Sounds of the Bahamas
Junkanoo is a national festival in The Bahamas, the only place where it holds such an honor. There is even a museum showcasing Junkanoo costumes, art and artifacts in downtown Nassau–a cultural highlight and must-see attraction for all visitors.
The origin of the word Junkanoo is obscure. Some say it comes from the French “L’inconnu” (meaning the unknown), in reference to the masks worn by the paraders; or “junk enoo,” the Scottish settlers’ reference to the parades, meaning “junk enough;” or “John Canoe,” the name of an African tribal chief who demanded the right to celebrate with his people even after being brought to the West Indies in slavery.
It is believed that this festival began during the 16th and 17th centuries. The slaves were given a special holiday at Christmas time, when they could leave the plantations to be with their family and celebrate the holidays with African dance, music and costumes. After emancipation, they continued this tradition and, today, Junkanoo has evolved from its simple origins to a formal, more organized parade with sophisticated, intricate costumes, themed music and incentive prizes.
Christmas celebrations in The Bahamas would not be complete without Junkanoo bands “rushing” in the streets. Venture down to Bay Street in Nassau during the early morning hours of Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) and New Year’s Day and behold this cornucopia of color and sound. The darkness of the early morning adds to the bewitching atmosphere. Overhead streetlights highlight the hues of the costumes and banners intricately designed and patterned from minute strips of crepe paper of all colors glued to clothing, cardboard and wood.
Among the Junkanoo troupes are the “Saxons,” “Valley Boys” and “Roots.” Competition amongst them is fierce–thousands of dollars in prize money are at stake–and costume designs are a closely-guarded secret until they are finally unveiled.
Each troupe selects a theme for its costumes and members are dressed in variations of that theme. It could be something as archaic as Vikings or as contemporary as astronauts. The groups short-step or merengue along the street, depending on the music they play with their goat-skin drums, cowbells, conchshell horns and whistles. Revelers on the sidelines cavort with the same abandon, singing and dancing along, “We’re rushin’, we’re rushin’, we’re rushin through the crowd … K-k-kalik, k-k-kalik, k-k-kaliking k-k-kalik, k-k-kalik, k-k-kalik, k-k-kalik, yeah.”
Everyone is invited to join in the party and sing and dance along. It takes about two hours to view all entries, but don’t leave just yet. It’s even better the second time around!
And if you just can’t make it to The Bahamas at Christmastime, Junkanoo parades are also held in conjunction with other special celebrations such as Independence Day (July 10).