If you've ever hummed along or tapped your foot to infectious Bahamian music, you've probably felt a bit of the mystique attached to these warm, inviting islands. But if you visit the Bahamas at the end of the year, you have the opportunity to experience the spirit of these islands in a really big way at Junkanoo — the spectacular Bahamian yuletide celebration.
One of the oldest street festivals in the New World, Junkanoo traces its roots to the dance, music and mask traditions of West Africa. At one time, nearly all the islands in the Caribbean celebrated it, but in its present elaborate form, it's a uniquely Bahamian party.
And, being a fun-loving people who believe it's hard to have too much of a good thing, Bahamians celebrate Junkanoo not once but twice — first on Boxing Day, December 26, and then again less than a week later on New Year's Day.
Junkanoo is color and costumes and cow-bells, and carnival-like parades which begin hours before sunrise. From the highways of Nassau and Freeport to the byways of the Family Islands, a riot of sight and sound engulfs natives and visitors alike. Hotels in the Bahamas fill up fast for Junkanoo, so it's important to make reservations as far ahead as possible.
Theories vary as to the origins of Junkanoo, or John Canoe as the festival used to be called during nearly 200 years of West Indian celebration. One theory holds that the name derives from John Connus, a dreaded African tribal chieftain who sold his fellow tribesmen into slavery. According to this idea, the festival is a living symbol of defiance of slavery.
Another account maintains that Junkanoo derives from anglicized forms of one West African tribe's deity, Canno, and their dead, the Janni. Yet a third theory asserts that the name is a corruption of the French Gens Inconnus, meaning unknown people, alluding to the festival's masked participants.
Either way, Junkanoo combines a celebration of freedom and cultural roots with the Bahamian's natural love of rhythm, beat, color and dance. The two major elements of the festival — music and spectacle — have grown in complexity over the years. Junkanoo now approaches New Orleans' Mardi Gras and Rio's Carnival in terms of elaborate timing and preparation.
Current costume design ranges from the very large major theme pieces to the individually costumed members of the 'scrap' groups which 'rush' in between the large groups. They layer fringed, painted and pasted crepe paper onto their clothes or wood and cardboard frames. The competition for superiority of design has become quite intense among large bands.
Then, of course, there's Junkanoo's infectious beat coming from the goatskin drums in the early hours of Boxing Day and New Year's Day, faintly, in the distance at first, then gradually swelling into pulsating, swirling revelry. The clank of cowbells and the shrill of thousands of whistles punctuates the pulse of the music. After months of planning, hundreds of costumed men, women and children fill the streets, dancing, prancing and singing. The Goombay rhythm is in full swing.
Junkanoo contains a element of spontaneous revelry that fills the air. Perhaps the true spirit of Junkanoo can best be summed up many Bahamians who claim its their way of expressing thanks to God for another year of life.