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Celebrating Junkanoo in the Bahamas

Insider Guides Festivals
by Kristin Conard Dec 21, 2011
While now partly a tourist attraction, the Bahamian celebration of Junkanoo has its roots in slavery and the struggle against oppression.

EARLY IN THE MORNING on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, Bahamians celebrate Junkanoo. Groups of up to a thousand each parade along Bay Street and Shirley Street in Nassau wearing elaborate costumes and dancing or playing goatskin drums, horns, bells, or whistles, as thousands more watch and dance on the sidelines.

The festival starts around 1 or 2am and doesn’t finish until 9am, when winners are announced: best music, best costume, and best overall group awards, with rivalries between the Saxons, Valley Boys, One Family, The Music Makers, Roots, and Prodigal Sons – each with loyal followings.

History and Tradition

The origins of the festival are debated, but the story told to us at Educulture, the Junkanoo museum in Nassau, was that during the time of slavery in the Bahamas, slaves were allowed three days off around Christmas. During that time, they let loose by dancing and playing the music from their homes in Africa. Costumes were made with whatever material was handy – scraps of newspaper, sea sponge, and other discarded items.

After the abolition of slavery, Junkanoo continued as an expression of identity and community. Jackson Burnside, a Junkanoo leader, saw Junkanoos of the past “as a symbolic struggle on the part of black working-class Bahamians against their oppression by whites”:

‘All of a sudden black people can come over the hill and take over Bay Street and carry-on bad down the main street and do what ever they wanted to do; it was usually the strongest, the healthiest, the most revolutionary spirit of the over-the-hill people. It wasn’t the people who were the closest to the big house of the massa.’ (Bethel, “Junkanoo in the Bahamas: A tale of identity”)

Now, Junkanoo is in part a tourist attraction – the music, dancing, and costumes providing an idealized picture of exotic and interesting island life. The major groups have corporate sponsors, and the focus is less on revolution and more on competition, though it’s still a celebration of freedom and more by and for Bahamians than done for tourists.

Arlene Nash Ferguson, the founder of Educulture, said, “I think Bahamians are proud of the fact that it is uniquely Bahamian – something that sets us apart from others and that we can truly call our own. On a deeper level, we instinctively respond to the beat of the drum in an inexplicable way.”

Months are spent creating costumes in the “shack,” the place where the costumes are built and stored, and practicing the music. Costumes are still made with paper and cardboard, but with the addition of a healthy amount of sequins and feathers.

Arlene, who wears a costume for One Family in the parade each year, said “Making the costumes can take anywhere from a week to 6 months. Because the costumes are made entirely of tiny strips of paper, they are very labor intensive. The entire process including planning for a major group usually takes the better part of a year.”

The large costumes can weigh 100+ pounds, are put on piece by piece, and dancers will wear them for 80 minutes at a time. Since some of the costumes are so large and elaborate, the parade is to be cancelled if winds are over 20 knots – participants have been injured from high winds knocking them over.

Traditional instruments include the goatskin drums and the cowbells – the sound the bells make is called “kalik,” and the local beer is named for that sound.

The incorporation of brass sections allows the playing of more distinct melodies to bring together the theme in the music and the costumes.

It’s a party that brings the country together, whether you’re a participant or a bystander. Steve Bellot, our host for the People-to-People experience, explained his connection to the event:

“My first memory of junkanoo was watching it as a young boy perched on my father’s shoulders. It was much different then with much simpler costumes and more rudimentary music.

Junkanoo is important to Bahamians because for many people it is a major part of their lives from an early age. It is also an opportunity for people to let their hair down and play a character. There is also the competitive spirit of the parade, which at this time [November and December] is at an all time high.

My favorite part of the parade is definitely the music which tends to be hypnotic, forcing anyone in earshot to move and gyrate, putting you into a trance. A first time visitor would want to get tickets in Rawson Square to watch; this is the heart of the parade and where you can hear locals debate the performances of the individual groups. The junkanoo parades are an event not to be missed.”

Where to experience Junkanoo

The major event is in Nassau on December 26 and New Year’s Day, but other islands celebrate as well, including the Abacos, the Exumas, Harbour Island, and Grand Bahama. You can also watch the Junkanoo music practices, often held at night. Junkanoo is held in Miami in June.

If you can’t make the event, visit Educulture in Nassau (31 West Street and Delancey Street) for more information on the parade.

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