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Ethnobotanical Documentation of Herbalism and Traditional Foods in Caribbean Music

Throughout the world, plants hold great significance in everyone's lives. Without plants, none of us would live the way we do today; from the obvious food sources and wood for construction, to plant fibers for clothing and other materials, plants are vital to our existence no matter who we are. Humans have evolved with plants, learning the many uses and methods of working with them, and many plants hold an important place in our hearts. A rose might remind somebody of a loved one, the smell of garlic to a specific dish, even the trees to specific memories and experiences.


In the Caribbean, just as is the case in places like Central/South America, Africa and throughout Asia, plants have an even closer presence to people. Arguably, most parts of the world with less impact from the Western world and modern philosophies hold this closeness to our plantcestors. The concept of growing your food in your front yard is seen casually, in comparison to deserving negative feedback from an HOA in suburbia. To pick fresh mangoes and unearth roots to cook them fresh from the source is seen in a much different light than going to the grocery store to get your food for the week. The capabilities to do either involve a range of privileges, whether economical or social, and I'm not attempting to create a straight line between the two, as plenty of people living in Chicago grow their own food and plenty of people in the Dominican Republic/Haiti go to the grocery store for theirs. But specifically in the Caribbean, we see plants permeate beyond borders and into all aspects of life, especially music.


Where a song involving plants in the U.S.A. would usually reach a niche audience, (think raps and songs about eating healthy and farming) songs involving plants in the islands, even focused solely on them, are popular and not seen as specifically directed. Plants (and especially food and herbal medicine) are so embedded in Caribbean culture that allusions to them are rarely noticed. And it's not a fad, it's simply something that the culture holds true to itself, and tends to be expressed as an art form, through music.


In this short blog, we'll be exploring Ethnobotanical Documentation of Herbal Medicine and Foods in Music from the Caribbean. Ethnobotany is defined as the plant lore and agricultural customs of a people. The songs referenced mainly involve popular dishes, traditional remedies and other relationships the individuals may have with plants. In Jamaica, we see the importance of eating Ital, or a mostly vegan/vegetarian diet consisting of fresh, whole foods, especially fruits. Being that the Caribbean is rich in food diversity, can grow fresh fruits year round and hosts a variety of climates, it's no surprise these concepts are so popular and frequently spoken on.


I'll be listing off some songs from musicians from the Caribbean, where they are from, specific song lyrics and a "decoding" of sorts of those lyrics and what they are referencing. I strongly feel that such musical references of plants and herbal medicine is an important part of cultural preservation, and even holds traditional remedies and recipes in a place of security, to be spoken on for years to come. Music is timeless, and beyond the emotions felt upon recording, these songs have the capability to pass down culinary and medicinal traditions to future generations.


**It's worth noting that there are terms many people unaware of Caribbean herbalism systems may find confusing, like when an herb is good for your "back", "good for your blood", when an herb "washes" something and many more. I'll try my best to explain them as they come up.**


-Chronixx "Spirulina" (on album, "Dread and Terrible"). Chronixx is from Spanish Town, Jamaica.


In verse 1:

"What good fi ya nerves?

Sour sop and sapota

Coconut water fi wash off ya heart, hey

Nobody could a say Rasta soft

Me go link Viva fast, a never fever grass, hey"


In this verse, Chronixx refers to soursop (Anonna spp.) and sapota (Manilkara zapota) as medicine for the nervous system. He talks about coconut water being good to cool off the heart, or cool the body and general and ease heart issues, and he mentions fever grass (Cymbopogon citratus).


Chorus:

"Gimme a bottle of spirulina

Ah make me mix up di roots with medina

Come off a tour and me knee feel weak

So me go a Hope Road and go link Viva, hey"


In the chorus, Chronixx mentions Spirulina (Arthrospira platensis/maxima), a blue-green algae rich in vitamins and minerals. "Roots" can be a reference to plants like Sarsaparilla (Smilax spp.), Chaney Root (Smilax spp.), Black Wiss (Teramnus spp.) and many more, that is usually taken as a general tonic, for sexual performance etc. Medina (Alysicarpus vaginalis) is a plant used as a renowned sexual tonic as well. (herbs considered "good fa yuh back" are usually aphrodisiacs, and are both taken in specific situations and taken over time to keep the body performing well) He mentions coming off tour and having "weak knees", and knows that taking this herbs will help him build back that energy. Viva is a renowned bush doctor who lives off Hope Road in Jamaica. Chronixx is referencing going to see Viva for his herbal needs.


-Calle 13 "Un Beso de Desayuno" (on album "Residente o Visitante") Calle 13 is from Puerto Rico, members are from various places on the island.


In chorus:

"Yo quiero caminar por encima de tu pelo Hasta llegar a tu ombligo de tu oreja y recitarte un poquito de cosquillas y regalarteuna sabana de almejas darte un beso de desayuno para irnos volando hasta Neptuno si hace frio te caliento con una sopa de amapolas y con un fricase de acerolas"


In the chorus, Calle 13 says "if you're cold I'll warm you with a soup of amapolas, and a fricase of acerola". I'm torn between whether the reference is amapola meaning poppies, since that's what they're called in Spanish, or a variety of hibiscus flower on the island that is called amapola. To say it would be warming though, makes me think he's talking about poppies. Acerolas (Malpighia emarginata) are a sour fruit grown on the island. He references making a "fricase" or really just blending the fruit with water. This is usually done with sugar to balance the tartness.


-Damian Jr. Gong Marley "Mi Blenda" (on album "Halfway Tree") Damian Marley is from Kingston, Jamaica.


In the intro to the song, alongside sounds of ingredients being thrown into a cup a things being blended:


"A dash of this, a pinch of that, a Guinness, a little peanut, some sarsaparilla, a twist"


"Guinness and peanut" is a traditional drink made in Jamaica that is considered a potent aphrodisiac for sexual performance. It's made up with the common base of Guinness beer and peanuts, and is doctored up with things like cinnamon, vanilla, oats and nutmeg. Sarsaparilla (Smilax spp.) is a common ingredient in roots tonics for general wellbeing and sexual performance as well.


In chorus:

"A Guinness and peanut

Me put inna me blenda

Me a di champion

Fi all contender

And if she wanna be a

Fan club member

I'm gonna giver her

Something to remember"


Kinda speaks for itself....sexual performance, champion contender all from the Guinness and peanut. Another common recipe involves sea moss (Chondrus chrispus) and other varieties from the islands, blended with linseed (Linum usitatissimum), cinnamon and nutmeg. Again, none of these recipes are concrete and are found in many variations.


-Amindi K. Fro$t "Pine & Ginger" (Single) Amindi is a musician from Los Angeles, CA with Jamaican heritage.


Chorus:

"Me a drink pine & ginger

Him want me fi wine pon di ting and me no play that

Me a drink pine & ginger

Him want me fi wine pon di ting and me no play that

Him have the rum in a the sorrel

Him a drink away him sorrow

Guess him no care about tomorrow

I guess me no care about tomorrow"


"Pine & ginger" refers to the traditional recipe of boiling pineapple skins and ginger, and drinking it hot or cold. It's taken as a general tonic and to cool down the body. Sorrel (Hibiscus sabdariffa) is a popular tea throughout the Caribbean also known as "Jamaica" in Spanish and "hibiscus" in English. Sorrel is taken to cool the body down and build the blood, among other uses. In this song she mentions it being drank with rum, and sorrel is very popularly mixed with alcohol to sweeten drinks. Sorrel has an enormous ethnobotanical history throughout Jamaica and Africa, and writing on that could take page after page. Research it!


-Macka B "Cucumba" (on album Health is Wealth) Macka B is a British-born Jamaican reggae artist.


*Ya'll know I couldn't leave this song out. If you don't know Macka B, he's been pretty popular on social media from his weekly freestyles about different fruits and vegetables. Cucumba was a freestyle too, then turned song.*


Verse 1:

"Vitamins, Minerals very high number

Silica, hair and nails get longer

Other vitamins make your bones dem stronger

Anti wrinkle make you look younger umm

95% water, kidney cleanser, great hydrator

Detox, fiber, good regulator"


It just keeps going that way. You see what I mean? This man literally made a song about cucumbers. In this instance it all revolves around health and wellness focusing on one food. You'll find the same sort of material on his other songs like "Wha Me Eat" and "Health Is Wealth".


-El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico "Arroz con Habichuela" (Single) El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico is from... you guessed it, Puerto Rico.


Chorus:

"Esto no es balada, esto no es rock

Esto es salso, son y rumba

Esto no es ensaladita light

Arroz con habichuela y vianda es lo que hay"


Boricuas really made a song about rice and beans. "Esto no es ensaladita light" We ain't out here eating no damn iceberg lettuce!!! My Puerto Rican heritage is saturated in rich history and culture around food. From sofrito to pasteles our lives are centered around eating and sharing delicious meals with each other. Still don't believe me? Below is the chorus to "La Fiesta de Pilito", also by El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico.


"A comer pastel y a comer lechon

Arroz con gandules y a beber ron

Que venga morcilla venga de todo

Y que se chaveto compay

Olvidemos to' ok

Y a gozar los dos"


Pastries, pork, pigeon peas, rum it doesn't end. The song is a celebration of food and gathering together to party, which tends to be very, very often for Boricuas.


I'm realizing now that all of my entries are from either Jamaica or Puerto Rico! That's due to my knowing specific songs from Puerto Rico that I thought of first for this blog, and the frequency of this subject from Jamaican musicians. I have no doubt in my mind that these same concepts are spoken on by artists from Cuba, Dominican Republic/Haiti and throughout the Lesser Antilles. Contradicting the stigma by many of those in the U.S, reggae/dancehall etc. does not talk on solely on Cannabis when it comes to herbal remedies, although they remain a popular subject and important cultural medicine to many, especially following Rastafarian beliefs.


I hope this was interesting for you all to read and think about. Like I mentioned, I really do feel like this documentation is an important way to preserve knowledge on plants, and that it will essentially immortalize many recipes and traditional remedies. Maybe we'll find a way to incorporate these preservation techniques into other forms of art? And I wonder if other genres of music will begin to have such significant impressions from plants and herbal medicine in the near future, documenting what is familiar and important to them, creating another vault of plant culture to be preserved for years to come? That was a bit of a run-on sentence but you get the idea. Thanks for reading!

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