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A troop of Junkanoo dancers in Nassau Bahamas
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The Paradise Post: November Edition

All About Junkanoo

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If you’re looking for a uniquely Bahamian experience, this is the time of year to find it! Bahamian locals look forward to December all year because on December 26 and January 1, Nassau Paradise Island’s biggest celebration takes place—Junkanoo! Learn all about Junkanoo, and how you can experience it for yourself!

History

Junkanoo is a cultural dance and music celebration unique to The Bahamas that dates back hundreds of years. Its history is hotly contested and there are several theories about its origins. One is that it is named in tribute to John Canoe, an African tribal chief. Another is that it derives from the French gens inconnu, meaning “unknown people” in reference to the masks that were worn in the original Junkanoo parades of the 18th century.  Some say it began as a slave celebration on one of the few holidays from work they were granted during the year. No matter its beginnings, it’s always been a celebratory masquerade tradition and a can’t-miss cultural event.

 

Music

Influenced by West African drum rhythms, American blues, and Caribbean culture, Junkanoo music incorporates drums, cowbells, brass horns, and whistles. One of the nicknames of the Islands of the Bahamas is “The Islands of Song” and music is an essential part of the fabric of the Bahamian lifestyle—something that's never as evident as it is during Junkanoo. The music of the Junkanoo Carnival is as lively as the beautiful costumes you’ll see and it will definitely make you want to get up and dance! Keep your eyes and ears peeled for these distinctive musical instruments and styles:

Goombay is named after the drum used to create its sound, the goombay drum, which is a large drum held strapped over the shoulders and played with bare hands. Traditionally, goombay drums were made by stretching goatskin over a wooden barrel.

Rake’n’Scrape is distinctive Caribbean music traditionally produced by bending a handsaw and scraping it with a small object, like a nail or butter knife, to produce a variety of sounds.

Musicians play on Goombay drums at the Junkanoo Carnival in Nassau Paradise Island Bahamas

Costumes

The costumes of Junkanoo have evolved over time. Participants in 18th-century Junkanoo parades wore masks made from flour paste. In the late 1920s, costumes were constructed out of sea sponges; in the 30s strips of rags were sewn into skirts. By the 1940s, all manner of material was being used to create Junkanoo costumes: cloth, crepe paper, wires, and even newsprint! Today, revelers spend months constructing elaborate costumes out of cardboard, crepe paper, feathers, beads, and more in preparation for the main Junkanoo parades held in December and January. Colorful costumes and rhythmic dancing combined with the toe-tapping Junkanoo beat make for a feast for the eyes and ears as Junkanoo participants parade down the street.

Experience It

If you’re visiting Nassau Paradise Island this month, you’re in luck! The streets of downtown Nassau come alive each holiday season with the drums, whistles, and delightful dancing of Junkanoo rush outs. The main event takes place in the early hours of the morning (2 am–10am) on Boxing Day as performers weave their way through the streets, and there’s another incredible parade to usher in the new year on New Year’s Day.

Can’t make it to this year’s events? Or, are you anxious to see the history of Junkanoo up close? Head to the Educulture Junkanoo Museum in downtown Nassau. You’ll learn about the history of Junkanoo in The Bahamas, see traditional fabrics, instruments, and even get to make your own Junkanoo mask!

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