Embrace the spirit of the Caribbean by immersing yourself in the colourful culture and irresistible energy of island life, writes Matthew Hampton.
For a taste of Caribbean culture, you don’t even need to get on a plane. The influence of reggae in popular music is just as strong as jazz or the blues. But it is more of an attitude than anything: Caribbean music, and Caribbean culture generally, is about doing your own thing on your own terms. There’s only one constant: it is usually very loud.
Take the traditional carnival, which is celebrated on just about every island at different times of the year. Trinidad and Tobago is where the party started – way back in the 18th century – when the French Catholic celebration of Lent fused with traditional local festivals, which featured masks, music and dance and were as much a protest against colonial rule as anything.
From these complex origins sprang a party season of pure joy. Trinidad and Tobago still host the biggest carnival, but all are worth visiting – there’s a list of events at tinyurl.com/caribbean18carnival. Crop Over in Barbados is one of the longest, from June to August, and visitors can join in with the costumes and parades too – check out visitbarbados.org/crop-over-festival.
Much of the cultural calendar across the Caribbean is fuelled by tradition, with church on Sunday a central fixture. Attending a service is one of the easiest and most informal ways of experiencing Caribbean culture like a local. If you want to see what makes the local community tick, don’t be shy; join the congregation.
If you feel you need a bit more of an introduction, Elite Island Resorts have what could best be described as a Caribbean choir boot camp. The hotel group launched a five-day singing workshop last year, which promises to teach anyone how to hold a tune. Hosted by Mike King – who has worked as a vocal coach on The Voice UK – it is great for improvers wanting to boost their confidence while performing; for total beginners, it’s a chance to try something new. It has already proven a big hit with guests and 2019 workshops will take place in Barbados, Antigua and St Lucia in May and September 2019. Dates once confirmed can be found at eliteislandholidays.com.
Getting out of your hotel and finding the local music scene is one of the most rewarding parts of a Caribbean holiday, but you do need to know where to look. Ask if any jump ups are happening in the area. This may be a spontaneous block party or a regular event, but jump ups are the easiest way to meet locals. One of the best is at Gros Islet in St Lucia, just down the road from The Landings hotel. Every Friday, the town heaves to sound systems so loud they practically shake the buildings. In a similar vein, St Lawrence Gap in Barbados has a party most nights, but, surprisingly, it is not the same across the Caribbean.
Record producer Justin Nation lives and works in Antigua, where apart from the Shirley Heights jump up on a Sunday, nightlife tends to be confined to hotels. For a true flavour of Caribbean music, he says, try Jamaica for reggae, or Trinidad for soca.
“Think of the Caribbean as one big England, minus the cold. There are so many different genres and sub genres of music.
“There isn’t one next big thing as there are just so many artists. Caribbean music is massive right now, so that whole pop star formula has gone out the window … There are so many to mention but one to look out for in Jamaica is Chronixx – a young reggae star. And Kes, from Trinidad, are an amazing soca band.”
Certainly, scenes vary from island to island, and while some are sleepy outside of the big resorts, others are very lively. Blogger Kered Clement recommends Street Food Wednesday at the Dodgy Dock restaurant in True Blue Bay resort in Grenada.
“People come in droves to enjoy local food and the sounds of Solid, Dodgy Dock’s house band. Their energy is mesmerising!
“Bars around St George’s are brimming with visitors and islanders alike, bumping to a varied mix of soca, reggae, R&B, soul and pop covers from local bands. Bananas nightclub offers deals on Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenada has some of the best beach, boat and pool parties and mark my words, it’s the stuff you see in music videos, but better!”
Of course, if old school reggae is more your style, it is best to be back in Jamaica, where the off beat is as strong as when The Wailers first struck it. You can see where the legendary band recorded at Tuff Gong Studios in Kingston, now part of the Bob Marley museum, along with his home at 56 Hope Road.
“Nothing beats a real experience,” says Nation. “You need to put your feet in the sand and play on the mud.”