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BAHAMASNET.COM ORIGINAL ARTICLE - 1996


Junkanoo!!!

Boxing Day (26th December) and New Year's Day 2am to 8am

Originally published BAHAMASNET.COM - 1996 © Etienne Dupuch Jr Publications Ltd


Join us for the Junkanoo of the millenium, uniquely Bahamian, a seasonal festival that is a cornerstone of the country's cultural expression.

Junkanoo is an adrenaline rush of colours, costumes and floats framed by the beat of the goatskin drum and its African roots! Spectators line the streets of Nassau's Bay Street on Boxing Day (December 26) and New Year's Day in the early hours to listen to the mounting clamour of bells, whistles and goombay drums throbbing forward to the rhythm of the music. A festival unique in its rawness and flavour of the Afro-Caribbean.


Jump in a line! Its Junkanoo tme!

Jumpinaline, it's Junkanoo time. That's the spirit when The Bahamas turns party town, big time, in the "wheeee hours" of Dec 26 and Jan 1. Junkanoo is a seasonal explosion of colour, costumes, choreography and culture. It is the Bahamian answer to Mardi Gras, Rio Carnaval, the Macarena and Key West's Fantasy Fest.

Junkanoo "rushers" and even spectators leap, jump and dance into the heart of the action. The festivities begin around 2am and end as dawn streaks the sky with its gorgeous palette of primary colours. Jungle drums beat out a constant rhythm as hypnotic as Ravel's Bolero.

Long hours of work in top-secret Junkanoo "shacks" result in museum-quality costumes painstakingly made from coloured paper. These works of art used to be trucked to the city dump. Today, the best are restored and preserved as Junkanoo Expo visitor attractions at the Prince George Wharf museum.

Competition becomes fierce when the various groups present their latest designs and themes at Junkanoo judging time the following morning. Regular competitors in Nassau include the Valley Boys, Saxons, One Family, Vikings, Music Makers, Most Qualified, Roots, Fancy Dancers, Z-Bandits, Fox Hill Congos, the PIGS (Progress through Integrity, Guts and Strength) and many other groups. Cash awards are passed out at both the Boxing Day and New Year's parades.

Plan early for a good vantage point. Upstairs locations on Bay Street are prime viewing venues. Bench seats lining Bay St may be reserved but there have been incidents when these seats have been usurped.

Special songs put Junkanoo in proper musical perspective. "Mama, bake your Johnny Cake, Christmas coming," is an all-time Junkanoo Christmas hit.


Junkanoo Expo

The former Customs Warehouse on Prince George Wharf is the site of the new Junkanoo Expo, showcasing the intricate costumes made with months of handcrafting. Junkanoo Expo is the first sustained effort to display these works of art.

The exhibit is open daily from 10am to 4pm Admission $2 for adults, 50 for children under 12, and 50 each for school groups, regardless of age. There is a gift shop and gallery for the purchase of Junkanoo books, photographs, souvenirs, paintings, maquettes, T-shirts, CDs and tapes.

An expression of Bahamian culture - History

Junkanoo, a hybrid of Afro-Bahamian music and dance, began with the slaves who were given three days off at Christmas. In the early days, it involved groups of grotesquely masked dancers and musicians travelling from house to house, often on stilts. In one form or another, the practice became popular in the Carolinas, Jamaica, British Honduras (now Belize) and The Bahamas.

No-one knows for sure where the Bahamian name for this practice came from. Some accredit it to the celebrated African trader-prince John Conuu, or John Conny, who commanded the Brandenberg trading fort on the Gold Coast of Ghana in the early 18th century. Others say it came from the French phrase "gens inconnus," meaning unknown people. Yet others believe it is a corruption of the West African name Jananin Canno, derived from a combination of the Quojas tribe's Canno, a supreme being who controlled the activities of the tribe, and Janani, spirits seen as patrons or defenders of the tribe.

Bahamian E. Clement Bethel said:
"...it is clear that John Canoe cannot be viewed as a single African phenomenon transported intact to the New World, but rather as an amalgam of diverse West African elements, which ... emerged as a distinctive creative expression of New World peoples."

Junkanoo went into decline after slavery was abolished, and became all but extinct in areas of the Caribbean where it once flourished. The Bahamas alone kept the memory alive, and is now the only country to continue the tradition in an annual festival of national significance.

In the past, revellers used Junkanoo as a way of letting off steam. Cloaked in masks and disguises, they took advantage of their anonymity to get even with persons who had wronged them during the year, and minor skirmishes often erupted on the parade route. An outcry over the general revelry and use of firecrackers led to the passing of the Street Nuisance Act in 1899, although it contained waivers for Junkanoo between the hours of 4am and 9am on Xmas Day and New Year's Day. Further bans were made on the tradition during the war and prohibition years, and masqueraders were eventually sent "over-the-hill" to the poorer sections of Nassau where Junkanoo continued to grow and develop.

Nowadays, Junkanoo is an organized parade through the main streets of Nassau, with judging and prizes awarded to groups in different categories. Competing groups currently include the Saxons, Valley Boys, One Family, Roots, Vikings, Music Makers, Most Qualified, Fancy Dancers, Z-Bandits, Fox Hill Congos, and the PIGS (Progress through Integrity, Guts and Strength).

Tourists and Bahamians alike line the streets by the thousands to enjoy the distinctive beat and kaleidoscope of Caribbean Crayola colours. The music has changed little since the early days, with goatskin leather drums, cowbells and whistles, and improvised homemade instruments such as bicycle horns, wheel rims and conch shells making up the sound. The drums were traditionally wooden barrels cut in half with goatskin stretched across one half. Nowadays they are made of metal, but the leather must still be "tuned" by burning paper or candles under the tightly stretched skin until the sound is right.

In recent years, a brass section has been added, bringing Junkanoo more in line with Mardi Gras and "Carnival." While singing is no longer part of the celebration, a number of Junkanoo songs have survived, including "A Rushin' Through The Crowd", "Do a 'Nanny" and "Spare Me Another Year, O Lord".

You'll start to hear the sounds of Junkanoo as early as October, when preparations start among the various groups. Practice sessions gear up as Christmas draws near, with mock "rush-outs" staged at various venues-including under the Paradise Island Bridge and on the Betty Cole basketball court, Bay St. Costume makers tend to work on designs throughout the year. There is also the choreography to think about, with groups of (usually) female dancers performing modern dance steps mixed with traditional Junkanoo moves. The two steps forward, one step back footwork of the traditional Junkanoo rush is thought to have come from the African Ashanti warrior's march to war. Back in the 1950s, when Junkanoo was taking shape as a major cultural experience, the opening conga drumbeat and nubile dancing were indeed militant and fearsome. It could be quite unnerving to be awakened at 4am with the sound of drums and hypnotic Junkanoo beat rising from over-the-hill.
Junkanoo remains the most distinctive, individual expression of Bahamian art and culture. It is an experience not to be missed.



"...festivities begin around 2am and end as dawn streaks the sky with its gorgeous palette of primary colours."  
   
"Plan early for a good vantage point. Upstairs locations on Bay Street are prime viewing venues. Bench seats lining Bay St may be reserved but..."  
   
"...with goatskin leather drums, cowbells and whistles, and improvised homemade instruments such as bicycle horns, wheel rims and conch shells ..."  
 
 
 

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