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Celebrate Caribbean Culture at Junkanoo in The Bahamas

Need more cowbell? This flamboyant Bahamian gala celebrates freedom with all the bells, whistles, costumed parades, music and dance it can muster.

 

The Bahamas has an extremely rich culture woven over 350 years, influenced by hundreds of years of British Colonial rule and African heritage, which features dance and song adapted to celebrate survival among island slaves. The evolution of these influences culminates in a wild celebration of life called Junkanoo, an annual cultural phenomenon that honors the strength and spirit of these islanders. They say even the trees begin to sway when the music and dance of Junkanoo get going.

It was in the mid-1600s that British colonists first began settling in the Bahamas, eventually declaring the islands a crown colony in 1718. With their colonization came slaves, especially as the African slave trade heated up in the 1700s. As captives on ships, these slaves were often forced to dance and sing for their captors, rituals that became the foundation for later customs. An exhibit at the Pompey Museum of Slavery & Emancipation in downtown Nassau, the site of former slave auctions, puts it this way: “In the context of the most oppressive and dehumanizing conditions ...  [slaves] … formulated new rules … to survive and affirm their own identities, values and ideals.”

A Band of Cowbells and Conch Shells

At Christmas time in the Bahamas, when island slaves were allowed, by law, three days off, they would sneak away at night to recreate their music and customs, far away from their masters’ condemning watch. The slaves would use whatever they could find to create music—cowbells, conch shells, tin pails and even the seeded pods of poinciana trees as shakers. They’d adorn themselves with leaves, flowers, feathers and sponges from the sea. And so the festive craziness of Junkanoo began.

Triumph Over Tragedy

“Junkanoo is a manifestation of spirit. It’s about turning tragedy into triumph,” says Arlene Ferguson, whose former family home in Nassau is dedicated to all things Junkanoo, including a music room and a room for creating costumes. The Junkanoo Mini-Museum is a favorite stopover for guests on Disney family cruises and local schoolchildren alike. Ivern House, 31 West St. at Delancy, Nassau; tel. +1-242-328-DRUM (242-328-3786), www.educulturebahamas.com.

Today, throughout the Bahamas islands, Junkanoo is celebrated the day after Christmas on Boxing Day, and again on New Year’s Day with a parade that begins after midnight and carries on long after the sun rises. The most extravagant of the islands’ Junkanoo parades is on Nassau’s Bay Street. It’s an occasion when “all come together regardless of class or status,” says Ferguson.

Look for costumes 15-feet tall and about as wide, with themes like Genesis: The Cradle of Civilization, Out of Africa, Lost City of Atlantis and World Peace. But now, instead of sea sponge-adorned costumes, the decorations are much more elaborate, taking sometimes six months to make. I don an enormous headdress from a previous parade and tell Ferguson that I’m getting a headache already from its weight. “And that’s without the cowbells,” she laughs.

Children Wild Over Junkanoo

Ferguson says children especially go wild for the cowbells and everything else about Junkanoo. For those who can’t make the big days, she offers two-hour Junkanoo Spree workshops ($30 for adults; $15 for children under 12), in which visitors tour the Junkanoo Museum, learn about the customs, receive a costume-making demonstration and get to make their own Junkanoo souvenir piece. A complimentary drink and whistle are also provided. And when the experience is complete, this Junkanoo ambassador officially declares visitors “true Junkanoos.” The only way to be truer is to attend the festival, complete with cowbells, and enjoy a culture that the Bahamas truly calls its own.

Note: Junkanoo in the Bahamas is also celebrated on a smaller scale in midsummer. 


Destinations: Bahamas

Themes: Beach Vacations, Family Travel

Activities: Arts and Entertainment


User Comments

Jamaica is one best Caribbean islands and wonderful for the holidays. You can do many things here, such as rafting, swimming, shopping, enjoying the nightlife, and snorkeling. You can enjoy with, the underwater adventure as you cruise through the colorful tropical fish and the living coral on your own SUB or Scenic Underwater Bubble, in Nassau. The culture is also a centre of attraction.

Jamaica is one best Caribbean islands and wonderful for the holidays. You can do many things here, such as rafting, swimming, shopping, enjoying the nightlife, and snorkeling. You can enjoy with, the underwater adventure as you cruise through the colorful tropical fish and the living coral on your own SUB or Scenic Underwater Bubble, in Nassau. The culture is also a centre of attraction.

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