A report by Katy Ward for Provincetown’s Wicked Local.
Jamaican culture has swept over the Outer Cape, blending its unique and lively heritage into the American lifestyle — from reggae-themed dance nights and Caribbean-style eateries to a boom in school demographics and seasonal and year-round staffing at local businesses.
Though there is no official count that tells us how many people of Jamaican descent have settled on the Outer Cape, their presence is felt all over Provincetown. During the summer, places such as Velvet Lounge & Cabaret kick off the week with Sunday reggae dance nights.
“We bring in local DJs from Jamaica,” Evon Campbell, who moved here from the Westmoreland Parish near Negril, says. ”[Reggae night] is very similar [to those in Jamaica], but here we mix a lot of cultures — American, Bulgarian — it depends on the crowd. It’s a variety of hip hop, R and B and reggae.”
Campbell works in the kitchen at John Dough’s restaurant and promotes Velvet’s reggae night on the side. He says the dance party has grown in popularity over the four years of its existence. The club used to feature reggae night only occasionally — depending on DJ availability and requests from party-goers — but now it’s a weekly event.
The Wellfleet Beachcomber has its own reggae night on Tuesdays with DJ Bud E. Green, aka the International Ganja Phenomenon, a nod to the bountiful cultivation of marijuana in Jamaica. And other places such as Payomet Performing Arts Center in Truro have held concerts over the summer, including Freddie McGregor, a native of Clarendon, Jamaica, known for his culturally conscious lyrics, and the Whalers, most prominently celebrated for playing with the late Bob Marley, the iconic Jamaican singer and composer known for blending reggae, ska and rocksteady.
The Underground Bar, which is one of the few clubs that stays open year-round, does not have a reggae-themed dance night, but has a close relationship with the Jamaican community that has grown over steady games of pool tournaments that start in the fall.
“If you want to see Jamaicans in action come check the pool tables around nine or ten p.m. on any night. They run those tables,” says Jenna Halloran, a bartender and manager at the Underground. “There were many attempts over the years for reggae night, but to be honest the crowd was disrespectful at the beginning … sneaking in drinks, fights, no tips, underage. We would end up spending more to staff the night with extra bouncers. It wasn’t worth it. I think the issue was that we both didn’t really know each other yet.”
But Halloran says things have changed.
“Over the years, through the pool league actually, we have really gotten to know and respect our Jamaican crowd and vice-versa,” Halloran says. “They tip, almost excessively now, and keep an extra eye out and report if anyone in the bar is acting up. … Our relationship with the Jamaicans that frequent the [Underground] might have had a rocky start five years ago due to some cultural differences or misunderstandings, but we now have a mutually respectful relationship that we all fully enjoy. It wouldn’t be the Underground without them.”
And with an influx of Jamaican culture comes fruity, spicy Caribbean cooking.
Natessa Brown, the owner of Irie Eats on Shank Painter Road, has been dazzling Provincetown with Caribbean flavor for four years.
“In Jamaica the word ‘Irie’ means nice and easy,” Brown says. “I wanted to bring some of our culture and history here. It’s been very successful and every year it gets better.”
Her restaurant, which is painted in bold Rastafarian red, yellow, green and black, is the only place in town to find authentic Caribbean-style food. The menu includes brown stew chicken, jerk chicken and pork, curried goat, oxtail and escovitch — which is a whole fried fish. But Brown says it’s her breakfast that is most popular, which includes staples such as the ackee and salt fish and the callaloo and salt fish.
“Ackee is fruity and sweet,” Brown says, adding that callaloo is a leafy green similar to spinach and both salt fishes are made with cod.
Brown first came to Provincetown when she was 17 years old under the H-2B program, a nonimmigrant visa that allows foreigners to enter the U.S. to work seasonally. The program has been a starting point for many people who eventually became citizens and settled on the Cape. The Lobster Pot, Bubalas by the Bay and Harbor Hotel are a few of the local employers that continually apply for H-2B workers.
“I first started coming here on the H-2B program and working at Clem and Ursie’s,” says Brown, who is from the Westmoreland Parish and is Evon Campbell’s sister. “After a while, I decided to stay. I like this part of the world — there’s no fussiness. It’s fun, nice, quiet and a healthy place to raise a child.”
Brown’s 18-year-old daughter, Aelicia, is now in college planning to study medicine.
“Sometimes you miss [home], but you find similarities and try to blend in,” Brown says. “There’s no way around it.”
Brown wishes Jamaican culture would be more recognized and appreciated in town, and have its own event similar to Carnival and the Portuguese Festival. Though there are a few seasonal reggae-themed dance nights, she’d like to see more activities and celebrations that represent her heritage and culture.
“It’s hard because there’s no one person who represents the culture of the Caribbean people,” Brown says. “There’s no one at Town Hall that organizes events for us because they don’t know anything about our culture. If there was someone representing us maybe something could be arranged.”
Though Irie Eats is the only Caribbean eatery in town, other places have started catering to Jamaicans. At Stop & Shop the produce aisle now offers a variety of Island foods such as cassava (also known as yucca root, a shrubby root vegetable widely grown in Jamaica), dasheen (similar to a potato), batata (sweet potato) and negro (yam).
Provincetown Schools Principal Kim Pike says the number of Jamaican families has grown in the years since she arrived.
“I became principal in 2009,” Pike says. “We had a number of Jamaican students at that time, but the number has grown over the past eight years — probably one and a half times as many now.”
The school menu now includes items such as Jamaican beef patties and rice and peas (rice and beans), to cater to some of the students who miss the foods of their native country, while also introducing others to their culture.
“We are an International Baccalaureate school, so we love that our students are able to teach us about their country and about their culture,” Pike says. “We need to do our best to learn from them and help parents keep traditions and culture alive in their homes, in their school and in their community.”