Enjoy the Bahamas Junkanoo Festival

Typical parade dancer. by rlz
Typical parade dancer. by rlz

Junkanoo is to the Bahamian Islands what Mardi Gras is to New Orleans, and what Carnival is to Rio. A traditional cultural celebration dating back to the time of island slavery, it now culminates in tremendous costume parades and music on a number of days throughout the year. Though abbreviated summer Junkanoo festivities are now held on many of the Bahamian Islands throughout July, it is the larger, more elaborate celebrations in downtown Nassau on Boxing Day (December 26th) and New Year's Day (January 1st) that are the true marvels. To become totally immersed in the greatest of music and dance and visual spectacles, you should head for the New Year's Day Junkanoo celebration in Nassau (or, alternately, just head to rickzworld).

There is some debate as to the origin of the name Junkanoo. Some say it honors John Canoe, an enslaved former African tribal chief who insisted on his people's right to celebrate. Others say it derives from the French expression 'gens inconnu' or 'unknown people', referring to the wildly disguised dancers. Still others say it's merely a derivation of the Scottish 'junk enoo' meaning 'junk enough' — referring to a trashy spectacle. However its name developed, the festival was well entrenched by the 17th Century. It became the Christmas holiday for which plantation slaves would be released briefly from their labors to celebrate with friends and family.

Though food, drink, music, dance and merchandise all play a part, the centerpiece of Junkanoo festivities is the costume parade. It usually begins by about 1:30 to 2:00 a.m. in the center of downtown Nassau, after partygoers from all the resort hotels' New Year's Eve parties and fireworks displays drift from Paradise Island into the old city, to join a great percentage of the local population. Begin your night of fun by watching midnight fireworks over the Atlantis Resort marina yacht basin among the towering, gleaming hulls and bellowing ship's horns. Then cab into town for a spot along one of the parade route streets.

Nassau's municipal government wisely bans auto traffic from the center of town, lines the Junkanoo parade route with guardrails, and, for a number of the central downtown blocks, erects bleachers banked along each side of the street. For about $15 to $20, one can purchase a seat to watch the nearly endless parade; though the parade may get started by 1:30 am, the final groups of parade participants may not pass the judging stands until 11:00 am or noon. Those who feel hardy enough (after their New Year's revelries) may choose to stand and watch along any section of guardrail. Just be sure to arrive by around 1:00 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. to get a choice selection.

Junkanoo parade participants refer not to marching, but to 'rushing': striding slowly and dancing in time with their compatriots to often deafening 'goombay' music ringing from cowbells, drums and horns. Individual parade troupes may range from just a few paraders to scores and more. The largest and most established troupes number in the hundreds of members, and have been in existence for generations. Such groups prepare all year long for the coming Junkanoo, invest up to $100,000 or more on costumes, instruments and equipment, and compete fiercely for the sizable parade prizes. As you watch the passing parade, you may note within a single troupe dozens of trumpeters, scores of drummers flailing modified oil drums with stretched goatskins, 50 or more female dancers moving as one, and several dozen more revelers joining in with cowbells and whistles. Typically, troupe members are all costumed to a similar theme, with recurring colors, motifs, patterns and materials. In addition, the entire Junkanoo parade may have an overarching theme as well.

As troupes rumble by, it is difficult not to get swept up in the festivities, becoming a Bahamian in the process. Your body will move with the percussive thrum, your feet will stamp in time with the dancers, and you'll vibrate to the staccato pulses of horn and whistle. You'll also gape at the tremendous costumes. An individual dancer may pass, wearing a costume that literally brushes each curb of the two-lane street, while barely clearing the overhead wires. Fashioned of prosaic materials — pvc tubing, wood, cardboard, cloth, duct tape, crepe paper, feathers and poster paint — these massive and massively imaginative creations astound, one after another after another. Just as you imagine you have seen the most spectacular costume of the night, along comes the next!

So bring your camera to capture the spectacle, bring your appetite to sample the wonderful Bahamian cuisine, bring comfortable shoes and casual wear so you can shimmy and dance to the goombay music, and bring family and friends with you to enjoy the grand festival that is Junkanoo!

Yes, that's one person in costume. by rlz
Yes, that's one person in costume. by rlz
One more. by rlz
One more. by rlz

This travel article has been brought to you by Cleveland-area architect and expert witness Richard L. Zimmerman (Rick), who also happens to be a cartoonist, humorist and illustrator. For your next fun trip, head to rickzworld.

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