Preserving tradition in Jamaica – Jonkonnu and Christmastime

We love to believe in the uniqueness of our traditions. Well, let me correct myself. We love to believe in the uniqueness of Junkanoo. The heartbeat of a people, we’ve called it. Festival of The Bahamas. The cultural pinnacle of our selves, our lives, our work (I trust my priests will forgive me for this). If I were to collect up the tweets and FB status updates* I found on Junkanoo this year, I could make a book of them. And that book would be smug. And purring.

We tend to forget — or, more probably, we don’t know — that Junkanoo in the Bahamas is not unique. It is expressed uniquely, to be sure, though what the modern parade has become is a fascinating mash-up of African-American and Trinidadian elements, many of them eclipsing the traditional core (though it survives in pockets here and there). We tend to ignore the fact that our Christmas carnival (yes, I use that word advisedly) is one of several such John Canoe festivals in the so-called New World. And perhaps most of us don’t know that the most studied and written-about John Canoe festival may still be Jamaica’s Jonkonnu, and not ours (though that is rapidly changing).

So in the interest of broadening horizons, then, a taste of what happens in Jamaica at Christmas:

Members of a colourful Jonkonnu band show off their costumes. - Gleaner File photos

Screams pierced the air like sharp knives, high above the sounds of fifes and drums and even a grater that created music for dancers in colourful costumes. Children, teenagers and even adults were sent running; they were afraid.

One little boy could not manage the excitement. Scared of the men in the masks, he escaped the grasp of a guardian and ran into the arms of another, in an attempt to get away from the taunts of a dancer. There was no gruesome end to the story though, as the Kayaea Jonkonnu Group performed on the streets of downtown Kingston recently.

The group had just finished a stage performance when they took to the streets, giving many an experience they had never had before – though the tradition is more than a few decades old. Some pretended, as part of the excitement, but many in the crowd watching the festivities were genuinely afraid of the antics of the dancers who charged at them aggressively, while all the time demonstrating a variety of dance movements.

Behind the masks and the costumes, there is much happening.

via Jamaica Gleaner News – Preserving tradition – Jonkonnu dancers find it hard to remain viable

So here’s my question. When does change become too much change? When do we adapt so much that we no longer recognize ourselves? I’m not sure myself; I’m tossing this idea out to provoke thought. Or not. As you wish.


*Not at all sure that these links will remain active OR visible by people who don’t tweet or do facebook …

3 thoughts on “Preserving tradition in Jamaica – Jonkonnu and Christmastime”

  1. Having grown up in Jamaica, I remember being surprised my first time in the Bahamas at seeing all the references to Junkanoo. I do imagine it is more prevalent in the Bahamas now than in Jamaica, even if it has evolved into something different over the years. To be honest, I remember reading and hearing *about* Junkanoo more than ever *seeing* it when I was a boy.

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