Junkanoo is a Bahamian freedom festival started in the 16th or 17th century by enslaved Africans who were given three days off at Christmas time. The party commenced in the wee hours of December 26, once they’d finished serving their captors. The fete lasted all day long, and picked up again on January 1 to bring in the New Year.
Participants wore elaborate costumes made of sea sponges, leaves, fabric and shredded paper crafted the likeness of ancestral deities. They played homemade drums and bells, all paying homage to their African roots. Many believe the festival is named after John Canoe, who some say is an African boogeyman who enslaved Blacks for the Europeans; others say he was a rebel who bucked the slavery system by maintaining African traditions. Still others believe the name is from the French gens inconnus, which means “the unknown people” and refers to people wearing disguises (and thus being unknown).
Its origins may be unclear, but the annual tradition is still alive and vibrant. Every year, on December 26 and January 1, thousands party down Nassau’s town center of Bay Street wearing elaborate costumes made only of cardboard and tissue paper. From two to 10am, these god-like cardboard sculptures dance through the Bahamian streets in groups, competing for best costume and best music awards in cash.
Participants and observers alike conjure the ancestral spirits of West Africa grooving to the beat of goatskin drums, cowbells and brass horns. Next spring, Junkanoo spirit will merge with the Caribbean Carnival tradition during the first annual Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival (scheduled May 7 – 9, 2015).
As with most celebrations of the diaspora, music is core, and a nationwide Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival Song Competition kicks off the Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival every year. The Bahamas National Festival Commission (BNFC) invites musicians from throughout the Bahamas to enter, and established and aspiring Bahamian artists who produce new Bahamian music submit over 170 songs for consideration. Twenty-five songs are selected, making up the official compilation CD to the Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival.
On May 8, the top 10 artists from the compilation CD will perform on the Music Masters stage, sharing the spotlight with a Grammy-winning artist (to be announced), taking this local contest to an international audience. Judges will ultimately decide who gets to be crowned 2015 Master of the Bahamian Sound.
Ed Fields, co-chairman of the BNCF Events Committee, says, “We are excited to have a quality compilation CD that can promote the songs and artists on a global scale. Our goal is to promote Bahamian music, get more Bahamian music on the world stage, and encourage Bahamians to write more Bahamian music.”
Visit BahamasJunkanooCarnival.com for more information.