Junkanoo: it’s a funny word, sort of like ‘hurdy gurdy—which is my musical instrument of choice. And like ‘hurdy gurdy’, the origins of the word are obscure. I prefer the colorful legendary one: that ‘junkanoo’ is derived from “John Canoe”, the name of a 17th African slave trader. The story goes that the slaves would run from him, hide in the bushes, and occupy themselves with music and dance and costumes made from bits of leaves and debris. The celebration, Wikipedia says, became associated with freedom and is a celebration of independence.
Whether that’s true or not (and there are more scholarly historical and linguistic versions of how the festival came to be), here on the Bahamian Island of Eleuthera, whose very name of which means ‘freedom’, junkanoo celebrations are extremely joyous and an honor to the Bahamian heritage.
We held one in Tarpum Bay last night. It was a Children’s Junkanoo—and I need to explain that. A junkanoo is basically a big street party: think Mardi Gras in the Bahamas. The most elaborate celebrations are held at Christmas time, on Boxing Day and New Years’ Day, in many of the islands of the Bahamas. Junkanoo is also held at other times—independence day, and on Eleuthera, for the Pineapple Festival. The highlight of a junkanoo is always a parade which features goombay music and dance, and elaborate costumes made from crepe paper. The ‘rush’ (celebration) traditionally begins at midnight and lasts until the sun comes up. Over the years the activity has become quite formalized, with cash prizes for participating groups and an elaborate judging system. The national Bahamian community recognizes the junkanoo as a cultural expression which should be encouraged and preserved—that’s why the contest structure was developed to encourage tradition.
The preservation efforts resulted in the development of an activity known as the Children’s Junkanoo, which features school children, with parades and contests judged on costumes, music, and dance. That’s what Tarpum Bay hosted last night, and schools came from very far away to compete. Abaco, an island close to Eleuthera, was represented, as was Spanish Wells, a unique settlement almost 70 miles away from our town. Participating schools spend all year rehearsing, making costumes, and building elaborate banners. According to the national junkanoo rules, everything must be constructed by the children, though banners and costumes can be designed by adults. (In Traverse City’s Cherry Festival, the parents of a school’s ‘royalty’ are ‘honored” with the float building job). For the weeks I’ve been in Tarpum Bay, I’ve heard the drummers practicing in the afternoons after elementary school lets out, and I thought this probably took the place of the American marching band.
It certainly does.
The Tarpum Bay Junior Junkanoo started about 3 in the afternoon, as the buses arrived with children of all ages. The kids immediately began drumming, playing basketball in the town park, and clustering around the food stands selling hot dogs and conch fritters. By about five, when I got there, they were pretty much in costume and the big activity was to walk up and down the parade route, showing off costumes and greeting friends. Adults were beginning to gather as well—mothers with strollers, men with drinks and food, and general onlookers, many women dressed up in their most elaborate sparkling sandals and huge hoop earrings. Young men had on their best ‘pants on the ground’ outfits and everybody was chattering, eating, and drinking with great enthusiasm. “You alright?” is the Bahamian greeting, and it was shouted everywhere.
It was an eclectic mix of folks, too: Bahamians come in all colors and heritages. The Tarpum Bay area has its share of white residents , though last night the older ones seemed to keep to themselves, wearing plaid shorts and shirts with embroidered animals and sockless boat shoes. Many seemed to be carrying small fluffy dogs. They were aloof, didn’t greet anyone (including me), drank designer water, and avoided the gloriously greasy conch fritters and sauce-soaked barbecued ribs.
The parade goes on for hours. Everybody’s pretty casual about when to start: the magic signal seemed to be whenever everyone in a group was in the vicinity it would march down the street. There was often a half hour or more between parade entries, but nobody cared: that’s when you did your eating and socializing. Then, when a group did come down the street, it was a signal for everyone watching to join in and shout encouragement to the kids, who danced the whole six blocks, stopping only in front of the judges’ stand to perform their most elaborate routines and music. There was no feeling of being a passive bystander in this parade: even the youngest children danced and clapped as the groups came down the street.
For a little idea of what a junkanoo parade is like, you can watch this clip on You Tube .
The music is hypnotizing. The goombay drum, a drum with a single goatskin head, is played with the hands in a repeated rhythm. Layered over the drum are cowbells, whistles, brass instruments, and—more rarely—clarinets and saxophones. In the You Tube clip you can clearly hear the whistles, which are of the police or sports whistle variety. In the Tarpum Bay parade, even the smallest children played them as they danced down the street.
I was at the celebration for four hours. I think I got to see all the parade entries, and unlike my other pale-skinned participants, I ate barbecued chicken and baked macaroni and cheese, and drank soda. When I left I noticed that the first entry was back at the starting position, ready to begin the cycle all over again.
That’s another feature of the junkanoo parade: the show just circles around in an endless loop, and everybody parties until the sun comes up.
(To see all of the photos, visit my Facebook page)