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The Importance of Oral Traditions in the Caribbean

By dragoo May 01, 2012 1025 Words
ESSAY: Assess the importance of oral tradition in the Caribbean for the development of its civilization from one generation to another. In the Caribbean, oral traditions are a common element in cultures throughout the region. This is due in part to the areas’ origin in colonialism and slavery, which brought to the region various ethnic groups, each with their own cultures and traditions. Many if not all of these groups were illiterate which necessitated the need for oral traditions as a vital means of passing on their culture and history to subsequent generations. Oral traditions are defined as recollections of the past, orally transmitted and recounted, that arise naturally within the dynamics of a culture. They have existed in the absence of written notes or other more sophisticated recording devices. In a culture that has a long period of unrecorded history; oral traditions have allowed Caribbean people to define who they are. The telling of stories, the playing of games and the singing of songs and poetry were all a means of passing on traditions and educating people about themselves. The African slaves that were brought to the region brought with them the oral traditions of their homeland. Griots were adept storytellers, teachers and historians. One such tale that has survived till today is the story of Ananci. Ananci stories were brought to the Caribbean by the people taken from West Africa and were handed down from parents to children. In the Caribbean, Ananci came to represent the Africans in their struggle with the plantation owners.

So powerful was the message of these stories, that some Caribbean scholars have even suggested that “Anancism” is a psychological trait of today’s Caribbean people. The sociologist Leonard Barrett wrote that “so intricately woven is Anancism in Jamaican life that his cunning has become part of the Jamaican personality stereotype”. Reggae and Calypso are two other forms of Caribbean oral traditions that have evolved out of proverbs and verbal intellect. These forms of music have developed into a distinctly Caribbean brand. Reggae was strongly influenced by mento and reflected many of the ideologies and beliefs of the time. Today, Reggae is identified as a completely Jamaican form of music and goes a long way towards promoting Jamaica as a tourist commodity. Calypso is the popular music of Trinidad and Tobago and is another manifestation of the Caribbean oral tradition. This musical form can be traced to certain African forms and is based on improvisation and satire by impersonation. This style of music has since become a major part of Trinidad & Tobago Carnival, evolving into what is now known as “soca”. Today, Calypso has spread to other Caribbean islands like Barbados, and is featured significantly during their Crop-Over festival. Both these forms of oral traditions have contributed significantly towards the development of our distinctive Caribbean culture.

One cannot deny that oral traditions are a vital part of Caribbean culture. It allows for personal contact and bonding shared through stories and interaction. Unfortunately, the primary reason for the preservation of oral traditions in the Caribbean is simply that a lot of the Caribbean population cannot read or write. Countries like Haiti, where almost half of the population is illiterate and do not benefit from any formal education, oral traditions are still necessary for the passing on of values and morals. Oral traditions, while an important part of Caribbean culture, has some major disadvantages in that it is less reliable than the written word. It is often biased and reflects the opinion of the storyteller. It can be compared to the children's game of “telephone” where you have a large circle of people and the first person tells the second person something, then the second person tells the third person the same thing until you get to the last person. By that time, the original message was probably changed drastically so that it ends up being totally different. The most important part of safeguarding oral traditions and expressions is maintaining their every day role in society. It is also essential that opportunities for knowledge to be passed from person-to-person survive. Chances for elders to interact with young people and pass on stories in homes and schools should be a key to its preservation. Oral traditions often forms an important part of festive and cultural celebrations and these events may need to be promoted and new contexts, such as storytelling festivals, encouraged to allow traditional creativity to find new means of expression. BIBLIOGRAPHY

1) Wikipedia tradition accessed March 13, 2012

2) Doumerc, Eric. “Caribbean Civilisation: The English-speaking Caribbean since Independence” accessed March 13, 2012

3) Caifesta. 2006 accessed March 12, 2012

4) Van Marissing Mendez, Neeltje. “Caribbean Oral Traditions”. Puerto Rico Encyclopedia. Dec 20, 2011 accessed March 15, 2012

5) Hill R, Donald. “Caribbean folklore: a handbook” accessed March 15, 2012

[ 2 ]. A griot is a West African storyteller, praise singer, poet and musician. The griot is a repository of oral tradition. As such, they are sometimes also called bards. [ 3 ]. Anansi the trickster is a spider, and is one of the most important characters of West African and Caribbean folklore. The spider eventually defeats his opponents due to cunning and intelligence, proving brain over brawn. [ 4 ]. Mento is a style of Jamaican folk music that predates and has greatly influenced reggae music. Mento draws on musical traditions brought over by African slaves. The influence of European music is also strong, as slaves who could play musical instruments were often required to play music for their masters. They subsequently incorporated some elements of these traditions into their own folk music. The lyrics of mento songs often deal with aspects of everyday life in a light-hearted and humorous way. Many comment on poverty, poor housing and other social issues.

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