About This Festival
Caribbean, dating back to the 17th century. There are a few theories as to the origin of the name, the most popular being from John Canoe, the dialectical adaptation of an African tribal chief during the era of slavery. He demanded that his people be given the right to celebrate their cultural traditions. Slaves were granted three days' holiday at Christmas where they would leave the plantations and celebrate with family and friends through music, dance and costume.
Over the years, Junkanoo has been documented in the former British territories of Jamaica and throughout the Caribbean, but it is only in the Bahamas that Junkanoo has grown into such an elaborate festival, rivaling Rio's Carnival or New Orleans' Mardi Gras. Today, the Junkanoo parade has evolved from its simple origins. Barricades and a circular route were introduced in the 1970's and bleachers in the 1980's along with the incentive of cash prizes.
Everything is Better With Friends at Junkanoo
Months before the spectacular parade even begins, groups of up to 1,000 people will have been busy designing their intricate costumes, rehearsing their dance routines and perfecting the hypnotic rhythms they'll perform.
The participants in this uniquely Bahamian festival come from all walks of life, in every shape and size and across all ages. Families, friends, and neighbors gather in groups, organized into categories based on the size of their troupe and judged on a variety of criteria, the three main categories being: best music, best costume and best overall group presentation.
The headline acts are the A Division Groups with 200 to 1000+ participants. Look out for these groups: Valley Boys, Music Makers, Prodigal Sons, Saxons, Roots and One Family. The B Division Groups are no less impressive, only slightly smaller with 50 to 200 participants while others opt to parade just for fun. Anyone is invited to participate in Junkanoo, as long as he or she follows the rules of the National Junkanoo Association. Visitors to the Islands of the Bahamas can make arrangements through their hotel to join the festival.
Elaborately Decorated Costumes
Legend has it that the slaves decorated themselves using whatever scrap materials were available; paper and feathers were easy to obtain and sewn onto their clothes with flour paste used to paint their faces. As time went on the methods evolved with the custom of sticking paper becoming a fine art form. These days the costume design is tied to a theme. Themes can be based on almost anything, such as a person, country or historical event.
Costuming is a detailed process taking many months to complete. Once the theme has been decided, designers create patterns on cardboard. Next, finely-cut crepe paper is pasted onto cardboard shapes in the most intricate designs. They usually consist of a headdress, shoulder piece and skirt, which are elaborate and brilliantly colored. Costumes may be as tall as 15 feet and adorned with a myriad of glittering beads, feathers and rhinestones.
Along with the costumes, each group creates their own parade floats, made from aluminum rods, cardboard, wire, foam, crepe paper and a special cement.
We Rushin' Down the Street
The festival attracts large crowds of Bahamians and visitors and has become a spectacle of color and celebration. The parade starts from the British Colonial Hilton Hotel with dancers short-stepping or “rushing” as it is locally known, to the unique sounds of pulsating drums, cowbells, horns, and whistles. Revelers on the sidelines gyrate and sing along with the same gusto, cheering for their favorite group.
Instruments were originally fashioned from cast-off items such as rum or food containers into drums and scrap metal into bells. Like their ancestors, today’s musicians use similar methods, stretching goatskin across a metal barrel and burning a candle under the skin to "tune" it to the right pitch.
If you happen to miss the festival, there is a Junkanoo Expo Museum located at Prince George Wharf in Nassau which keeps the winning costumes on display. Otherwise jump in, enjoy the beat, feel the rush, visit the beach and have some fun.