Nassau, New Providence Island, The Bahamas
Early hours of December 26 and again on New Year’s Day
Two all-night parties, a week apart
The Bahamas’ most important and spectacular party, Junkanoo is a blast to the senses. Parades flood the streets of Nassau in a whirling, reeling mass of singing and dancing chaos, as competing groups or “crews” rush out to meet the dawn, moving toward one another from all directions rather than following each other in the semi-organized fashion of the modern parade. Various groups and societies compete to be the biggest and loudest floats, which means you’ll see stilt-dancers, clowns, acrobats, go-go girls, goatskin-drum players, and conch and cowbell ringers, all blaring out their tunes in an awesome celebration of life that can only have originated in the Caribbean. You can attend one of the smaller Junkanoo elebrations on the islands of Grand Bahama, Bimini, Green Turtle Cay in the Abacos, or Eleuthera, but Junkanoo in Nassau, on New Providence Island, is the granddaddy of them all, a truly once-in-a- lifetime celebration not to be missed. On each side of Bay Street in downtown Nassau bleacher-type seating is constructed – you can try to get tickets ($5-100) for these through the Junkanoo ticket agency or the Ministry of Tourism in Nassau, though most are sold to local VIPs – but it’s far more fun to be free to vhoop it up with the rest of the revellers. Bring a bottle of rum or two to keep warm in the chilly night air, and perhaps an imbrella if rain threatens (as it often does at this time of year), and prepare to participate.
The first parade takes place in the early ”ours of December 26, starting off from the Brishtish Colonial Hilton Hotel at around 2am – weather and crews permitting (check Channel 13 ZNS for updates) – when upwards of forty thousand people assemble on Nassau’s historic Bay Street to witness the first Junkanoo crew pass by. The distant beats of Goombay drums indicate that the paraders are shifting into formation, and is your cue to get yourself down there and join the spectators jockeying for the best views, climbing trees and spilling onto balconies and the verandas of stores, hotels and houses. Under the Christmas lights, the crowds reach a frenzy of anticipation. The first cowbells are heard soon after, everyone swigs from bottles of rum, and fireworks crackle in the sky. Behind, in Nassau harbour, the looming cruise ships form an almost surreal counterpoint to the phantasmagoric crowds, who are now stamping and clamouring in time to the music. Then, as if from everywhere and nowhere, Junkanoo crews – some numbering a thousand – flood the streets in a swirling, kaleidoscopic mass of singing and dancing. Dancers wearing multicoloured costumes – made of crepe paper, satin and sparkly beads – with wide shoulder yokes that can be moved in unison with remarkable dexterity, like the fins of a school of fish, spin and weave around huge monster creations. In past parades, giant donkeys, cows and goats reflected crew themes such as “Let’s Feed the Nation”; the paraders from “Let Freedom Ring” depicted enormous likenesses of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King; a mammoth lobster celebrated the bounty of the sea; while pirates had a go at a ten-foot Captain Bluebeard. The crew’s musicians are draped in costumes, too, and their hypnotic drumbeats and bold brass provide the main fuel for the fire, while howling conch shells, bicycle bells, whistles and cowbells add their out-of-control nuances. The crews keep on coming by for hours, until at least 4am – but, if anything, the crowds grow larger and louder than ever, chanting, cheering and stamping their feet as the dancers gyrate wildly, in time and in step. And dawn is still two hours away. Standing in the throng, it’s hard to imagine that barely one week later another, even larger and more elaborate Junkanoo Parade will attract more than sixty thousand islanders – over half Nassau’s population – who will jam the city’s main shopping street in a pitch of excitement and fervour. It’s Junkanoo.
Junkanoo music is a West African blend of Goombay – traditional Bahamian folk music – and more ancient sounds. The African slaves who performed the first Junkanoo made music from improvised instruments – tin cans, goatskin drums, mouth whistles and home-made “rum bottle” horns. Crews now incorporate these elements, especially the goatskin drum, but add brass instruments such as tubas, trumpets and trombones. Despite the addition of brass, however, Junkanoo music is still driven by primal African drumming. Even today, modern Junkanoo drummers tune their drums the old way, by holding a lighted candle under the skins until the right pitch is attained.