Junkanoo is a vibrant and spontaneous performance and has evolved over time to become a premier cultural event in the Bahamas, rivaling Rio’s Carnival and New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. A fusion of various colourful cultures has sparked magic in the Bahamas region.
Junkanoo dates back to the 17th century and is one of the oldest surviving street festivals in the Caribbean. It is believed that the origin of the name is John Canoe, the dialectical adaptation of an African tribal chief during the era of slavery. He demanded that his people, who were then considered slaves, get the right to celebrate their cultural traditions. So, they were granted a three day holiday during Christmas, which they celebrated with family and friends through dance, music and costumes. According to legend, they decorated themselves with scrap materials like feathers and paper sewn onto their clothes and applied flour paste on their faces.
The festival’s themes revolve around a person, country or a historical event. It is a wonderful celebration of freedom and life, and is accompanied with rhythmic goombay drums, melodic horns, cowbells and whistles. Originally, the instruments were fashioned from scrap objects like food or rum containers into drums, while scrap metal were turned into bells. Like their ancestors, today’s Junkanoo musicians use similar techniques, stretching goatskin along a metal barrel and burning a candle under the skin to “tune” it to the correct pitch.
This festival is celebrated each year in the wee hours of the morning across two parades down Bay Street in downtown Nassau. The first is on Boxing Day, December 26th, and the main event is on New Year’s Day, which is January 1st. It is considered a mega display of the identity of the country.
The Junkanoo festival draws large crowds of Bahamians and tourists and has become a spectacle of colour and carnival. On the day of the festival, the British Colonial Hilton Hotel is where the parade starts with revellers cheering their favourite group.
If you wish to experience this cultural festival of Junkanoo, plan it out well and arrive early. A few of the best views are upstairs on Bay Street, or on the street-side bench seats, which you can reserve in advance. In case you miss the parade, you can visit the museum at Nassau’s waterfront. It showcases colourful artistic creations and imaginative costumes from the past Junkanoo parades.
Come, join the endless entertainment and dress up in your own costume – the brighter, the better!