On Sousaphones, Junkanoo, and Emancipation

Between Christmas and New Year’s in The Bahamas, barring any major unforeseen events, there is really only one story: Junkanoo. Traditionally, Junkanoo is held on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day every year, and the competition is stiff — so much so that I’ve grown notorious for suggesting that Junkanoo is a great Bahamian sport, and not the cultural event that people love to claim.

As far as I’m concerned, the core and the root of Junkanoo is its music. It’s the music that sets us apart from all other New World street festivals. And for those of you who are under thirty years old, I’m not talking about the brass and the tunes that are played during the parades. These are recent additions, developments that have taken place in the last twenty-odd years. Junkanoo music at its core is rhythm.

When I teach, I explain it this way. What do you need to have the Junkanoo sound? Some people, young people mostly, might say brass, but they’d be wrong. The brass, the tunes, are the embellishment of the music, and when you have nothing else, you don’t look for a horn to make Junkanoo. You look for a drum. And on that drum you play a basic rhythm (in fact, there are a score of different rhythms that are incorporated into Junkanoo, but that’s another story). To that you may add another drum or two, each playing a different rhythm (or not). And then you add the cowbell. Then you stick a whistle in your mouth, and you have the music. It’s only after you have laid down the rhythm that you look for the brass.

Think about it. That’s why there aren’t many true Junkanoo tunes. That’s why the music that people put on top of the rhythm is usually adopted from somewhere else, and arranged around Junkanoo. In the past, the only notes in Junkanoo were those that could be blown with a bugle. For those of you who don’t know your brass instruments, a bugle is a horn without valves, and like the conch shell or the sheep horn or the black horn. Those horns can only play one or two notes, depending on the skill of the blower. Well, a bugle can play several, but they’re several notes apart – hence the traditional Junkanoo tunes like “A-Rushin’ Through the Crowd”.

And that’s it. You can make Junkanoo music with a drum, a pair of cowbells, and a whistle and nothing else. The last thing you make Junkanoo music with is a horn.

And yet.

For a quarter of a century – almost from the moment the Music Makers brought brass to the parade and played tunes and revolutionized the way in which Bahamians at large thought about Junkanoo – the Junkanoo parades have been sucking more and more brass players into their presentations. We are at an interesting time in the development of Junkanoo, and it’s this. We’re at a point where young people, the set who take part in Junior Junkanoo, seem to believe that the horns, the brass, are the central part of the music. I have been at celebrations for Junior Junkanoo – most notably at the most recent awards ceremonies – where the music was begun by the sousaphones.

Hello.

This frightened me no end. The sousaphone, for those of you who don’t know, is an instrument that was invented by Americans to allow a bass horn to be carried for long distances as part of marching bands. They’re named after the great American composer of band music, John Philip Sousa. They are not Bahamian; they are not African; they are not integral to the tradition of Junkanoo, having been introduced in the late 1990s by musicians who had cut their teeth on the marching bands of the Church of God and the like.

Now there isn’t anything inherently wrong with them. I like the sound that sousaphones make in a modern Junkanoo line. Not as much as I like the sound that the bugle used to make, or the rhythm and off-notes of the black horns, but that’s me. If a sousaphone, or a trombone (my own brass instrument) or a trumpet or a flugel horn or a euphonium or a saxophone or a tuba has a part in a Junkanoo parade, that’s fine. Change can be good, and change is often healthy. But when change is indiscriminate, when it occurs in a vacuum, when the core is not understood or worse, not respected, then change becomes more than change. It becomes do-it-yourself imperialism.

Let me be clear here. I’m not anti-Sousaphone; I’m not even anti-brass (much, any more). Just as long as we remember that the core of the rush is the drum, the cowbell, the whistle, and the two-note horn. Just as long we respect the fact that Junkanoo music is complete without the tunes; just as long as we understand that our preference for tunes is in some way evidence of our distance from the Africa from which this rhythm sprung.

For African music does for rhythm and percussion what European music does for melody. Please understand me carefully. I am not claiming that Africans don’t understand melody, or that Europeans don’t understand rhythm. What I am saying is that these societies privilege the different elements of music differently. Where African societies developed a whole range of percussive instruments, and made music around textured polyrhythms and drums that talk and beats that convey information, European societies did similar things for their melodic instruments. (In Africa, too, melody was often carried by the voice, just as it was in the Junkanoo parades of the early twentieth century.) In the Caribbean, we marry the two, often seamlessly. Hence the famous Nettleford reference to “the rhythm of Africa and the melody of Europe”.

We Bahamians pay homage to Europe in different spheres – in our marching bands, in our choral traditions (which follow both our major cultural influences), in our popular music, in our ringplay and some of our dances. Our African heritage has been under threat for centuries. In the beginning, it was outlawed by our white brothers; later, it was out-preached by our own black selves. Until the 1980s, though, you could hear its rhythm in Junkanoo, in the drum.

In Junkanoo, once, we remembered Africa. In Junkanoo, once, when the lead drum rolled over and the other drums joined in, we celebrated the land where the majority of us came from, and by which all of us have been changed. This still happens, by and large, in the senior parades. But in the junior parades, where we’re grooming the Junkanoo of the future, the sousaphones start the rush. In our future parades, will our drums be drowned out by the brass our colonists brought?

I trust not. For to believe without question that Junkanoo music can be started by a sousaphone – that symbol of the USA, the cultural imperialist par excellence – is a clear demonstration of how little pride we have in what is truly ours. I’m not talking about feelings of pride here; you can feel proud of many things that don’t really deserve that feeling. I’m talking about real pride, the kind that transcends emotions and resides at the level of the brain, of consciousness. Not to know what a betrayal of Junkanoo it is to have the music start with an American brass instrument that was invented in 1893 – two generations after the emancipation of the Bahamian slaves, and easily a hundred years after we began celebrating Junkanoo – is a failure of some magnitude on the part of the Bahamian society and culture as a whole. And perhaps, just perhaps, it’s an indication that slavery never really ended at all.

3 thoughts on “On Sousaphones, Junkanoo, and Emancipation”

  1. Bob, you and I are not in disagreement. However, your example of the sea chanties you sing with your concertina doesn’t hold true for what’s happening in Junkanoo. You at least have some awareness of (a) the integrity of each type of music that you’re playing and (b) the way in which the two will and can mingle; my argument, my complaint, is that young Junkanoo participants don’t.

    Cheers.

  2. I used to be married to a high-school band director (in the USA, of course) so I am able to follow more of your entry than most might. Very familiar with Sousaphones. Well written, and a rousing defense of traditional Junkanoo values!

    But music wants to mix and mingle, to (can I use such a politically incorrect word?) miscegenate. My own passion is sea chanties that I sing as I play my concertina. The underlying structure is Irish melodies with a strong slow rhythm suited to the hard work at hand on a traditional sailing vessel. The songs themselves are the original world music, with influences from every port on the globe.

    The Bahamas is a nation of islands. Islands depend on trade. It should come as no surprise that its youth trade musical influences as their elders do goods and services.

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