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About Junkanoo in The Bahamas

Junkanoo Parade
Junkanoo is the greatest cultural event in the Bahamas. It is a type of street carnival which occurs on Boxing Day (December 26) and New Year's Day (January 1). The main event happens in Nassau.

Although the real Junkanoo is only twice a year, there is often a Junkanoo rush (a small group of Junkanoo performers) in the main tourist spots as well as a Junkanoo festival in June in Arawak Cay, Nassau. Every weekend during that month there is live entertainment by Bahamian artists as well as demonstrations of Junkanoo costume-making and cowbell creations.

There is also a Junkanoo Expo at the Prince George Wharf in Nassau, Bahamas. A colorful exhibition showcasing the costumes worn ate the Junkanoo celebration.

The original Junkanoo is the strongest remaining African tradition in the Bahamas. In the times of slavery, Christmas time was the only free time the slaves had, so they used this time for celebration.

The parades are characterized by spectacular costumes made of crepe paper and masks consist of colored cloth and leather. The stilt dancers, street dancers, clowns and acrobatic dancers are accompanied by powerful rhythms beaten traditionally on goatskin drums, cowbells, bugles, horns, whistles and conch shells.

The Junkanoo parades are performed by groups with names like The Saxons, The Music Maker, The Valley Boys, One Family, The Roots and many more. The groups are judged in categories for best costume, best music and best theme.

Learn more about history, music, dance and costumes of Junkanoo in the articles below.

There is also an interesting tour year around which brings the visitors close to the Bahamian culture and particularly the Junkanoo.

Junkanoo History

Junkanoo Costumes
Junkanoo has it's roots from the African ancestors of the Bahamians. The historical origin is controversial among historians. The most accepted version is that the word Junkanoo comes from the name "John Canoe". He was an African prince and slave trader at the Gold Coast in Africa in the 17th century. It was said that he beat the English and was feared by the Dutch and English. He was a hero to the slaves and was idolized by them. Those slaves which were brought to the Bahamas and other Caribbean islands kept up the worship.

The Junkanoo parade in Nassau, Bahamas is the most famous one but there also similar festivals of music, costumes and dances in other Caribbean areas like the Jonkonnu in Jamaica, the Jankunu in Belize or the John Canoe in North Carolina, USA.

In the slavery era, the slaves were only allowed to have three days off: 25th and 26th December and 1st January. The 25th was reserved for Christmas and on the 26th and the 1st they were allowed to perform their Junkanoo festival.

In the 1920's, the Bahamas Development Board commercialized the Junkanoo as a parade on Bay Street in Nassau. Prizes were offered and the parade become more competitive. It developed into one of the main tourist attractions of the Bahamas.

In the 1950's, the parade became more organized, as categories were introduced and groups were formed. The 1960's saw the occurrence of the major groups which still exists today such as the "Valley Boys", "Saxons Superstars", "One Family" and "Music Makers".

In addition to these major groups, there are several smaller ones which have little chance to win any competitions against the big groups, but they still participate actively and enrich the parade.

Junkanoo Music

Junkanoo Music
The Junkanoo music is rather primitive but the rhythm is very infectious. The basic music instruments are made in the Bahamas and consists of drums, cowbells, horns, whistles and brass.

The drum is made of metallic oil barrels with goat or sheep skin stretched over one end of the barrel. The drum is carried under the arm and supported by a strap over the shoulder. The drummer beats it with the bare hands.

Other instruments are the noisy flat slider clapper cowbells which are played in pairs and are shaken or struck together.

The horns are another integral part of the Junkanoo music. Four types of horns are used which accompany the rhythm and infectious strain of the music. Today foghorns, bicycle horns, the bronze bugle used in the army and the traditional conch shell are part of the music.

In the year 1976 the brass instrument was introduced. Nowadays a brass section is part of almost every Junkanoo group and harmonize well with the drums, cowbells, horns and whistles.

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Junkanoo Dance

Junkanoo dance
Dancing is another key element of the the Junkanoo parade. In the early days the Junkanoo dance was a free spirited, free style dance where Junkanooers did whatever they wanted to do.

In the 1950's a new era in Junkanoo dancing was developed with the "Shuffle" and another creation known as the "Vola Shuffle", which are the most practiced Junkanoo dance until these days.

Since the 1980's the Junkanoo dance choreography became more professionalized. Professional dance companies were hired which came up with complete routines and steps for the parade.

Junkanoo Costumes

Junkanoo Theme Boards
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. Most costumes portrayed Neptune and Amphitrite which were a symbol for John Canoe.

The 1930's saw the introduction of sponge costumes and later in the 1950's the costumes were made from cloth and fringed tissue paper. In the 1960's costumes made out of cardboard and fringed crepe paper became popular.

Today the costumes are made of cardboard, crepe paper, aluminum rods, tie wire, contact cement and lot's of glue.

When constructing a costume, the first thing is to build a frame using aluminum rods. The costume design is drawn by hand onto a cardboard and the excess cardboard is cut out.

Tie wires are then pushed throughout the grooves of the cardboard to achieve the form and shape of the costume. Contact cement is applied to the cardboard pieces to hold them together. The cardboard pieces are attached to the frame by tie wires and are painted white.

The next step is the most time consuming part. It is the fixing of the colorful crepe paper on the costume with glue.

Nowadays Junkanooers use Styrofoam or Ethofoam instead of cardboard. The final touches of these costumes are done with glitter, stone, studs and decorative beads.

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