Junkanoo Q&A: The Bahamas’ One Big Party

 How do the dancers support such enormous costumes during the Junkanoo parade in the Bahamas?

How do the dancers support such enormous costumes during the Junkanoo parade in the Bahamas?

What goes on at the Junkanoo parade — and how do they make those crazy costumes?! If you go to the bahamas, time it for its one cultural event.

 

While I didn’t have the best time on Grand Bahama Island (“No conch. Bad weather”) and felt intimidated by our bus driver’s homophobia, I was lucky enough to time my trip with the Bahamas’ blowout event, Junkanoo.

 

When does Junkanoo take place?

The party happens on Boxing Day (December 26) and New Year’s Day (January 1). Christmas was often the only time slaves got time off, and their descendants continue the tradition.

The streets become a wild cacophony of pounding drums, clanging cowbells and shrill whistles. It’s intense.

 

Where does the name Junkanoo come from?

No one seems to know the answer. One camp insists it’s a reference to John Canoe, “an African prince and slave trader at the Gold Coast in Africa in the 17th century,” according to my-bahamas-travel.com. And while legend has it he bested the Brits, I’m still unclear why a slave trader would be so idolized by descendants of slaves.

Others say it derives from the French term “gens inconnus” (which when you say it properly does sound a lot like “Junkanoo”). It translates to “unknown people” and is said to be a reference to the masks worn during the festival.

 

What happens during the parade?

The streets become a wild cacophony of pounding drums, clanging cowbells and shrill whistles. It’s intense. The drums are often made of oil drums with goatskin stretched across the top.

People dance past (“rushin’,” as the locals say) in their elaborate costumes, sometimes atop floats. Some of the dancing is freeform, while other groups do a sort of shuffle in unison.

The parade has a definite Carnival feel to it.

 

 The first Junkanoo celebration in the Bahamas falls on the day after Christmas

The first Junkanoo celebration in the Bahamas falls on the day after Christmas

How do they make those fabulous costumes?

The colorful costumes worn by participants can be so massive, you wonder how a single person could support it. In some cases, the costume is five times as large its wearer.

While they look impressive, they’re mostly made of cardboard covered with crepe paper, feathers and glitter — that’s why they’re not that heavy. Some use aluminum rods for support and bits of wire to connect the pieces. Nowadays, many dancers use Styrofoam instead of cardboard.

“In the early Junkanoo days, the slaves in the Bahamas made their costumes from any material which they could find, such as shrubs, leaves, stones, bottles and paper,” according to my-bahamas-travel.com. Most costumes depicted the sea god Neptune and his wife Amphitrite.

 

If you are going to the Bahamas, chances are you're staying at one of the big resorts and you're not too worried about soaking up some of the local culture. That's good — 'cause I found the country to be largely devoid of anything that could be considered cultural. The one exception: Junkanoo. –Wally