Ancestors of the people of the Caribbean hailed mainly from West Africa, Europe and the Americas. The Virgin Island culture reflects these inhabitants. The Danish controlled the US Virgin Islands for many years, yet the dominant language since the 19th century has been English-based Creole. The largest influence on modern culture comes from the African slaves who were forced to work the sugar plantations for over two centuries. The African slaves brought their traditions from Nigeria, Senegal, Congo’s, Gambia, and Ghana.
Music and dance are essential to the Virgin Islands culture. The indigenous form of music is the scratch band which use gourds and washboards as instruments to play Quelbe. The scratch band music dates to slavery and bands play a wide range of dances: calypsos, boleros, quadrilles, merengues, mazurkas, and jigs. The quadrille is a traditional folk dance of the islands along with bamboula. Bamboula dancing compels dancers to have conversations with their heart beat, the drums. Other forms of music include calypso, reggae, soca and steel pan bands.
Traditional VI cuisine tends to be spicy and hearty. Fungi (foon-gee) is a main staple consisting of cornmeal and okra and usually enjoyed with boiled fish or saltfish. Callaloo (kallaloo) is a soup made from callaloo bush/leaf or substituted with spinach. It’s a thick stew that contains various meats and okra. Another popular dish is the roti which comes from Indo-Trinidadian origin. The pate (pah-teh) is fried dough with various meats or vegetables inside and the johnnycake is a pastry made from the same dough. Red Grout (rodgrod) is a Danish tapioca dessert made with guava, sugar and spices. Local fruits include mango, papaya, soursop, genip, sugar apple, sea grapes, guava, tamarind and goose berries. The hot beverage of choice is “bush tea” and cold beverages include fresh juices made from sorrel, soursop, maubi, sea moss and passion fruit.
Colonizers introduced Christianity to the islands, there is a significant Rastafari presence and a small number of practicing Muslims and Jews.
Traditional story telling and oral history was established by African slaves who were prohibited from learning to read and write. Some stories pay homage to the superstitions and beliefs of their ancestors including “jumbie” stories. During Carnival, Mocko Jumbies wearing stilts and dressed in colorful costumes walk the streets. Since many of the African cultural practices were forbidden while they were enslaved, the African people had to disguise their practices into a festive context. Jumbies are viewed as symbols of history, culture, heritage and are protectors.
Madras is a cotton fabric patterned with colorful stripes or checks. The colors of the VI Madras is yellow for the official flower- yellow cedar, red for strength and love, green for the island’s natural resources, pink for conch shells representing a call for freedom, blue for the oceans and history, turquoise for the waters surrounding the island and white for the traditional dresses made from flour sacks.
Virgin Islanders greet each other with a warm greeting of a Good Morning, Good Afternoon or Good Night. It is rude to jump straight into conversation without taking time the time to greet one another. Please wear cover ups and t-shirts when you leave the beach, wearing your bathing suit in public violates public decency laws and is culturally unacceptable.
While visiting the Virgin Islands, take your time to appreciate the local arts, food and music. Make your vacation a true Caribbean experience by enjoying the culture of the ancestral natives.