I was surrounded by Bahamian people and so moved that a wide grin burst across my face and tears came to my eyes. Island music had been blaring out of loudspeakers all across the island for three days, but it was dead in comparison to this drumming, this living song of pride and power and beauty of the Bahamas.
How to help you feel and see it? I was glad I hadn’t brought a camera, becuase trying to film or photograph would have prevented me from experiencing what was so clearly not a performance for tourists, but rather something much more authentic and sacred.
For it is a kind of ritual, Junkanoo. A ritual as in a theatre, as in a liminal display when the line between quotidian reality and the fantastic blurs. The players wear elaborate feathered headdresses and masks that elevate them above their ordinary everyday roles, if only while the rhythm lasts. The Junkanoo players are young and strong, as they must be to carry the massive steel barrels and to slam, crash, and boom their hands against them.
The mesmerizing booming tempo that they create also creates them, lifts them up, fills them up with the spirit of their culture, their people, the ones who brought them this fantastic gift, this spirit that they also now return to their people all around them. That is to say, the people who observe Junkanoo, when they happen literally to be the family of the men performing, engage spiritually, or viscerally, emotionally, as passionate spectators who imbue the performers with ecstatic power, a spirit that comes both from their collective ancestors as well as from themselves, who are now creating something new.
Junkanoo is Bahamian display for Bahamians with multiple meanings over time. The first “John Canoe” parade took place in Nassau in 1801, but the precedents of this festival almost certainly derive from Africa and African, enslaved peoples. As Nicolette Bethel observes,
Of all the “national symbols” in the Bahamas, it is Junkanoo that receives the most attention. Throughout history, it has acted as a force for the construction of many different Bahamian identities. During the early 1800s it united slaves in Christmas celebrations; during the middle of that century it was adopted by Liberated Africans as a focus for their displacement; at the beginning of the twentieth century it provided members of the working class with a forum for their grievances; and later in the century it functioned both as an emblem of race and of masculine activity. Since Independence in 1973, it has become more and more integral to conceptions of the nation. Iconized, it now appears on stamps, customs stickers and five-dollar bills; restaurants bear its name, much of contemporary popular music follows its beat, and both an art gallery/cultural centre and the national beer are onomatopaeically named after the sound of drum and cowbells. Additionally, Junkanoo is promoted to tourists as the “quintessential” cultural event. Somewhat paradoxically, however, it remains primarily an occurrence produced by Bahamians for Bahamians.
Junkanoo in the Bahamas: a tale of identity
I of course experienced Junkanoo as a tourist, an outsider, but the display I witnessed was not put on for my benefit, but rather for the Bahamians who outnumbered tourists by 100 to 1. The performance took place not technically as a parade, but rather as a procession from the outside to the inside of a large restaurant on the beach, during a celebration of the end of the regatta at Little Farmer’s Cay. Two men with mariachi-like rattles in white shirts and dark sunglasses led six men carrying drums into the room, where they played for about ten minutes, and then outside to the deck on the beach, and then back in again. I followed them, enchanted, delighted, moved to dancing and smiling and tears in a kind of stupified wonder, for I had indeed never before experienced anything like it.
It seemed to me a procession every bit as solemn as a Catholic mass and infinitely more joyful. It would take a Melville to convey the intoxicating theatre of junkanoo. I cried for the sheer beauty of this tempo, this dance, this song, this music of the Bahamas.