Junkanoo – The ultimate Bahamian festival
Bahamas, the famous Caribbean island, is already the heart-throbbing destination for many tourists. But, this time, when you plan to visit this island, plan it in such a way that you get a chance to enjoy its memorable Junkanoo festival.
In the past, the festival of Junkanoo was observed as a party marking the temporary freedom of slaves for three days during the Christmas. They were given the right to leave their work with their families and enjoy the freedom. In this time of holidays, these slaves used to wear eerie masks and played handmade instruments like bells and drums to enjoy the party.
But, still no one knows as to from where the word “Junkanoo” originated. As per a belief, it actually comes from the name of a tribal head ‘John Canoe’ who was a slave in West Indies and demanded to celebrate with his own African people. So, the festival has its roots in West Africa. Further, islands such as Bermuda and Jamaica where slavery was widespread in the past celebrate their unique John Canoe parades.
It is said that Junkanoo first was started before 400 or 300 years. But, as slavery slowly came to an end, Junkanoo also waned. However, some islanders continued the tradition and so, today, it is a jolly celebration of free will.
This Bahamian festival is celebrated during the early morning hours from 2:00 am until 8:00 am on 26th December and on 1st January, the New Year’s Day. Considered as the most important part of the Christmas celebrations, Junkanoo is somewhat similar to the Brazil’s Carnival and New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. However, ultimately, the festival is purely Bahamian whose ambience and joy can be felt no where else. Just take yourself to the capital city of Nassau in whose downtown countless folks dance along the Bay Street making it look as a wild, mobile forest of music and color when the deep rhythms echoes over the flanking walls. The walkway seems to be alive like a twisting snake in blacks and browns alongside which the residences’ roofs as well as the balconies seem to swing upon the musical feet of the spectators. The magical ambience created during this scene is just timeless giving rise to a vital sensation with which even the deaf starts to dance.
So, the center of attraction is the musical parade on the street, which is no less than a carnival celebration. Reflecting the local art and culture, the festival is a bouncy and colorful procession of dancing and singing folks in bright costumes accompanied by the rhythms, drums, cowbells, and whistles. These parade participants are systematically organized in groups of maximum 1,000 to exhibit a specific theme via the dance, music, and costumes. When the Junkanoo procession ends, cash prizes are given for the best music, group presentation, and costume.
Plan early to be a part of this cultural festival in Nassau where the ideal views are possible from the Bay Street. Besides Nassau that is the venue of the most striking celebrations, you can see parades on Grand Bahama, Abaco, Bimini, and Eleuthera.
These are a vital part of the parades as they exhibit a theme. In olden days; leaves, sea sponges, cut paper, and fabric were used widely in costume preparation. However, today, these special costumes are prepared from crepe paper joined to fabric, wood, or cardboard. Mostly, skirt, shoulder part, and headdress are carefully colored. The costumes are made by the group members themselves, which can take even a year.
The theme of the costume design tends to differ among the groups; they might be modern or historic or any other issue that the group likes. Once the parade is over, the prize winning Junkanoo costumes are now preserved in the Junkanoo Museum. It is current closed because it is being shifted.
Making the streets live is the aim of the members of the dedicated groups. For making the festival exhilarating, these folks work in groups annually. A group mainly consists of the families, neighbors, and families who perform together. There are many groups among which the competition is very strong. It is due to this reason that a group secretly chooses a theme and reveal only during the parade. The members practice hard for months at their base camp including the dancers focusing on steps and musicians on beats. In the capital, the group names are Saxons, Vikings, Valley Boys, One Family, and roots.
This is truly Bahamian with the rhythmic drums, goat skin drums, mouth whistles, and copper bells that synchronize with the Junkanoo beat. The overall music is really infectious!
The Junkanoo Expo
This is the latest highlight at the waterfront – the museum dedicated to the festival. It is the home of colorful artistic inventions that come from the Junkanoo parades. In this complex, you will also come across a souvenir boutique, crafts related to the festival, and paintings too. There is a fee to explore this complex from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm – $2.00 per adult and $0.50 per child.