Front Porch | The brilliance of Junkanoo in The Bahamas
This column was first published in 2019.
There is a sociology of small places in which familiarity breeds not only contempt but all manner of pettiness and jealousy: “Who he tink he is?”; “I’m a better woman than you and everybody knows that it’s true. When I walk down the avenue I does get more whistle than you.”
Jealousy and pettiness are universal. But in small places the twin hobgoblins often manifest their stinging rebuke of native talent in a myopic inability to appreciate and celebrate the genius in our midst.
Historical and geographic circumstances have produced in our archipelago outsized talent in numerous areas beyond our small populace. We are an inventive people who have used our wit, imagination and material at hand to express our genius, our lamentations, our odes to joys and our longings.
The late Eugene Dupuch became Smokey Joe and used the smooth edge of a saw like a violin string to harmonize the dialectical dialect of the Bahamian experience. The brilliant Joseph Spence commanded the guitar in ways that mesmerized master guitarists. And then there is the delight of rake ‘n scrape, still woefully unappreciated by many Bahamians.
Many offer lip service appreciation of our artistry but still fail to appreciate the depth of native genius, the ability to alchemize mundane raw material into gold and magic.
It is not surprising, though depressing and disappointing, that Perry Christie, the prime minister most associated with Junkanoo, failed to grasp its uniqueness. He giddily embarked on creating a Carnival extravaganza, which made a mockery of Bahamian culture.
This comes as no surprise.
For all of its talk of “believing in Bahamians” and the frenzied but feigned nationalism of the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), the party is enthralled with foreigners, especially if they are white, and often the most unsavory of characters.
Aside from PLP oligarchs and cronies, if you are a black Bahamian with an investment proposal, go to the back of the line. In the odd reversal of a strategy from yesteryear, one’s best bet for assistance is to have a white foreigner front for you.
When there was an opportunity to showcase Junkanoo and other expressions of Bahamian culture, the PLP opted for Carnival. The message: certainly Junkanoo isn’t world-class.
No other country in the world has preserved or developed Junkanoo as has The Bahamas. It is associated with no other country as much as ours, done with operatic brilliance, artistic refinement, dramatic force and discipline.
The Trinidadian Carnival artist and impresario Peter Minshall visited The Bahamas on several occasions and enthused about the unique qualities of Bahamian Junkanoo, including the creation, design process and production of costumes, and the amount of work done by hand. He has spoken of the magic of Junkanoo.
Minshall helped “design the opening awards ceremonies for the 1987 Pan American Games, the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the 1994 Football World Cup and the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics”.
This cosmopolitan, foreign-born observer has a deeper appreciation for the craft, artistry and brilliance of Junkanoo than many Bahamians, including many in the political directorate, and a certain columnist for whom Junkanoo seems too native and too black.
This past Christmas and New Year’s, Osbourne Chin, a professional with Jamaica’s Ministry of Tourism, visited The Bahamas. He was enraptured with Junkanoo. Here are his extended remarks on his experience, a foreigner’s view, which might help focus the checkered vision of some who do not fully appreciate the brilliance of Bahamian Junkanoo, a unique expression among the cultures of the world.
Chin writes: “I arrived in Nassau on Christmas Day and was instantly informed that I had to visit Junkanoo later that night! … In all honesty, at first I really didn’t care too much about this Junkanoo because I have always known that the longest history of any such parade was documented in Jamaica.
“I also know that the Jamaican ‘Jonkunnu’ parade had already died. I decided to do a little bit of research and found that the entire region has always had this African Christmas tradition dating back to slavery where ‘…it was conceived as a festive opportunity afforded the slave class by the planter class, as Christmas was one of the few periods when the slaves were relieved of their duties …’
“One could simply call it ‘a ritual of rebellion, a politico-cultural movement, or an annual invocation of the luminal’.”
Chin continues: “It is often said that Junkanoo receives the most attention of all the ‘national symbols’ in The Bahamas. From my experience it seems that this historical tradition has transcended time and transformed into a powerful force, constructing the many different Bahamian identities as depicted by the diversity of their costumes …
“I am indeed impressed with the strength and tenacity of the Bahamian people – those who participated in the parade and those who came out in their droves to watch, cheer, dance and support …
“Other countries such as Trinidad and Jamaica have over-commercialized their carnival parade to the point where it has become less about rituals, national identity and pride and more about partying and making money.
“These carnivals have become a huge parade of people scantily clad (some wearing costumes), gyrating on each other, getting drunk and ‘having a good time’. Junkanoo in The Bahamas has compressed the celebration of family, tradition, rituals, and national identity into one colourful event that showcases the true pride of the people on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day.”
Chin further observes:
“Popular Bahamian visual artist, Brent Malone, in an article called ‘Reflections on Junkanoo’, states that Junkanoo in The Bahamas is recognised as art and a uniquely Bahamian form of cultural expression. He goes even further to state that the yearnings of slavery that gave birth to Junkanoo was at the very beginning a shout of freedom, and a celebration of life.
“So although slavery is of the past, the Bahamians still possess that deep down spiritual need that cries out for freedom and this is expressed at Junkanoo. Their way of connecting with this past and their expression of it is what makes their version of Junkanoo so unique and special.”
Analysis aside, Chin felt the drums, the cowbells, the horns, the rush, the crowd, the pride, the cacophony of Bahamian talent and unity amidst the competition, and much more:
“I was invited to the Boxing Day Parade to see how the ‘Bahamians do it’. When I got there I was quite surprised. I was impressed. I was simply blown away at the absolute awesomeness on display.
“The atmosphere, the excitement, the energy… was simply unbelievable! It was electric to say the very least. They displayed so much talent, camaraderie and strength! (After all there were some really huge costumes being carried on the shoulders of only one person).
“The love and support for this cultural festival was unlike anything I have ever seen. I can only imagine the amount of time and energy that went into the preparation.
“There was a certain magic about the whole experience. It was almost as if I was lost in another world (though in retrospect I was). The cowbells, the whistles, the drums, the dancing, the music, the large colourful costumes… that reverberated through my soul and had my body moving all night long!
“The Saxons had an unbelievable display of larger than life space costumes. You could hear them in the distance shouting ‘WHO ARE WE?’ and the large crowd bellowed ‘THE SAXONS!’ When they came out it rained for a short time but no one moved an inch. Then there was the Valley Boys!!!
“They came out and instantly it was pandemonium all along Bay Street. The crowd was in a complete frenzy shouting ‘Dey Scared! Dey Scared! The Valley Boys Comin.’ They repeated this chant until the Valley Boys arrived in the square just in time for the heavens to open up and rain on the parade of all the other groups.”
It is a sad irony that some of the contemporary descendants of our slave forbearers fail to appreciate the deeper and layered meaning and resonance of, and the investment of, imagination, hope, sweat and tears in Junkanoo by preceding generations.
The sadder irony is that maybe if we had some white, upper crust foreigners tell some of us how wonderful is Junkanoo, we may begin to appreciate what we have.