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Your Guide to Junkanoo

Your Guide to Junkanoo Nassau Paradise Island

It’s that time again! The 2017 Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival is just around the corner and we’re looking forward to a weekend of music, dance, and partying in Paradise. Learn more about this uniquely Bahamian tradition, and all things Junkanoo, with our guide.


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 their few holidays during the year. It’s always been a celebratory masquerade tradition however participants have been known to voice their political opinions during Junkanoo parades by satirizing politicians or social issues of the day. No matter its beginnings, today’s festivities are a can’t-miss cultural event.

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


Influenced by West African drum rhythms, American blues, and Caribbean culture, Junkanoo music incorporates drums, cowbells, 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.


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 were 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. 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.

A collage of colorful Junkanoo parades in Nassau, Bahamas.


The 2017 Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival takes place May 4–7, 2017. For more information, including a schedule of events, please visit Can’t make it to Nassau Paradise Island for this year’s festival? Don’t worry! There are plenty of chances to experience Junkanoo throughout the year. Atlantis, Paradise Island offers a Discover Junkanoo event every Friday night and the streets of downtown Nassau come alive each holiday season with the drums, whistles, and delightful dancing of Junkanoo rush outs.

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!