The vast majority of the people are of African descent. Before the volcano erupted there was an influx of white Americans, Canadians and Britons who purchased retirement homes on the island. Montserratians are notable for their easy friendliness to visitors, speaking English flavoured by dialect and the odd Irish expression.
There is virtually no crime and everyone leaves their doors unlocked. The population used to hover around 11,000, but emigration since the volcano started erupting in 1995 has reduced numbers. Many Montserratians are living in temporary accommodation in Antigua and others have relocated elsewhere in the Caribbean or in the UK. Evacuees are returning, however, with the British government paying their travel costs (subject to certain restrictions).
The Irish influence can still be seen in national emblems. On arrival your passport is stamped with a green shamrock, the island’s flag and crest show a woman, Erin of Irish legend, complete with her harp, and a carved shamrock adorns the gable of Government House. There are many Irish names, of both people and places, and the national dish, goat water stew, is supposedly based on a traditional Irish recipe, although some historians claim it is of African origin. A popular local folk dance, the Bam-chick-lay resembles Irish step dances and musical bands may include a fife and a drum similar to the Irish bodhran.
The African heritage dominates, however, whether it be in Caribbean musical forms like calypso (the veteran Arrow is now an international superstar and can still be found on the island, having moved his operation north out of the volcano evacuation zone), steel bands or the costumed masqueraders who parade during the Christmas season. Another element in the African cultural heritage are the Jumbie Dancers, who combine dancing and healing. Only those who are intimate with the island and its inhabitants will be able to witness their ceremonies, though. Local choirs, like the long-established Emerald Isle Community Singers, mix calypso with traditional folk songs and spirituals in their repertoire, and the String Bands of the island play the African shak-shak, made from a calabash gourd, as well as the imported Hawaiian ukelele.
There are drama and dance groups in Montserrat, which perform occasionally. Sir George Martin’s famed recording studios, the Air Studios, on the edge of Belham Valley, used to attract rock megastars such as Elton John, the Rolling Stones and Sting to the island, but the studios were closed after Hurricane Hugo. Natural disasters, such as the volcanic eruption, have left a legacy on the cultural output of the island, generating art, songs, poems, photography, stories, etc. In 1997, Sir George Martin organized a gala fundraising concert for Montserrat at the Royal Albert Hall in London, which included Paul McCartney, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Sting, Mark Knopfler, Jimmy Buffet and Arrow, who had used Air Studios in the past. At the same time a show was put on at Gerald’s Bottom on Montserrat by other musicians who had used the recording studios. The Climax Blues Band reformed for the occasion and Bankie Banks appeared, along with 18 local acts in what was optimistically called ‘Many Happy Returns’. A second ‘Many Happy Returns’ concert was held in 1999 to coincide with St Patrick’s Day festivities, after a previous attempt in 1998 was postponed because of Hurricane Georges. Local and London-based bands, choirs and acts attracted a crowd of 3,000, or 75% of the population at that time, and the finale was provided by the king of soca, Arrow and his band.
Note: On Montserrat a Maroon is not a runaway slave but the local equivalent of ‘barn-raising’, when everyone helps to build a house, lay a garden, etc.