever the rituals were being conducted. They were meant to promote the performers to the spiritual world. The examples of these songs included Pocomania, Myal and Kumina.  African heritage dates back from the period the slaves who were under the control of Spanish were released during the war between England and spain were set free and then moved to form their own colony in the mountainous regions of the island. The maroons as they called themselves have done a commendable job in ensuring that their African culture is retained amongst themselves.

It can be noted that several of these dances that were derived from African culture by the slaves are still practiced in Jamaica to date. Some of these songs such as Maypole, Etu and Quadrille are nowadays performed for social purposes despite their religious origin. Dances that have European origin are still being performed in Jamaica to accompany ring games and work songs. They are still very popular in the country.

Bruckins an example of creole dance is a mixture of both European and African cultures is still being practiced by the Jamaicans as a traditional dance. Bruckins dance involves both acts of thrusting and recovering of both legs and hips. It was first performed on 1st august 1838 to commemorate emancipation of slaves. The content and form of the music involved completion between blue and red sets. The movements of the Bruckins involves use of bent knees, bent arms, jotting forward of pelvis, tilted back torso and flexed foot. These all attributes of African dances from West Africa. During bruckins dances, drums were played, songs sang and sticks knocked. The singers and drummers were expected to fall the procession with dancing. The remaining part of the island that still practice bruckins dance is Portland. However, festivals are still held by Jamaica cultural development commission to maintain the culture.

Dinki mini is a Jamaican dance that has got African origin that is normally performed during wake periods. According to Jamaicans a dead person should be given traditional night observances of nine days after burial. From the second day to the eighth day of the night observances Dinki mini dance is performed. The sessions of Dinki mini dances are celebratory and lively in nature and are normally geared towards offering cheers to the bereaved. Lively mento music and dancing among couples is normally practiced within the second and the fifth day of the celebration. The proceeding of the dinki mini dance is dominated by anansi stories, riddles and ring games during the sixth and the seventh night. Rituals are performed alongside dinki mini dance on the ninth day to mark the climax of the celebration and a proper send off to the spirit.

The Reggae musical genre arguably had was the most notable in showing the connection of African influences in Jamaican culture. This was most noted during the Rastafarian movement of the later 20th century, in which a focus of repatriation to Africa became very popular. During this time, Reggae music became more than just entertainment, it developed into one of the main mediums to make political and social commentary. The music began a surge of pride in the Jamaican people of their African heritage, especially to lower class citizens that struggled with daily life. Writers and singers of Reggae music often composed songs in the tongue of the “ghetto”, the language commonly used to those living in shantytowns and rural parishes.[21]Lyrics of songs that echoed the rebellious beliefs of slaves against oppression were popular to those living in poverty in modern times. This is very well noted during the Rastafari religious and political movement during the early-to-mid 20th century. Many drew parallels from Christian biblical stories to relate their own experiences, one being Exodus in that as people of African descent in the New World were “exiles in Babylon.[22]The music during the early period of the Rastafari movement was Nyabinghi, which later gave rise to the Reggae genre. Nyabinghi originated in Africa during the 19th century, originating from slaves that fought against European imperialism. Concepts of the music were used in Jamaica for the same reason, invoking the power of Jah against all forms of oppression. The music was most often played during worship ceremonies, and included drumming and chanting along with prayer. During the mid-20th century, Nyabinghi gave way to Reggae in becoming the most popular form of music on the island, and continued to echo the focus of ancestral Jamaican slaves having African origins.[23] The Rastafarians had their meals prepared from the foods they used to grow locally without adding preservatives. They were mostly vegetarians except for small fishes that they occasionally fed on. Their vegetable stews were prepared and flavored with pepper, coconut oil and limejuice.

Jamaican art dates back to the indigenous Indians, who created carvings of their gods on stone walls and tablets. Once their displacement was completed by Spanish colonists, a several eras of art production eventually led to one centered on the majority black population.  The most well-known artist depicting black slave culture where the paintings of Isaac Mendez were used is Belasario. Recognized as the first Jamaican-born artist, his creations represented the times before and during slave emancipation. Although created from the viewpoint of a white person, the images give reality to the daily lives of black slaves working on British plantations during the 19th century. The most common Jamaican artwork from this period was created from the concrete, litter, and other items of common to the lifestyles of the black population living in poverty. Recognized by use of vivid color, these murals are viewed as the reflection of the Jamaican spirit and heritage. Pieces still existing today include well-known landscapes, and spiritual visions and profiles of famous people of the era. This “yard art”, as it is commonly described, was widely popularized by the works of John Dunkley (1891-1947), who covered the walls and ceilings of his barber shop with abstract symbols of flowers, vines, and trees. Though his work was scorned by mainstream art critics during his lifetime, it is now among the most expensive artwork in the Caribbean.[24]

Many pieces of wood carvings made by early black slaves reflect a lifestyle based on African heritage. Using Jamaican native woods such as mahogany, redwood, juniper cedar, and primavera, slaves created spiritual and fertility idols the resemble those created by African cultures of the time. Wooden masks were also created for use during spiritual and celebratory dances and rituals. Unfortunately, a majority of these art pieces were not considered worthy of attention by those that could have preserved artistic pieces. Therefore, most did not survive the natural rotting of the wood in the humid Caribbean climate or damage by the many species of insects found on the island.[25]The few wood art pieces that did survive were those that were highly revered and therefore passed on to younger generations through ceremony and spiritual ceremony. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that any noticeable Jamaican art movement occurred. During the same time the Rastafari movement existing, art pieces from all social classes depicted very strong social and political statements. During this time, Edna Manley is credited for advancing Jamaican art for international recognition. Primarily known for her sculptures, her legacy primarily reflected the struggles of the Jamaican people, with its roots dating back to the days of slavery.[26] Her works continued through the period in which Jamaica gained its independence from England in 1962. One of her most well-known sculptures, “Negro Aroused”, depicts a black man breaking free from bondage, symbolizing the self-esteem of freed Jamaican slaves in the 19th century. A larger replica of the sculpture later became the focal piece of a monument in Kingston that was dedicated to the Jamaican people. Some of the art works that have been associated with Jamaica straw mat and weaving, bead making, embroidery, sewing, wood carving and seashell art.

Poets and other authors from Jamaica have also contributed to the reflection of African roots in Jamaican culture. The first notable Jamaican-born author is credited to be Thomas Henry McDermott (1870-1933). He is credited as being the first author to mark the beginning of modern Caribbean writing with his novel, “Becka’s Buckra Baby”, first published in 1904 under the pseudonym Tom Redcam[27]. The story is about the relationship between a black female slave and the son of a white plantation owner, which produces a child. The text gives a vivid description of an oppressed mother struggling to overcome racial prejudice by Jamaican blacks and whites in the 19th century. McDermott produced other published works, was editor of the Jamaica Times for several decades, and later became Jamaica’s first Poet Laureate.[28] His works were most noted for addressing the continuing struggles of Jamaican people to rise above oppression and poverty, rooted from experiences of island slaves during the 19th century.

In the field visual arts, it can be dated back in the history of Jamaica. Most movies in the Jamaica are influenced by African culture because they are the majority therefore providing a large base for audience. Other arts such as theatre were equally affected by the African influence and most of the themes revolved around their cultural beliefs.

Many other authors originating from Jamaica have published works that are known internationally, however, these works had to be written in English to be widely accepted. Because of the heavy influence of Jamaican dialect rooted in African ancestry, some works written specifically using common Jamaican words were not known by those outside the island. Some writers were able to resolve this conflict by writing in English but included phrases and sayings that highlight the unique Jamaican essence of a melded African and English culture.[29]

This paper has therefore highlighted some very important aspects of the African culture that influenced both arts and music practices of the Jamaicans. It has related the origin of these cultures dating back when the slave trade was introduced in Europe and how these cultural practices are similar to the ones than practiced by Africans in their native origin in West Africa. The Europeans also did a commendable contribution in shaping both arts and music of the Jamaicans. This paper has highlighted why the above discussed forms of music and arts were formed.


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