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August 3, 2012 / Bahamas /

We used to spend a lot of time docked in Freeport, Grand Bahama, and though we were rarely doing charters over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, we did encounter some of the Junkanoo culture.  We were invited by locals to wander through an enormous warehouse in the port where they stored Junkanoo floats and costumes.  It was really fascinating because every single one was created using small squares of crepe paper painstakingly glued to headdresses, masks, chicken-wire dresses and floats.  The work put into it was phenomenal.  Looking back, I’m not certain if these were costumes that had already been used or if this was one of the secret spots where a group was putting together their theme costumes for the coming parade.  Since there is a new theme each year, the only reason they would keep old stuff is if they were planning to set up a Junkanoo Museum like they did on Nassau.

What’s It All About
Junkanoo is a street festival celebrating national holidays in the Bahamas, like Boxing Day and New Years Day.  It dates back nearly 200 years and began as a temporary celebration of freedom for slaves during their three days off at Christmas time.  There is no consensus on the origin of the word Junkanoo.  Some believe that it was originally “John Canoe” an African Tribal Chief who was brought to the West Indies as a slave and became a local hero.  Others think the name comes from the French words “gens inconnus”, meaning unknown people, because of the masks worn during the parade.  Junkanoo wasn’t celebrated for a while after slavery was abolished, but later became an integral part of Christmas celebrations on the islands.

Needs More Cowbell
Cowbells, drums and whistles are the favorite instruments of the Junkanoo parade.  The cowbell has become such an important part of the Bahamian culture, their most popular Beer, Kalik, was named after the sound the cowbell makes!  Other instruments include a drum stretched with goatskin hide that players burn a candle under to tighten and tune just right, horns made from the Conch shell, steel drums, and whistles.  You’ll hear locals on the sidelines of the processions calling out kalik, kalik, kalik so don’t be confused and think they are ordering beers!

Don’t Stop The Carnival
While it may seem similar to the Mardi Gras in New Orleans or the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Junkanoo is all Bahamian.  The parade runs from 2am until 8am and plan to get in place early.  The big ones are in Nassau and Grand Bahama but you can also see smaller versions on Eleuthera, Bimini and Abaco.  At the end of the parade, judges present cash prizes to the groups winning in best music, best costumes, and best group.  Groups can be small, or enormous, up to around 1000.  They choose a theme and design their costumes and floats to represent the theme, often keeping it a well guarded secret until the morning of the procession.  The locals don’t refer to it as a parade though, they call it “rushing”.  They don’t just rush at Christmas time, there is one at Labor Day too.  Check with your travel agent or the concierge at the hotel and find out if there is a Junkanoo celebration.  The Bahamians don’t really need an excuse to party, so you might get lucky and be there to enjoy one.

Jane Francis is a marine biologist and environmentalist who is passionate about the Caribbean and all the culture and tradition it contains. She often enjoys Bahamas vacations in order to get closer to her passion.

Photo Credit: holytrini


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