[Shane – as many of you know I write a monthly article in All At Sea for the South Florida edition about the Bahamas. I just finished writing the article that will show up in the July edition and I wanted to share it with you, because it is about one of the two most fun festivals I have been to…… Junkanoo in Nassau, Bahamas. I hope you enjoy it]
During the movie After the Sunset, you will see Pierce Brosnan running through a street festival in the Bahamas. From the moment I saw that scene I wanted to find out more about the festival and someday attend. Turns out the festival is called Junkanoo and is held every year in Nassau on December 26th and January 1st.
Junkanoo seems like a combination of Mardi Gras and a band competition and starts very early in the morning. So early that it is not even worth trying to go to sleep and getting up for……just stay up all night. By 2am you find revelers lining Bay Street in the downtown area as each Junkanoo group dances down the street in matching intricately themed costumes while following the rhythmic sounds of goat skin drums, cowbells, whistles, and brass instruments. Each group is judged in the three categories of musicians, dancers, and costumes in order to win the coveted title of Best Junkanoo Group.
The origins of Junkanoo are shrouded by the fog of time and conflicting folklore, but the most plausible origin is based on a West African Akan warrior king named John Canoe (a European corruption of an unknown African name). With his command of 15-20 thousand warriors he took control of an abandoned fort in 1708 and spent the next 16 years holding back huge scale assaults by the Dutch. As Akan slaves were brought to Jamaica and The Bahamas his legend grew and was celebrated.
Over the centuries this grass roots celebration has grown into a world class festival and is a uniquely Bahamian celebration showing off the spirit of the local people. The costumes are beyond anything you can imagine cardboard, styrofoam, and paper mache can be turned into. Most of the costumes stand 10-14 feet tall. Plus, each group has several floats also.
The larger groups of the Saxons, Valley Boys, and Roots can have 500-1000 members and each costume and float fit within the group’s theme for that year. The year I went I saw a Candyland theme, where members had costumes of M&Ms, Kool-Aid, and other sweets and the floats I remember the most consisted of the Easter Bunny and Santa hauling wheel barrels of candy and another one of a candy factory. As cool as that was it was the Wild, Wild West theme that I loved the most. This group had several floats consisting of a stagecoach, a steam locomotive, and a saloon.
Junkanoo was another of the three things on my must-see list before I crossed over from Florida and it did not disappoint. I found it to be just as memorable as Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but if you happen to visit Nassau outside of Boxing Day and New Years don’t worry. There is a Junkanoo museum where many of the winning costumes are displayed in order to conserve and preserve the soul of Bahamian Culture. It also serves as a way to celebrate a uniquely Bahamian art form all year long. So, whether you are able to attend the festivals live, or the museum during the rest of the year, make sure to check out Junkanoo when you are next in the Bahamas.