Swanky Kitchen Band: Guardians of Caymanian kitchen-band music

Last summer CCV Executive Director Jon Lohman met a gifted fiddler named Samuel Rose at the 87th annual Galax Old Time Fiddler’s Convention, a much beloved musical gathering that he regularly attended during his time as Virginia State Folklorist. Meeting new fiddlers at the world’s longest running fiddlers’ convention is of course not uncommon, though this encounter was completely unique, as Samuel ventured to Galax from the Caribbean archipelago of the Cayman Islands. There’s fiddle music in the Caribbean you ask? Indeed, there is. Samuel and his fellow members of The Swanky Kitchen Band are the torch bearers of a distinctly Caymanian tradition known as Kitchen Dance Music, which traces its origins back to the spirited social gatherings around the cooking that took place in the detached kitchens characteristic of the islands’ Afro-Caribbean neighborhoods.

The Caymans, comprised of 3 islands in the western Caribbean, were first settled by the British and Scottish in the 1600s, who then brought enslaved Africans to the islands in the 1730s. Paralleling in many ways the United States’ often fraught history, the cultural practices that developed in the Caymans were the result of a complex melding of European and African elements, with their musical traditions being no exception. In Kitchen Dance Music, the European fiddle combines with distinctly African rhythms, that in this instance, musicians created with common kitchen objects, most notably the Cassava grater.

Samuel Rose plays the Caymanian fiddle with Paula Scott on the grater. Both are members of the Swanky Kitchen Band.

As the Caymans have developed into a global center for banking and tourism starting in the latter part of the 20th century, Kitchen Dance Music, like so much of traditional Caymanian culture, has largely diminished. Thankfully, however, the Swanky Kitchen Band is faithfully keeping this music—so emblematic of Caymanian culture—alive and vibrant. 

After meeting Sam and his bandmates, CCV knew right away that they would be perfect for World Culture in Context (WCC), our online learning program that takes students on a virtual field trip to visit musicians from around the globe. Last fall, Lohman went to the Caymans to film their WCC video. Realizing the centrality of this group to this often-overlooked vibrant yet threatened Caymanian culture, our relationship has quickly deepened and expanded. CCV is currently working with the Caymanian Ministries of Culture and Heritage to develop an apprenticeship program to assist them in continuing and re-energizing their traditional music, along with a wide range of vanishing crafts and occupational traditions.

And keep your eyes out for a Swanky Kitchen Band east coast tour this summer—including performances at the Lowell Folk Festival, Library of Congress and Lincoln Center, where you can join others in experiencing this wonderful and likely unfamiliar musical tradition!