Heya! Remember that Junkanoo practice that didn’t happen last week? Well I went back last night and it was on! My same friend and I pulled up to the parking lot around 9pm and there was a bustle of activity. Musicians were carrying their instruments toward the practice area, dancers were congregating, vendors were set up with food and drinks, and us spectators ambled about as we waited for things to get started.
Junkanoo is a nighttime parade in The Bahamas that dates back to the 18th century. Rooted in slavery, it emerged as the way slaves celebrated the 3 days a year they were on holiday, at Christmas. In the early days the parade was dominated by men, who masked their faces, created costumes out of whatever materials they could find and made music with drums, cowbells, whistles and conch shells. An event completely independent of slave masters, Junkanoo is the only celebration of its kind to thrive after the abolition of slavery. Today it has risen in prominence to a national festival and winners of the main parades on Boxing and New Year’s Days earn bragging rights for the year.
The association between Bahamianness and Junkanoo runs deep. A few weeks ago a friend of mine said something like, “Bahamians are either an FNM or a PLP, and a Saxon or a Valley.” The FNM and PLP are our two main political parties. The Saxons and the Valley Boys are the two largest Junkanoo groups. And it’s true, we’re divided not only into political camps, but Junkanoo ones.
Mounting the parade is a complete labour of love, as it costs our people tens of millions of dollars to put on. Today, first prize for the largest groups, in the A category, is around $60,000. It comes nowhere near what the groups spend, to say nothing of individuals’ contributions. Groups provide their members with the basics to create their costumes: cardboard, contact cement, rods, crepe paper. After that, everything is gravy. Members have to pay for all the pretty things themselves – mirrors, feathers, sequins, glitter, beads – and put in the hours to paste their costume or pay someone to do it for them.
Although the biggest parades happen at Christmastime on New Providence, our main island, Junkanoo is a year round event for many participants, especially the organisers. As soon as the season ends in January they begin planning their themes for the next year. Practices begin around 8 months in advance. There are also events throughout the year and around the country where groups perform, like public holidays, community gatherings, sports competitions and private functions. Junkanoo is part and parcel of life here; it’s the soundmark of The Bahamas.
Now that you’ve had that crash course, back to the practice! We went to see One Family, a group that formed in the ’90s when they broke away from the Saxons. There are three main sections in a Junkanoo performance: the dancers, brass and percussion. On Thursday nights all of One Family come together to rehearse, plus their fans and anyone else who wants to stop by. They practice in the parking lot of a burned out food store, opposite a school and its field – basically there’s tons of space for parking and people.
The first night I went out there the air smelled of hot sauce. Last night’s feature was the whistle of peanuts roasting in a bicycle contraption. There was all kind of food on sale, from ice cream to conch salad, and a full bar; plenty people get ‘nice up’ while they watch rehearsals. It’s quite an event, with women dressing in stilettos, hair and nails did – last night we spotted a woman in a blue tutu celebrating her birthday with an entourage of her girls.
I could go on about the details: how the practice is structured, how the crowd swells and slows traffic, how we stayed out until 1 in the morning. That still wouldn’t cover it though. There was this ineffable spirit in the air, the one I always feel on Junkanoo nights. The performers were sweaty and into it, all eyes on them. I couldn’t keep still. The sky was wide open, and there was smoke and ash in the air from the fire heating the drums back in tune. Everyone was completely absorbed in the moment, until eventually, in the middle of the street and stopping traffic, the musicians slowed to a finish. Then the crowd dissipated as we all went our separate ways.
There are practices like One Family’s all over the island, all through the week. This ritual will be repeated multiple times until everyone meets on Bay Street for the ultimate performance and competition. That lasts all night, well past daybreak. Then we all head wearily to our beds and a hush comes over the island as we sleep the day away. Nothing is open, and no one is working. We are soul-sated and bone-tired, and when we wake we will walk taller and prouder, remembering where we’ve come from and the impressive things we have been able to do.