Bahamians may enjoy American fashion and appreciate soca and reggae music, but don't ever try to get between a Bahamian and his Junkanoo. It is the one word that all Bahamians claim as their own. Even a weekend visitor to The Bahamas cannot help but be touched by that thing called Junkanoo.
It's a "given" during the Christmas season, when the two major masquerade competitions take place - on Boxing Day and New Year's Day - but the sights and sounds of Junkanoo are everywhere, year round, once you recognise the signs. In the shopping areas the window displays will show tiny rainbow-coloured figurines made of fringed crepe paper, probably holding a set of cowbell shakers or miniature goat skin drums. In arts and crafts stores, Junkanoo is manifested in the themes of acrylic or oil paintings, the poses of wire figurines, or in the carnival atmosphere of Bahamian greeting cards.
Any event of significance is incomplete in this nation, unless it has a Junkanoo rush (it's a slow march, actually, accompanied by the Junkanoo rhythm and percussion instruments). And no self-respecting hotel is complete without at least once a week featuring a dozen or so Junkanooers, who "tease" patrons with a five or ten minute "rush" through their restaurant or main lobby. The sounds and rhythms of that special beat have recently made a foray into the contemporary music market. Music videos of Bahamian Junkanoo have been seen worldwide, thanks to The Bahamas's best group BahaMen, (YA KNOW!! "Who Let The Dogs Out?"), whose costumes reflect both the masquerade of the festival and the vivid colours of the tropics. Even a Nassau high school has produced a CD, which features some of the most popular songs used during Junkanoo presentations.
Some say the word itself derives from the name of a freed slave, John Canoe. Others say the wearing of masks suggests the French term gens inconnu (men in disguise), while others insist the "junk" in Junkanoo comes from the cans and discarded materials that were first used to create the instruments and costumes of the first Junkanoo celebrations in the 18th century. While The Bahamas does not have the sugar or rum plantation history of other Caribbean islands, it did have slavery. For Bahamian slaves, the annual freedom to publicly practise and honour their African roots through their own dance and rhythms produced - as it does today - sheer euphoria.
The Christmas link stems from the tradition of slave owners permitting slaves a day to celebrate their own "pagan" cultures, the day after their old major religious holiday, as a gesture of Christian charity. Today, the parade has evolved into an elaborate masquerade and dance competiton, as well as a passionate means of self-expression. Participation cuts across class, gender, ethnicity, even age. Prizes at the annual masquerade competitions include several thousands of dollars, for categories including music, theme, and best costume. Considering the thousands of Bahamians who begin cutting and pasting the crepe paper for the December events as early as summer, even the first prize winners can hardly be compensated for the thousands of hours that actually go into the process. The costumes are made from wire, cardboard, crepe paper, white paint, white glue, and contact cement.
A single dancer's costume weighs about 50 pounds, while lead costumes - which are the largest pieces worn in the competition - weigh anywhere from 250 to 500 pounds, depending on the size and the engineering. At the major Junkanoo competitions, a single person carries that kind of weight down Bay Street - dancing, no less - for several hours, from just after midnight, till dawn.
The Bahamas's Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture, has direct responsibility for Junkanoo. "Once you are in a Junkanoo group, you live, eat breathe, think, about what contribution you can make to the betterment of your group. "Part of that process is in the creation of your costume. Once you are selected and given a costume of a particular nature or category within the whole spectrum of the theme, that to you is an honour in itself. "To have that particular piece dedicated to you, for your creation, then takes the artist into a new realm of creativity. Personal pride, excellence - all of that comes out in how that is revealed. "So when you see a Junkanoo person guarding his costume, or the things that make up his costume, that is the sacredness of it. It's like his life blood is going in there."
And what the spectator sees, he should actually feel being generated by the participant. It reaches the spectators and the fans, so that they, too, can hardly resist the heated goatskin drum's call to move, and to start dancing. Though the history and traditions of Junkanoo are many, the best way to appreciate its essence in The Bahamas is to ask a Bahamian about it. Chances are they'll tell you, "It's not just a name, man: Junkanoo is a feeling . . .!"