No matter what the culture or language is, the purpose of storytelling is to pass down history and information to the next generation. Storytelling is as old as time itself, and in Jamaica recounting stories is as natural a behavior as drinking rum.
When African slaves were picked up and dropped in laborious plantations in Jamaica (as well as other locations around the world), it was their duty to pass on the elements of African culture to the next generation. Otherwise the precious legends, languages, proverbs and characters from their home would be forgotten forever. Jamaican proverbs allowed slaves to communicate with each other without their masters understanding. For example an idiom told from one slave to another can impart a specific feeling or event that if the slave master knew about, could cause trouble.
The most popular character in Jamaican folklore is Anancy, also referred to as Anansi, Nancy Spida or Brer Nansi. Anancy is a trickster African spider-god who often goes against other animal gods. Very often slaves would characterize their slave master as a certain animal and tell stories about how Anancy would trick the animal, thus imparting plans of outsmarting them. The spider-god is a great representation of the problems African slaves faced on the plantations. The trickery of Anansy was a necessary way to get past the slave masters, the greed was how slaves justified their need to steal the necessities of life, and even the creature the god represented speaks of the slave’s self image. Parents would also tell their children stories of Brother Spider to strike fear of misbehaving, or the ‘duppy’ (ghost) would get them.
One popular folk story tells of the tiger-god demanding the spider-god to bring him a great swarm of bees. This a great representation of the impossibilities the Jamaican people faced through their history. With the white man symbolized by the tiger-god and the Jamaicans as the spider-god, the request illustrates the unreasonable order and level of danger involved in meeting it. Only through the wise trickery of the spider-god can the bees be convinced to leave their habitat and go to the tiger-god.
Music and poetry have always gone hand in hand with storytelling. The rhythm of poetry adds to the drama of the story and makes it more memorable. The are several differences between European poetry and that originating from Africa, but perhaps the biggest difference is in the use of rhyme, or lack thereof. The poetic form of Jamaican storytelling is not in its rhyme, but in its rhythm and song-like flow. The story is told in stages with rising and falling events, always ending in a lesson from an ancient African king or god. Yes, the lessons are meant to pass stories on to the next generation, but they are also for the purpose of awakening the consciousness in the listener. The stories point out a situation and offer advice on ways to move forward, but with the use of history. So, it is a cyclical process.
Take a look at the lyrics of Jamaican music and you will find more storytelling. Many traditional folk songs tell of simple things like observations of nature. Yellow Bird is an old folk song that speaks of loneliness and a lone yellow bird sitting in a banana tree. Others tell of working in the hot sun for little pay. Mango Time talks about working under the hot sun for little pay harvesting mangoes.
Even today, on the street corners of Jamaican towns you will find men and women standing around telling their stories of the day, some have been heard before and others are tall tales meant to spark humor in the crowd. When you visit Jamaica, stop and listen to the sounds of the local people. No doubt you will hear stories with elements of the African folk tales from hundreds of years ago.
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