On Junkanoo

Well, it’s official. Junkanoo is not a cultural event. It’s a sport. Complete with winners and losers, gamblers and fixers, points and penalties and appeals.

Think about it. In all the debate that we hear about Junkanoo every year, how much do we hear about the event itself? About the innovations in the art, the changes in the music, the use of colour, the presentation of the performances?

The answer: virtually nothing.

What we hear instead are insults to the judges, to the committee, to the Ministry, to the winning groups, to the losing groups, and to anyone who ventures to say anything remotely sensible about the whole. All that matters to the group, the press, the public, is who won and lost the parade. A sport, plain and simple, in which the referees are perpetually suspect and the umpires always under siege. Somebody get rob; somebody do the robbing. But we rarely hear anything about the art of Junkanoo.

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4 thoughts on “On Junkanoo”

  1. Junkanoo Is Not A Spectator Sport.

    Hello, Nicolette. Its been some years since I read your writing, but that time has apparently been good to you. You have put the point perfectly – though my response be years overdue, it is nonetheless a considered and enthusiastic “amen” to your sermon.

    I recall the day I discovered in myself the ghost of a “junkanoo” enthusiast. This spectre was walking away from a parade after his “team” had made their final lap, and as the opposing “team” came through, their music was quite good. So good, in fact, that this poor benighted soul could not help but note that the drum section was tighter, more complex and more polished than his “team,” and that the horns were “in tune” (a thing almost dead in “junkanoo” at the time) and – this is where the cold, bitter truth came clear – that he was dancing, and had to forcibly resist the impulse to return and enjoy the final lap of his “team’s” rival.

    Why did I walk away? Because despite the aesthetic value so obviously inherent in the next group’s art, despite the deep influence their performance exerted on my heart, I was a “Valley.” Or was I a “Saxon?” Or “One Family?” I cannot recall, and it is ot germane to the central argument, which is that I had chosen to abandon the enjoyment of junkanoo itself in order to enjoy a headier, more intoxicating elixir – the ages-long battle between “us” and “them.” We in our hundreds of thousands have embraced the spirit of battle, and chosen as our champions those who ought to be our historians, our cultural librarians, so to speak.

    We fashion from those most artistic souls in our midst gladiators, whose inner compulsion toward excellence we as consumers and “spectators” pervert into misguided battle-readiness. We speak in terms of “beating” and “winning” when what we mean is that finally, for once, we have become victorious on an epic scale – the victory of our “team” is our personal victory, the one monumental validation we can flaunt without fear of seeming shallow and inadequate. In lives beset by envy of those we perceive as “better off” we can finally say “I win!”

    Let me speak bluntly – junkanoo is not complicated. If it is an art form, it is a stagnant and moribund art form, where progress is seen as the Satan who must be banished from the backward Heaven we envision, where this mythic “junkanoo” we say we love rules from its crystal throne. Why so bitter, you wonder. I am not bitter. I am awake. I am looking at the thing, and seeing it as it is, not as I dream it to be. Let me ask you this – what makes something “junkanoo” as opposed to Carnival, or Mardi Gras? Is it not the simple fact of its “Bahamian-ness?” It is not the music, or the pasting, or the gospel hymns that make what we do unique, for each of these things we share with other, more ancient and developed civilizations. What we do, frankly, is a pale shadow of an imitation of what our ancestors did, wherever they did it, and for whatever reasons. We follow the impulse of junkanoo blindly, believing it to be somehow more “Bahamian” a form or “art” than anything else we do, but the truth is that junkanoo is no savior of or repository for Bahamian “culture.”

    Forgive my tangential excursion. To return to the point – junkanoo is not complicated. How do you define a rhythm as a “junkanoo” rhythm? You have only to listen to it and hear the same “junkanoo” rhythm Bahamians have heard for generations – lay aside the “double-racking” and the “tenor drums” and at heart, it is the same repetitive rhythm, the same “and-One” as ever. What about the ubiquitous cowbells? Not a Bahamian is born but that he or she can “lick them bells” on some level. Not to put too fine a point on it, how difficult is it to shake a cowbell back and forth? Or is it the ability to do it in unison with five hundred others that makes it special? Not so, my friend, for the fact that your action is coincidental with the actions of others does not alter the nature of the action itself. I will not dwell on the whistles, or even the conch shell. How many Bahamians can actually blow a conch shell? And how many more consider the sound “musical” at all? Come, my compatriots, let us lay aside our pretense to sophistication. If junkanoo is so sacred to us, why do we strangle it with dead and poisonous traditions that serve no purpose other than their own existence?

    Let it not be said that I am not proud of my country. I flaunt my national heritage, my Bahamian-ness, more than is good for me in a country that sees my people as oversexed, undereducated tree-swingers. (On another tangent, I was actually asked, in all sincerity, whether my family wore grass skirts, lived on the beach and swung from trees. I was asked this question in 1993, and variations on it have not ceased.) No, buddy, I am proud to be a Bahamian. That does not prevent a clear-eyed, honest look at things every Bahamian should value, however. I believe that precisely because I am proud to be Bahamian, I am compelled to gaze into the depths of my nation’s heritage, and root out the lie, and denude the forest of twisted, poisoned trees whose roots embitter the soil that should nourish them. One such poisoned tree is the “sacred cow” we have as Bahamians that only certain things are to be called “Bahamian” and then only if carried on in a certain prescribed manner. Taking this to be the case, and I recognize that there is an argument to be had here, I put the following point:

    Junkanoo is already dead, and needs to be either buried or resurrected. It is not simply enough to keep the corpse of what was a great thing animated by the spirit of competition, because corpses breed maggots. Either let the beast die, or breathe new life into it, but do not pretend that what exists today is “junkanoo.” What exists today is a biannual competition, the aims of which are corporate promotions, financial rewards and “bragging rights.” Not a one of the junkanoo groups currently extant gives two hoots about anything but winning the next parade. How do I know? Because I can tell you exactly what you will hear on Bay Street (if they still have the show on Bay Street) this holiday season. You will hear goat-skinned drums (but not as many as you think – we have even sacrificed this junkanoo staple to the need for more power and “edge”) beating out the same cadence that goes back a generation or three. You will hear thousands of cowbells being shaken in unison. You will hear plastic tubas, you will hear trombone and trumpets all being played with great abandon, but minimal musicianship. You will hear whistles, and deep, gutteral whoops from hundreds of throats. And you will hear the ubiquitous call…

    They comin’!

    What you will not hear is anything you have not heard before. And that, my friends, is not because of tradition. That is laziness. The vital traditions of junkanoo are not the specific rhythms or instrumentation employed, but the circumstances in which these tools are employed. It is the coming together of thousands upon thousands of us as “one people” to celebrate our supposed uniqueness that is the power of junkanoo. Truth be told, the musicians involved in junkanoo are far more talented than they are allowed to display during the parade. Is not something sadly wrong with this? During the festival in which we say we are celebrating the best of ourselves, should not our musicians be encouraged to play their best, instead of “dumbing it down” so the “masses” can “get it?” When our artists are capable of so much, but are restricted by tradition to Elmer’s Glue and crepe pape; when our dancers (God help the poor souls, clad in leotards and cardboard!) are so expressive and so able to perform, but are asked only to gyrate inthe most lewd and debasing ways, what does that say about our opinion of ourselves? What does it mean that we demand that our best and brightest pander to some supposed lowest common denominator? Have you seen them? The little girls, no more than 10 years old, simulating wild sexual acts with their parents’ and society’s approval? What can they look forward to, when shaking their little hips brings screams of adulation from crowds of thousands? Have you seen the little boys? Moving their little pelvises in such ways as to almost hurt themselves, and being applauded for it by thousands of their elders? What is this wonderful thing we call “junkanoo” teaching our children? Is this what we fight to “protect?” The ability to teach ourselves that sexual innuendo and playing beneath your abilities are the elusive keys to success?

    [Reading over what I have just written, I recognize that I sound a touch puritannical. I remember, however, when that was also part of being Bahamian. My, how time flies.]

    In any event, junkanoo is not a spectator sport. You cannot simply show up on Bay Street and watch the groups parade by and then say you “went” to junkanoo. If junkanoo is worth anything, it must be more than this. I am as yet unable to say what it should be, and perhaps that is proper. A living thing cannot be defined by a snapshot of its present state. But if we already know all there is to know about junkanoo, that is sad. I hope that someday, we as a nation find a true use for this cultural phenomenon that has indeed become simply a spectator sport.


  2. Very inlighting,I’m amazed at more people dont open thier minds alittle more to this culture and music/art.I was first impressed by Junkanoo music/art on my honeymoon in the Bahamas (Paradise Island).A seven day honeymoon turned into a forteen day.We just were in (ahh)with this beautiful culture.

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