Junkanoo rush

In the early twentieth century, Bahamas Junkanoo — or John Canoe — was considered a danger to polite society

Junkanoo bands incorporate music and dance performances. Photograph courtesy the Bahamas Ministry of TourismJunkanoo bands incorporate music and dance performances. Photograph courtesy the Bahamas Ministry of TourismJunkanoo bands incorporate music and dance performances. Photograph courtesy the Bahamas Ministry of TourismJunkanoo costumes are traditionally made from strips of crêpe paper and cardboard, nowadays ornamented with rhinestones, glitter, and feathers. Photograph courtesy the Bahamas Ministry of TourismJunkanoo costumes are traditionally made from strips of crêpe paper and cardboard, nowadays ornamented with rhinestones, glitter. Photograph courtesy the Bahamas Ministry of TourismThe ‘actor boy’ character of Jamaican John Canoe, depicted by nineteenth-century artist Isaac Belisario. Photograph courtesy the National Gallery of JamaicaTo qualify for the official competition, each Junkanoo costume must be carried by a single person. Photograph by Jocelyn SpiesTo qualify for the official competition, each Junkanoo costume must be carried by a single person. Photograph courtesy the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism

In 2004, a Bahamian theatre group, the Dust Track Theatre Company, took to the streets of downtown Nassau during the annual Junkanoo parade. Four characters dressed in costume processed ceremoniously down the road next to a coffin containing a personification of the Junkanoo. After displaying the interred Junkanoo to the crowd, the troupe of actors performed a mock public trial, trying to determine who killed Junkanoo. The corporate sponsor of the parade (represented by a character dressed in his business suit) and the politician (donning the familiar colors and insignia of both major Bahamian political parties) stood accused of the festival’s death, and were solemnly found guilty.

Dust Track’s unusual skit decried the death of Junkanoo at the hands of political culture brokers and business interests. But, ironically, the performers’ use of the parade as a form of critique signalled anything but the demise of the centuries-old celebration. Instead, their spoof represented a contemporary manifestation of the Junkanoo’s longstanding form as a performance of provocation, parody, and play in Bahamian society.

No one knows exactly when Junkanoo (originally spelled “John Canoe”) began, or where the name comes from. Historians have suggested that the celebration honours a successful black merchant by the name of John Connu or Conny, who lived along the Guinea Coast of Africa around 1720. More generally, the earliest forms of the masquerade appear to draw on performance traditions from West Africa. Masqueraders, according to the earliest reports of John Canoe in the Bahamas dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, wore masks with large tusks on their heads, dangled on tall stilts, or tied cow’s tails to their rumps. Through the masked performance, Africans brought by force to the New World could remember, reincarnate, and reinvent Africa in the Americas. The tradition found expression across Britain’s colonies in the West Indies and in the southern United States, from South Carolina to Jamaica. Unlike the pre-Lenten Carnival traditions in other Caribbean isles, John Canoe historically occurred during the Christmas season (on Boxing Day), one of the very few times of the year when masters gave slaves a reprieve from work on the plantation.

John Canoe developed distinct local variants in different places. In Jamaica, the masquerade originally centred on a single masked figure called the “John Canoe”, who wore an elaborate headdress in the shape of a house-boat. The headdress was constructed of pasteboard and coloured paper, and ornamented with beads, tinsel, spangles, and glass. One of the earliest drawings of the John Canoe in any context comes from Jamaica, and was created by the London-educated Jamaican artist Isaac Belisario. A print from 1834, on the eve of Emancipation, shows the John Canoe donning the elaborate headdress and European attire, complete with a St Louis-style jacket, striped pants, and gloves (unlike the earliest descriptions of animal-inspired costumes). The masked figure was often accompanied by a small entourage of band members, who, with drums and percussion instruments in hand, followed the John Canoe with noisy enthusiasm. John Canoe referred simultaneously to the specific figure with the headdress, to other masked characters, and to the musical accompaniment. In Jamaica, the John Canoe troupe travelled from plantation house to house imploring (or extorting) monies from plantation owners for their performance. The John Canoe, in which participants wore white faces and fine clothing, provided a rare opportunity for slaves to inhabit and imagine life outside of bondage.

 

John Canoe in the Bahamas was different from its counterparts in Jamaica and other places, since it appears that the masquerade was not a form of entertainment on plantations. Nor did John Canoers receive any remuneration for being a part of the performance. In comparison to other places, the earliest form of John Canoe in Nassau resided uneasily in Bahamian society. It was a tradition that those in authority tolerated, but seldom supported, and often viewed as a palpable threat to the status quo.

A large part of this suspicion and fear of John Canoe stemmed from where it took place, in the main — and predominantly white Bahamian-owned — business district of downtown Nassau. Every Boxing Day, in the dead of night following Christmas, masqueraders from the surrounding black communities, known locally as “over the hill”, transgressed the island’s unspoken racial boundaries by congregating in masks en masse in the heart of the Bay Street area. In the late nineteenth century, many of the John Canoers organised into groups according to their African ethnic affiliations, including Ebos and Yorubas, and these factions left their neighbourhoods and frequently clashed downtown. They wore costumes composed of rags, sponge, or newspaper torn into free-floating strips. In essence, the costumes used the debris and discarded material of society.

The masqueraders covered their faces with wire mesh masks, concealing their identities behind expressionless painted-on white faces. They came armed with cowbells, which served not only as instruments but as weapons against rival groups or persons. The earliest newspaper reports, often alarmist, cast the masquerade as a free-for-all and a dangerous space for “respectable” citizens and visitors. One tourist who wanted to witness the John Canoe in 1916 was warned by a local woman not to take her camera. She was cautioned that the last person to aim a camera in a John Canoer’s direction had his ear bitten off.

By all accounts, John Canoe at this period was not an event for the faint of heart — the John Canoers owned the space that day, and spectators, locals and foreigners alike, attended at their peril. It was not until the late 1920s and 30s that John Canoe started to change into a parade, one in which cameras and tourists were welcome. Tourism promoters and officials in the colony decided at this time — cognisant of the global craze for black culture — to encourage the John Canoe, albeit in a transformed version. They offered cash prizes, paid for by local businesses, for the best costumes, hoping that John Canoers would be persuaded to trade in their rags for potential riches. They also drummed up a police band to head the parade.

Just in case the older forms of behaviour threatened to reappear at the event, the authorities made sure to line the streets with police, armed not with drums but with batons. The new organising committee also aimed to change the date of John Canoe from its traditional occurrence on the day after Christmas to New Year’s morning, rationalising that the secular celebration should not occur so close to the religious commemoration of Christ’s birthday.

John Canoers responded to these efforts with a mixture of opportunism, satire, and creativity. Interestingly, while many participants showed up on the newly designated morning for the parade, they continued to gather without sanction for the traditional Boxing Day celebration. Indeed, the John Canoe in Nassau continues to this day to take place on the two days. Many masqueraders did participate in the prize competition, shedding their costumes of “junk” in favor of prettier and more colourful paper creations, sometimes in the shapes of various objects — flowers or conch shells — or personifications of people, such as Haile Selassie. Some used the opportunity to parody the very processes of control and co-optation evident in the tourist board’s initiatives.

In 1929, several masqueraders patrolled around the parade site dressed like policemen, the very authorities enlisted to control the parade. One tourist expressed surprise that a local commandant seemed nonplussed by the masqueraders’ mocking of authority. Another masquerader dressed like a British military attaché, striding around the streets solemnly with an umbrella and book. In both instances, the parade participants dressed and mimicked the mannerisms of those in authority, and commanded a space where in everyday life black Bahamians had little control. But not all the masqueraders subscribed to the new and improved John Canoe. Some of them — with instruments in hand and without costumes — made their presence felt and heard both at the official John Canoe and, as newspapers lamented, before and after the parade.

 

Although the authorities moved towards a self-interested acceptance of the new John Canoe, they remained suspicious of the subversive potential of the gathering of masked black men, conscious that the open parody of authority might one day result in an actual challenge of the status quo. Thus in 1942, at the time of the Burma Road Riots — unrest following labour disputes with an American company hired to construct the airport — the authorities quickly cancelled the parade for several years. It seems they were fearful that the revolutionary spirit evident in the protests — marches that involved the singing of John Canoe songs and the beating of drums — would ignite during John Canoe. During these years, John Canoe, despite law enforcers’ efforts to cease all public gatherings, continued to take place in the black “over the hill” communities.

In 1948, in part at the urging of tourism promoters, Junkanoo (as the John Canoe parade was now increasingly called) returned to Bay Street. As in the past, however, those who aimed to promote a prettified version of the festival found that black participants — in and out of costume — ruled the day. Many of them chose to participate in the parade without costumes. In an effort to clean up the festival, would-be organisers mandated that only persons in costume made of frayed crêpe paper could appear on the streets during Junkanoo, and offered prizes for the most beautiful and most original costumes. These policies would dramatically transform the Junkanoo, inspiring participants to concentrate more intently on the aesthetics of their costumes. This may account in part for why Junkanoo remains one of the only festivals on the scale of Carnival or Mardi Gras in which participants spend months hand-making their individual costumes, and in which all costumes are different.

The emphasis on prizewinning crêpe paper costumes inspired another change: the intense competition between rival gangs — once a hallmark of Junkanoo — was replaced by competing groups who battled for prizes, and, perhaps more importantly, for the prestige of gaining top honours. Two of the largest and most popular groups vying for victory in Bay Street in the 1960s were the Saxons (from the Masons Addition area) and the Valley Boys (from the Palmdale area). In these neighbourhood-affiliated groups, men started to collectively construct John Canoe costumes through the labour-intensive process of pasting successive layers of fringed crêpe paper or newspaper over cardboard, laying each strip of paper carefully above the next until the entire costume was covered in large mosaics of bright colours. (By some estimates, the average contemporary costume contains between three and five thousands strips of crêpe paper.) Individuals created their own costumes, and members of the group worked collectively to realise the larger pieces, costumes that increasingly assumed a three-dimensional form. All the pieces came together to animate a particular theme, which was kept a carefully guarded secret until Junkanoo morning. In 1960, for instance, the Valley Boys appeared as the Scottish Highlanders.

As potential prize-winning costumes grew more elaborate in detail and larger in size, the groups had to seek corporate sponsorship to offset the great expense incurred in their creation. The increasing need to attract and appease financial support may have quelled some of the rebellious spirit of Junkanoo, and marked the first time the ruling classes played a direct role in the creation of costumes.

A paradox, however, seems to exist in the sponsored, prize-centred form of Junkanoo. Although many of the large groups invest so much in producing costumes, participants in the parade typically abandon their costumes the moment the parade ends, leaving them, like discarded carcasses, on the side of the street. This immediate abandonment suggests that for all the emphasis on competition, the process of making the costumes — the collective creative work — and their performance — that moment when the costumes come alive momentarily on Bay Street — is really what drives Junkanoo.

Since the 1970s, Junkanoo has grown in size and duration every year. It used to occur for a few hours before dawn, but the parade now goes on for almost twelve hours, beginning at midnight and ending long after sunrise. Members of Junkanoo organisations, who work out of makeshift square structures known as shacks, have swelled from perhaps twenty to as many as five hundred people. Many of the earliest groups continue to “rush” on Bay Street, and they have spawned Junkanoo protégés, including the One Family and Roots groups. Women — traditionally not participants in Junkanoo — also fill the groups’ ranks today, even though they are most visible as choreographed dancers in the parade.

Costumes have also increased in size and detail. In recent years, groups have added — not without controversy — Carnival-like tricks including glitter, feathers, lights, and rhinestones to the costumes, even though cardboard and crêpe paper remain the main materials of Junkanoo. They have also reduced the weight of the cardboard by using decorated lightweight rods and carved Styrofoam (frequently sculpted to represent facial features or hands), conscious of the rules specifying that, to be eligible for the competition, a costume must be carried by one person. Despite these new technologies, costumes can still easily weigh three hundred pounds.

At the parade, spectators line both sides of Bay Street and surrounding Shirley Street, chanting their favourite group’s name. In a secular form of call-and-response, the audience vocally and physically responds to the group’s music and costumes. Audience members often assume the role of judges at the parade, engaging in keen and very vocal formal analysis of the costumes, making their appreciation or disapproval of a group known to all those around them. Even a spectator who supports a particular group will begrudgingly concede that a rival group’s costumes are pretty. With all these backseat judges, it’s no wonder that the official prize announcements are frequently greeted by the runners-up with a chant now as familiar as the popular Junkanoo tunes: “They rob us.”

Since the Bahamas became independent in 1973, Junkanoo — for years seen as an event to be controlled or co-opted by the ruling classes — has moved from the margins of society to the centre of national culture. Indeed, to many Bahamians, Junkanoo is synonymous with Bahamian culture, and represents a celebration of the nation’s African heritage. While in the past many participants in the parade mocked those in authority, in the post-colonial era politicians of the new black ruling class have regularly appeared in the parade. Sir Lynden Oscar Pindling, the first prime minister of the independent Bahamas, seen as a man of the people, rushed with the Saxons. More recently, Prime Minister Perry Christie has been renowned for his Junkanoo shuffle, which he performs on and off Bay Street. In this respect, contemporary Junkanoo sometimes seems not a platform to parody those in authority but a stage on which politicians can show off their power and popularity with the people.

Politicians of all political persuasions have also turned to this favourite symbol of national culture in their efforts to promote tourism to the islands, ironically using a festival originally feared by many early visitors. In 2004 — the same year Dust Track took to the streets — the minister of culture proposed moving the parade, historically routed through and rooted in Bay Street, to the thoroughfare in front of Nassau’s main hotels. A public outcry quickly quashed these plans. This incident would clearly have been on the mind of Dust Track’s performers as they accused the politicians of Junkanoo’s death.

Despite the political and commercial forces that come to bear on Junkanoo, subversive and satirical portrayals of the governing classes are still an intrinsic part of Junkanoo, as the Dust Track performance proves. Also, interestingly, many of the small groups known as “scrap groups” — the ones who create their costumes in an unapologetically hurried fashion and whose motivation is celebration, not competition — have offered not only a critique of the government in their songs, but a subtle subversion of the competition-driven groups.

On New Year’s Day in 2006, after several large and well-choreographed Junkanoo groups marched by, a small group called The Sting, numbering less than fifty, gave an energetic performance. Large strips of crêpe paper dangled carelessly off their hurriedly created costumes as they danced passionately and playfully before the Junkanoo spectators. Paradoxically, recalling the long-ago tourist’s description of a John Canoe character in 1929, one of the women in the group sported the costume of a policeman. Unencumbered by heavy costumes and by pressures to perform to win, the group sang and shook to their own, and the audience’s, hearts’ content.

The Sting has also circumvented the rules of Junkanoo, not caring about winning, by recording music and playing the tune during their performance. That year, their song criticised the work ethic, or lack of thereof, of those in the public service and the members of parliament responsible for the bloated workforce. At a time when some might lament the death of Junkanoo, groups like The Sting and Dust Track seem contemporary reincarnations of Junkanoo’s ever-changing, inventive, and playfully subversive form.