Music is the pulsing heartbeat of life in the Caribbean, as much a part of our days and nights as the sun and the sea. Our lands are alive with sounds and rhythms that evoke both our past and our sense of hope for the future.
These are carnival countries, where many festivals celebrate historic, religious, cultural or sporting events – and where music explodes spontaneously whenever a handful of musicians and singers are gathered together. It could happen on the street, in a town square or on the beach.
The Afro-Caribbean and Latin American musical heritage is a rich mixture, changing from country to country according to our varying backgrounds, and growing from year to year as young musicians build on their legacy.
This is the birthplace of the steel band, and of "beats" like calypso, compas, merengue, rumba, salsa, soca, and ska. Bob Marley exported reggae across the globe; salsa followed soon after. Some of the lands maintain musical traditions -- like drumming -- dating back to the time of slavery. Gospel music reflects both our colonial past and the influence of American culture.
The Caribbean is now a centre for world music. Jazz, rhythm & blues and country music are popular imports from the United States; concert venues around the region attract top artists from all three genres, as well as international stars of the classical music circuit, for sell-out performances.
Whatever your taste, you’ll find it more than satisfied in our lands of rhythm and melody.
YO HO HO: THE STORY OF CARIBBEAN RUM
by Rich Rubin
Swashbucklers fought for it and connoisseurs covet it. Rum has always enthralled passionate Caribbean travellers. Swaggering pirates like Captain Kidd, Calico Jack and Blackbeard ruled the waves, their sloops gliding ominously under the skull and crossbones of the infamous flag known as the Jolly Roger. Legend? Not in the Caribbean. Buccaneers were part of the region’s history -- although the tales we hear have been infused with fiction, to be sure. These nefarious sailors were after not only gold coins and fine silk but another precious product: rum.
One can hardly blame them. The Caribbean produced then as now arguably the
world's finest rum. The 17th-century British Royal Navy allowed its sailors a daily ration – a practice that continued until 1970! Some believed it cured hangovers.
Early mariners were convinced a nip of Mount Gay improved their sailing abilities. In production for more than 300 years, this venerable rum recently celebrated its tri-centennial with regattas, parties and a limited-edition blend in specially designed decanters.
It's a rare journey to the Caribbean that doesn't include a sampling of this famous product. The number of preeminent distilleries are legion. In addition to Mount Gay, big-name Caribbean producers include the Puerto Rican company Bacardi, Jamaica's Appleton Estate, Haiti's Barbancourt and St. Croix's Cruzan.
Originally an offshoot of the islands' sugar-cane industry, rum is distilled from cane juice or molasses, a by-product of sugar production. Visit one of the Caribbean's many distilleries (listed below) to observe the process: The cane juice or molasses is fermented with yeast, distilled and then aged, usually in oak casks.
Light rums are generally used for mixed drinks, while full-flavoured dark rums, after years of aging, are suitable for sipping, much like fine scotch. The Caribbean produces most of the world’s rums and consumption spans the globe.
Even Caribbean geography illustrates rum's prominence: you'll see Rum Cay in the Bahamas and a Rum Point each in Grand Cayman and Belize. Museums on several islands are dedicated to rummy history.
Just the names of rum drinks hint at Caribbean allure: Goombay Smash, planters punch, piña colada, Cuba Libre, daiquiri. You'll find almost limitless variations of rum punch. In the Spice Island of Grenada, for instance, don't be surprised to find a cold glassful dusted with nutmeg.
Flavoured rums are the newest twist. Look for Bacardi's Limón and orange-flavored O, Captain Morgan Spiced Rum, and Cruzan's vanilla, orange, pineapple, banana and coconut varieties.
This versatile spirit can also be mellowed into liqueur, and the varieties are as diverse as Caribbean destinations. In Guadeloupe, for instance, enjoy the mellow flavor of Shrubb, a blend of rum, orange peel and sugar. In Venezuela and the Dutch Caribbean islands, the eggnog-like cream liqueur Ponche Crema is a favourite. St. Maarten contributes the woodsy Guavaberry liqueur and Jamaica fans are familiar with coffee-flavoured Tia Maria. Rum's not just for drinking, either. Nearly every fine-dining restaurant has at least one rum-enhanced dish.
Looking for the perfect souvenir for that sweet tooth on your gift list? Rum cakes, consumed throughout the Caribbean at weddings and other occasions, abound. One of the most famous, Tortuga Rum Cake, is from Grand Cayman, but you'll also find "black cake" from Guyana, piña colada cake from the Bahamas and Blue Mountain coffee-rum cake from Jamaica.
From today's glorious potables through a less glorious past (the slave trade was inextricably involved in the industry), the Caribbean's history cannot be told without rum. Legends abound: Wonder, for instance, about the song lyrics, "Fifteen men on a deadman's chest/yo ho ho and a bottle of rum"? It's said that the pirate Blackbeard abandoned mutineers with just a dagger and a bottle of rum on the British Virgin Islands islet called Dead Man's Chest. Well, it could have been worse: They could have been marooned with a jigger of juice.