Wednesday, 11 January 2017

© Junkanoo ~ A Bahamian Legacy

    I was taken to my first Junkanoo Parade in the winter of 1960. Each Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) and New Years day, in the wee hours of early morning around 2am, one hears that magical sound approaching the main street of downtown Nassau in the Bahamas. A rhythm that works its way easily into one's soul from the very first introduction manufactured by hundreds of cowbells in unison, whistles and goat skin drums; in later years we saw the introduction of brass instrumentation adding a very special mix of sound. 

Growing up as an 'island boy' and sent away to an English boarding school I always yearned to return to Bay Street in the islands capitol of New Providence each Christmas holiday, feeling once again the whole street come alive throbbing with hundreds of amazing costumes in each sponsored group competing for prizes.  (*NB: if you see a photo you admire, by all means click on to see an enlarged version to be dragged on to your desktop to keep!)

The origin of the word junkanoo is widely disputed but theories include that it is named after a folk hero named John Canoe or that it is derives from masked characters in similar style to jonkonnu masks. Canoe was in fact an existing king and hero that ruled Axim, Ghana before 1720, the same year the John Canoe festival was created in the Caribbean.

The festival may well have originated centuries ago when slaves on plantations in The Bahamas celebrated holidays granted around Christmas time with dance, music, and costumes. After the emancipation the tradition continued and junkanoo evolved from simple origins to a formal, organised parade with ever increasing intricate costumes of Akan origin?

“'De John Coonahs comin'!' And there come, sure enough!” The Ladies' Home Journal, December 1891, Vol. IX, No. 1, p. 5

The Akan people are believed to have migrated to their current location from the Sahara desert and regions of West Africa. Akans tell their history started in the forested region of West Africa known today as Ghana. From the 15th century to the 19th century the Akan people dominated gold mining and trading in the region becoming the most powerful groups in west Africa attracting European traders. Initially, Portuguese, soon joined by the Dutch and British in their quest for Akan gold. Akan states waged wars on neighboring states in their geographic area to capture people and sell them as slaves to Europeans (Portuguese) who subsequently sold the enslaved people.

The Akans went from buyers of slaves to selling slaves as the dynamics in the Gold Coast changed. It is the Akan people who played a role in supplying Europeans with indentured servants, who were later enslaved for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Ghana later apologized to the descendants of slaves for the role some of its people may have played in the trade.

The jonkonnu masks used in the original festivities all were derived from the origins of West Africa.

The festivals became legend within most of the Caribbean colonies, notably Jamaica, Bahamas and West Indies practicing to this day their celebrations of both Christmas and a New Year.
Back in the 60s when I watched my first parade from a balcony above Bay Street the costumes were simpler and group numbers much smaller.

 As the decades progressed so did Junkanoo becoming more a Bahamian known festival with the word Carnival taking root in the more southern islands such as Trinidad and into South America. Our parades here started seeing larger individual costumes and head dresses with the beginnings of floats more often carried by only one strong individual!

We were introduced to popular rivalry between large established groups sponsored annually by large local corporations and hotels. We could expect ever increasing numbers and fantastic displays from The Saxons, The Valley Boys, One Family, Roots and Colours. The sweetest place to be now down on the street where the groups assemble for the start of their route as we mix in amongst the music and throng of paraders!

The music became a large part of the group competition. The brass sections larger than previous years, the cow bells more complex in design and more use of the horn, both traditional and conch shell.

Modern Junkanoo has become a blur of colour and sound. Street performers add new character to the parade and the faces of Junkanoo become more extravagant with each new parade!

Recent parades up to 2016 the floats became so large that Shirley Street starters had to negotiate under the power cables that straddled the roads in order to enter the procession toward Bay Street. Manufactured all by hand with crape paper and styrofoam the entries became quite magnificent.

Dawn slowly breaks bringing light to the eastern sky to reveal even more magical colour to the groups with their floats and head dress.

A winter holiday in the Bahamas warrants a must visit to Bay Street in Nassau to witness the largest Junkanoo Parade in the country. The Out-Islands also hold their own smaller versions and great fun to participate in. Bring your camera and prepared for the rhythm to seep into your soul with at least six hours of pure island entertainment found nowhere else to match the Bahamas!

Follow us here by clicking "Follow by Email" at the top of each page - coming each year will hopefully see my Annual Page called "The Faces of Junkanoo" - find your friends or even yourself (click on the photo and 'save' the picture!) amongst the fabulous groups of really creative Bahamians appreciated by those of us who trek down to the city streets of Nassau in the wee hours of Boxing Day (the holiday here in the Bahamas following Christmas Day) and again on New Years early morning!

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