How it All Began
Ever since I was a baby, my parents would pack my snacks and take me to Bay Street where we stayed from night to morning for Junkanoo. I never understood why we left home so late at night only to return when the sun was up. Sometimes I managed to stay awake to watch two or three groups (depending on how far apart they were) but I was there for the outing and spent most of the time sleeping on mommy’s lap. After enjoying the music for a bit, I would fall asleep and wake up just in time to go home, understanding none of it, yet experiencing it just by being there.
It wasn’t until I left home to attend high school abroad that I began to appreciate and miss what was uniquely ours, Junkanoo. I learned the value of holding my culture near, and I began to understand and appreciate the hard work of my fellow countrymen, especially how hard they worked to celebrate and preserve Bahamian culture. Thus began my love for this cultural extravaganza! Whenever I heard Junkanoo, it was as if it was just me and the music. In my mind I was one of the well-trained choreographed dancers, shaking up what God gave me.
You may be wondering what this Junkanoo I’m referring to is. Well, since you asked, the dictionary describes Junkanoo as a street procession of characters in traditional costumes, dancing to drums, bells and whistles. Junkanoo in The Bahamas is a tradition brought to The Bahamas by Africans. It began as a resistance to slavery and it was their way of saying they were human, they matter, and they will continue the traditions from their homeland. Slaves were only given three days off during the Christmas season, and they spent that time undercover at night recreating festivals they once celebrated at home by celebrating together in the streets, dancing to the music of their ancestors in makeshift costumes. Therefore, the two major Junkanoo parades, held on Boxing Day (December 26) and New Year’s Day, are a direct tribute to the tradition began by the slaves. Junkanoo arose from the most horrendous circumstances known to man and as the tradition continued, the movement got stronger.
Back then, the costumes were made from indigenous material and things people simply threw away. The slaves would dress in layers with materials such as sponge, flowers, leaves, paper, and straw. The music was also cleverly made, using any items they could get their hands on, like conch shells, cowbells, and goat-skin drums. Although many aspects of Junkanoo have evolved, the basic materials remain the same and are paired with materials and musical instruments of the 21st century.
Today, there are six major groups—the A category groups—and six smaller B groups. Each of the major groups consists of anywhere from as little as 300 to as many as 1,000 people, and these include dancers, musicians, and those carrying large costumes. The groups prepare for the season by working in out of sight dilapidated buildings all around the island, creating the most beautiful handcraft costumes from what some may define as junk.
The first known Junkanoo parade was held in 1801 and Junkanoo has been celebrated here ever since. Today, Junkanoo is the soul of the people, it is a blend of our hard work, love, determination, originality, creativity, and most of all our passion. We have Junkanoo parades not only in New Providence but also throughout our family islands. It began as a resistance to slavery, and today it continues to celebrate the strength of our people.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing Junkanoo, you will see that the Junkanooers put their all into their costumes. The intricacy of their costumes from the building, to the fringing of the decorative paper, to the pasting, is done with pride and love. This is who we are, this is our culture and we're glad to take you on this journey in learning why we love it so much. Welcome to the Making of a Junkanooer!