Words and Photos by Sabia McCoy-Torres—
When people think of Costa Rica, what usually comes to mind are exotic animals, lush jungle, and tropical beaches—a paradise waiting be indulged in. Rarely would one consider gritty port city streets, dancehall blasting from passing cars, and gunshots busting out for celebratory reasons. Far from most tourists’ radars, the Caribbean coastal province Limón is home to a deep-rooted Jamaican culture, the fruits of which continue to thrive today.
In this part of Costa Rica, reggae has the music and style scene on lock. Kartel’s “Bike Back” has Costa Rican mamis dropping it to the floor and slow wining to the top while Chuck Fenda on the Passion Riddim has youth with pelo rasta (dreadlocks, or more literally, “rasta hair”) putting “lightas inna di air” on the DJ’s command. Images of Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey, and Haile Selassie adorn the walls of restaurants and barber shops. Red, gold, and green colors and the Jamaican flag are seen on shirts, bracelets, bandanas, and necklaces. A free TOK concert in 2006 ended with fireworks while the audience chanted lyrics, only to be topped by Capleton (with Mad Cobra as his opener) mashing up the place for three hours straight a year later.
During the two years I lived in Costa Rica, I spent as many nights dancing to reggae in city-style San Jose clubs until dawn as I did at wallless bars on tropical beaches. Going out in Puerto Limón, the capital city of the Caribbean coastal province, was no joke. Heads ducking bullets was a commonplace occurrence, but rarely did the party ever stop.
Recently, I had the opportunity to go back and politic with some of the country’s top DJs and performers and document aspects of reggae culture in Costa Rica. One of my meetings was with DJ Acon of Reggae Night Crew who broke down to me just how the whole reggae scene started. As we pulled up to Playa Piuta, a beach in Puerto Limón, Acon told me: “Ahhh this is like Jamaica.” When I ask what he means, he says on Sundays the beach is packed with black folk, chillin’, grillin’, and speaking English patois.
Acon is talking about Costa Rica’s Afro-Caribbean population, the descendents of Jamaican laborers who came to Costa Rica beginning in 1871 to construct a railroad connecting the Caribbean coast to the Pacific. After the railroad was finished, they stayed on to work banana plantations, while more Jamaicans immigrated until the late 1940s, also to work in this industry. Today, people who carry Jamaican heritage continue to cook Caribbean food and speak English patois, some not learning Spanish until elementary school. Though they are Tico (the local term for Costa Rican) and proud, they are also prideful of Caribbean culture, especially music and dance. Mento, often mistakenly referred to as calypso, was the dominant music form when many workers arrived, with workers making songs about daily life and labor. As reggae developed in Jamaica, a strong demand for this music emerged in a Caribbean community hungry to continue their music traditions.
One of the many banana plantations that still dominate the Caribbean coastal region
Acon is of mixed Caribbean and Chinese ancestry. As in Jamaica, many Chinese immigrated to Limón as workers and later set up grocery stores. On a DJ Acon mixtape, Beenie Man affectionately refers to him as “DJ Acon, a real Costa Rican black Chinee.”
He places the birth of contemporary reggae in Costa Rica around the mid ’80s. Before the Internet, people transferred music the old school way… by boat. Being that Puerto Limón is a port city, cruise and cargo ships dock there, and workers on ships who went to Jamaica would bring back cassettes for their friends and family. This is how Acon and other local DJs got started. DJs were able to set up reggae nights at various bars and clubs on the Caribbean coast. At that point only Caribbean Ticos listened to reggae and went to reggae events. Acon proudly explains to me that almost twenty years ago he started a reggae party at the bar-restaurant on the beach where we are sitting. “It looked like Sunsplash every Sunday afternoon, completely full,” he says. Events like these gave Acon his name and encouraged the expansion of Costa Rica’s reggae scene.
Word of reggae in Costa Rica has made it a stop on many Jamaican artists’ itinerary but reggae isn’t only imported from Jamaica, it is locally produced and supported. Roots reggae singer Rasta Manuel and dancehall deejays Banton and Toledo are just a few key players in the scene right now. Dancehall songs in particular are sung in English patois or mixed with Spanish. With the combination of local and internationally produced tunes, there is never lack of a good reggae party in Costa Rica. The ability to play both selector and MC is a must for any DJ with clout down there.
Inside reggae night at club Bongos, San Jose, Costa Rica
Reggae music and dance is for fun and entertainment, but it is also a means of survival. As DJ Acon puts it: “Reggae music is what shaped me… reggae is what provides food for a lot of artists and dancers.” It’s also a way to talk about the injustices that black Costa Ricans face, and to prove their worth in a country that has historically excluded them. Afro-Caribbean people in Costa Rica were denied citizenship and prohibited from traveling outside of Limón until 1949. From then until today, Limón and its people have been among the nation’s most neglected. To make things worse, Puerto Limón is dead center of a drug trafficking matrix that extends from Colombia to the U.S. and connects to the Caribbean. This has given Limón a partially true reputation as being plagued with drug violence and an exaggerated and racist interpretation of its people as all being gun toting narco-traffickers.
Reggae provides a positive outlet to change those interpretations and make something of oneself. Tyrone, a dancer in Slam Jam, a nationally famous reggae dance crew that performs at concerts, clubs and on TV shows, explains the importance of reggae: “I’m Tico and I represent Limón to the maximum. Here we have to fight hard…Simply put, reggae is a part of my identity. I’m black and I’m [one] of those black men that want to achieve a lot. I’m not going to let anyone stop me or try and silence me because I’m black. I believe I have a lot to give, and that is my identity.”
Slam Jam ready for a Halloween performance (Tyrone is right of center)
He later explains to me that if Slam Jam gains international fame and the media tries to make him a symbol of national pride, like it’s done with the internationally successful black female middleweight champion boxer Hanna Gabriels, he ain’t having it. What he’s built, he says, was on his own without the help of anybody, especially those who treat him like a second class citizen.
Prejudice is also a theme in locally-made reggae. “Oficial de Transito” (Transit Officer), a popular recent song by Banton, is about being stopped and harassed by transit police. It’s not uncommon to witness racial profiling, harassment, and corruption living in Costa Rica. During my last visit, when I was pulled over for a “routine procedure” while driving with friends, I had to convince the officer that, though I spoke Spanish, I was from the U.S. and was not traveling from Panama (and therefore, in his view, importing drugs). Only after we got out of the car in our bikinis, at his order, and sweet talked him, were we allowed to go.
Banton, “Oficial de Transito”
The Sufferas, another local reggae group, have recorded songs from prison. The quality of their songs is so good you would think they were proper recorded in a studio. After a song the Sufferas released discussing the treatment of people in society and in prison became widely popular, their permission to record was revoked without explanation.
Within the past decade, reggae’s popularity has grown outside of Limón, crossing both race and origin. Reggae has arrived at being an official national music of Costa Rica. In distant rural towns, youth speak patois phrases because of their knowledge of reggae music. In fact, Acon explains to me that Puerto Limón has become so dangerous that now most of the best reggae parties are held in other areas, particularly San Jose.
But Costa Rica’s reggae scene is also expanding internationally, particularly to Nicaragua and Panama, other Central American countries with black Caribbean populations. Costa Rican DJ crews and local artists are spinning parties and performing at shows abroad, and knowledge about what Costa Rica has to offer reggae is growing in general. DJ Acon even came to Brooklyn recently to play a party that was part of the West Indian Labor Day festivities. “Now there are [international] DJs that want to come here,” he proudly notes.
So the word is finally getting out: Costa Rica is home not only to exotic birds and eco-tourism, but also an Afro-Caribbean community that gives this country an unusual dynamism, and a rich reggae scene.