A Time for the Soul to Go Home
"So what is this strange thing that
we call Junkanoo? Why, year after year, do we Bahamians engage in
this ritual about which most of the world knows nothing? To Bahamians,
it is a most natural part of life, as vital, energizing, and soul
quenching as water. Even most of us "Junkanoos" find it
hard to explain. It is a door that swings open to that secret place
deep within Bahamians, where we keep the real 'us'."
Arleen Nash Ferguson
Bahamian educator and author
On Potters Quay, just aside the bridge that separates
workaday Nassau from glitzy Paradise Island, something akin to magic
is going on. It's 8pm and my nineteen year old son and I are witnesses
to three hundred Bahamian men beating a wild Congolese rhythm on
"Goombay" drums made from food, oil and rum containers.
The hypnotic beat sets my heart to race. The men, aged 17 to 70
are as disciplined as soldiers marching into battle. In fact, their
two step forward and one step back march is that of the Ashanti
warrior. The men are beating on drums as large as garbage cans which
are suspended from their shoulders by old pieces of carpet. Their
hands blister with the incessant beating but they've just started
and there's four more hours to go. In the moonlight, faces gleam
as if with oil, but it is not oil. It is sweat from the labor of
percussion and the heat generated by the enormous bonfire where
they periodically heat their drums. The goatskin of the goombay
drum goes flat after 40 minutes so they must lay it by the fire
for a few minutes to tighten up again. Some beat drums which hold
a fire inside to keep the skin tight all the while they play. The
drummers' steps are slow but their beat is frenetic - out of Africa.
In the blackness of night, my son and I are watching The Valley
Boys practice for Junkanoo.
Junkanoo is the annual celebration that Bahamians
in Nassau hold in the early hours of the morning twice a year: on
Boxing Day (December 26) and on New Year's Day. The celebration
on colonial Bay Street is marked by a spectacular parade of music,
dance, and costume. Yet Junkanoo is more; it is the very essence
of Bahamian culture. And though Junkanoo exists in other parts of
The Bahamas, in Nassau, Junkanoo is an obsession. People in Nassau
don't just celebrate Junkanoo, they are Junkanoos.
The Valley Boys are one of the several groups that
each year compete in dance, music and costume for the Grand Junkanoo
Award. In fact, they're are one of the two top groups and the previous
year the other top group, The Saxons Superstars, won. So this year,
The Valley Boys, are fighting to win. With only six days to the
Junkanoo parade on Boxing Day, the tension's high, the practice,
hard. Just ask Gus Cooper, the Musical Director for the past thirty
years. Gus is "working the line," which means he is walking
among the drummers, making sure their steps are small, they're in
formation and they stay within the ropes he's stretched out to mark
a border that approximates the width of Bay Street. " Junkanoo
is an emotional event, he explains, "yet you got to stay disciplined.
You don't want people straggling off into the spectators. "Got
to stay tight."
After a couple of hours, I make my way to the pick
up truck at the side of the quay to get a couple of cans of the
local soda called Junkanoo Juice, and conch fritters. Suddenly it
sounds like Judgment Day. Here come the Horns! Hundreds more people
have arrived and not just with trumpets, tubas and trombones, but
with bicycle horns, fog horns, conch shells, kazoos, police whistles,
"black horns" that have fifteen or so horns attached to
one mouthpiece and other odd horns that look like bagpipes for octopi.
Behind the Horns, march the Belles - the cowbell ringers who wear
yellow dishwashing gloves to protect their hands from the long hours
With all the groups playing together now, the Valley
Girls join in. The ladies dance a West African dance which they
punctuate with Chinese fans, held in each hand. Soon they are joined
by the male "Off the Shoulder Dancers." These are the
ones who will wear the enormous 200-pound architectural costumes
built high above their shoulders with wire and papier mache. Then
most wonderful, the "Naked Dancers," (Not what you think.)
These are dancers unencumbered by bulky costumes. At Junkanoo, the
Naked Dancers are free to work the crowds and to express themselves
in a joyous explosion of spontaneous dancing.
As we watch, I realize my son and I are the only
white faces in a sea of black ones yet I don't feel foreign. African
dance traditionally uses rhythm to release the spirit from the body
and tonight my spirit is out. The music pulses through my body like
my own blood. In these moments, the dancers, belles, horn blowers
and drummers combine to fulfill a wish of mine - to once again get
a taste of Junkanoo.
My initial taste was a few years ago when I heard
a scrap of Junkanoo music played for the tourists in the lobby of
the Atlantis Hotel. Something about its wildness made me love it
in a way I still don't understand. But then, Junkanoo itself is
wrapped in mystery.
Junkanoo's origins reach back to the sixteenth
century when the British slave masters in Nassau gave their slaves
two days off a year (Boxing Day and New Year's) to "make noise
on Bay Street." As Junkanoo educator Arleen Nash Ferguson puts
it, "While the West African slaves didn't understand what Christmas
was, they knew it meant a celebration, they knew it was a time for
the soul to go home." The slaves celebrated by making colorful
costumes and their own music and dancing in the dark streets. The
word Junkanoo may have any one of many origins--- from the junk
of which their costumes were made, from the French gens inconnus,
(masked, unknown people) or from the legend of John Canoe, a legendary
16th century African ruler and slave trader. This last explanation
is now thought by scholars to be the most likely as remnants of
a "John Canoe Festival" exist in a few other former British
colonies such as Belize and Jamaica. Whereas in these other nations,
the John Canoe tradition of merrymaking is extinct or very small
now, in The Bahamas, it's bigger than ever. Junkanoo used to mean
free-for-all street dancing in homemade costumes from readily available
materials such as newspaper, plants and sponge. Today corporate
sponsors donate thousands of dollars to the Junakanoo groups and
large cash prizes are awarded for the best theme, costumes, music
and dancing. Now the groups need to prepare a year in advance. They
meet secretly in "shacks" enormous crude buildings where
the costumes are created. By September everyone from street sweepers
to surgeons metamorphose into Junkanoos. Many people in Nassau literally
live in the shacks.
Just ask Kool-Aid Bain.
Kool Aid is the costume designer for the Saxons
Superstars, the Junkanoo group that he started in high school more
than 38 years ago. Kool Aid designs the spangled Junkanoo costumes.
"For me Junkanoo is a complete way of life.
I'm thinking and working on the costumes 12, 16, sometimes 20 hours
a day. In the shack I find the solitude to dream. I'm so into the
Junkanoo world that when I finally get home and eat my dinner, it
doesn't taste right because it's got no glitter!"
The competition to win Junkanoo is intense, even
brutal and it galvanizes the entire Nassau community. Yet few in
Nassau have ever been permitted to view the secret world in side
the shacks. That's why I consider myself honored.
In a weedy lot in the Centreville area of Nassau,
called "the Valley," the metal door of a huge cinderblock
building slides open an inch. I am looked at with suspicion until
my Bahamian host explains that I'm a journalist I'll be discreet.
I will not even allude to what I will see inside the shack until
after Junkanoo. Of course they've taken precautions. This shack
is one of twelve satellite shacks in which their work is dispersed
so that if security is breached in one, the spy will not be able
to comprehend the whole picture.
When finally allowed in, I'm awed. All about are
people working on the head dresses and costumes. Colorful crepe
paper, glue guns and glitter are everywhere. The work is painstaking.
The National Junkanoo Committee sets down rules and to keep to tradition,
no paint is allowed. Men sit about cutting thin shreds of crepe
paper that must be meticulously glued shred by shred to the papier
mache head dresses and shoulder pieces. Some men are gluing "tricks"
to the fringe. Tricks are sequins, glitter, small mirrors, fake
gems, feathers etc. The tricks are what really make the costumes
spectacular but they're expensive and not included in sponsorship
money and must be paid for out of pocket but if it makes their production
more beautiful, the personal financial sacrifice is worth it.
What is truly awesome in the shack is "the
banner," the most important visual element of Junkanoo. The
banner is like a giant, vertical parade float and sums up the theme.
It must be glorious because a prize is awarded for the banner itself.
The Valley Boys banner is awesome, like the cell of an animation
film that has magically become three-dimensional then enlarged a
thousand times. This year's theme is "A Mystical Journey Into
the Orient: Behold the Dragon!" and so the banner is a colossal
fire-breathing dragon with gleaming eyes. The theme was not chosen
arbitrarily. In fact one of the most surprising things about the
Valley Boys is that even though they labor for months to put on
a fabulous spectacle combining music, dance and art, at the heart
of what they do is a well considered, intellectual political or
ethical philosophy. This is the aspect of Junkanoo that is most
missed by tourists. Junkanoo is about fun, yet the group's purpose
is to make a serious social impact.
Dromeco Archer explains that they chose a pan-Asian
theme to get Bahamians to think more seriously about the economy.
In an age of increased globalization, they want Bahamians to look
to countries in Asia who are rapidly developing technology industries
and a strong economic infrastructure, despite years of poverty.
The Valley Boys have done their homework. They've studied Japanese
fan dancing, Peking Opera, and martial arts to construct their fabulous
banner, headdresses and costumes. As if that weren't enough, they
are simultaneously creating a whole different banner and set of
costumes for the New Year's Day parade whose theme, by the Junkanoo
rules, must be different. Their New Year's theme is the protection
of the beauty and the value of the Bahamian dollar and the encouragement
of foreign investments.
The Valley Boys have printed a manifesto of their
ideas of cultural exchanges between the Bahamas and Asia and one
on their beliefs concerning "Bahamanizing" their nation's
economy. The Valley Boys have more than a thousand members and is
set up like a corporation with committees for finance, PR and social
and welfare. Ronald Simms, director of the Brass Section, is affectionately
called their "Resident Futurist." He says they've recruited
hundreds of middle school and high school kids to work in the shacks
on both themed parades.
"We have the ability to galvanize a large
number of young people and have them do productive and creative
endeavors. We get them thinking about our country. We have numerous
workshops in the summer for our youth for our goal is to contribute
to the social, cultural and economic development of our country
all year round. We teach young people how to be disciplined, to
have respect, how to carry themselves not only during the Junkanoo
parade, but at all times -- in the shacks and in the streets. We
provide a place for them to assemble, do a wholesome activity, and
get counseling. We have no age division. All ages can be a Junkanoo.
We have a radio show now where we promote our ideas for we want
people to feel a part of what we do. Our attitude is inclusive.
It's " I'm a Junkanoo, but you're a Junkanoo too."
Indeed it seems that the deeper you look into
Bahamian culture, the more Junkanoo you discover. Besides its social
influences, Junkanoo influences the music, the tourist industry,
and most recently the unique Bahamian painting style of vivid colors,
swirling lines and emotional themes that some of the finest Junkanoo
banner artists who are as well fine artists, developed more than
a decade ago. One of these major artists is the architect, Jackson
Burnside, founder and president of Doongalik Gallery, an art gallery
dedicated to keeping the artistic techniques of Junkanoo alive.Jackson
Burnside believes that Junkanoo is one of the least understood,
genuine products of the New World. Few, he says, understand the
dynamic, social context in which this art form is created. "
Junkanoo, is part of the ancestral memory of our
people as long as we've been here. It's manifested in our buildings
and utensils and artifacts as well as our paintings." It's
a form of informal expression of who we are."
Jackson and his artist brother Stan Burnside formed
their own Junkanoo group called "One Family." Their Junkanoo
work, he explains, is all about thinking. "
"We need to always think: What are we conveying?
What are we bequeathing to the next generation? Beyond the color,
flash and beads, we use Junkanoo as a kind of developmental tool
to uplift and strengthen our community." To that end, One Family
runs a summer camp and gets involved in issues of teen pregnancy
and substance abuse. When a member dies, the deceased gets a "Junkanoo
Each year more than four million people visit The
Bahamas, yet few have ever heard of Junkanoo, let alone seen it.
The Bahamian Ministry of Tourism would like to see that change and
is bringing Junkanoo to the forefront in publications and activities
geared to the tourist. Yet, no tourist, nor even a privileged guest
of a Junkanoo Group as I was, will ever really know the adrenalin
rush and emotional power of being a Junkanoo. So entwined in Bahamian
identity is Junkanoo, that in those dark pre-dawn moments when thousands
of men, women and children enter the shacks to get their costumes,
they say the words, "I come to get me." Arlene Nash Ferguson,
Junkanoo educator and author, sums up what she felt as a child "rushing"
Junkanoo, what she feels to this day. "
I come to get me... with these words, the door to
our heritage slowly opens again, and our forefathers are reaching
out across the centuries, bequeathing a proud and indomitable heritage
through the power of Junkanoo. There is in those of us called to
carry on the tradition, the subconscious realization that Junkanoo
is the place to keep our souls. The real "me" emerges
in our costumes, the colors of our character, the design of our
personalities, the pattern of our tastes, our pride and our signature.
On Bay, in our costumes, we feel complete. We reverse the trend
of History and joyously proclaim the triumph of the Bahamian spirit.:
parade it in the intricate steps of the dance, thunder it from the
pounding of our drums, shout it in the sound of our cowbells. In
the shack at Junkanoo I come home."
Postscript: The Valley Boys took all the major
awards on Boxing Day including best music, best dancing best banner
and best costumes. On New Year's Day, One Family won best music
and dance and tied with the Superstars for best banner.
Where and when to see
the Junkanoo Parade in Nassau
December 26 (Boxing Day) beginning at 2am
January 1 (New Year's Day) beginning at 2 am
Bleachers are set up on Bay street and seats can be reserved in
Also, primarily for tourists, is the "Junkanoo
in mid-June" for the Heritage Festival on Paradise Island
Where to see Junkanoo
Art and Sculpture
Doongalik Gallery (doongalik is the sound the cowbells make at Junkanoo)
18 Village Road
P.O. Box N-1207,
Nassau, The Bahamas
Where to See Junkanoo Art, Costumes and Banners
The Junkanoo Museum Nassau (new location to be determined)
Books about Junkanoo
Junkanoo: Festival of the Bahamas
by E.Clement Bethel
I Come to Get Me: An Inside Look at the Junkanoo Festival
by Arlene Nash Ferguson
back to travel essays
The Valley Boys Drummers rehearse ,
The Nation's Navel by Jackson Burnside
Photography by Ethan Schur