To survive in the international scene, innovation, experimentation, and willingness to think outside boundaries are necessities, not options. “You hear people talk about innovation, but they don’t know what innovation is,” he says. “Most times they are referring to the minor adaptation of foreign technology for local use. We need more creative students, especially in the university. I’m trying to introduce more opportunities for students to demonstrate creativity. I think we have students who are capable, but we just have to train them.”
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One of the most infuriating and insidious ideas that I have heard bandied about in the wake of this weekend’s mega-party aka Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival is the idea that carnival is the natural evolution of Junkanoo. It’s the kind of statement that leaves me (momentarily) speechless, and leads me to wonder how on earth any red-blooded Bahamian could even form his or her mouth to make it. But it reveals the depth of the ignorance about ourselves that we as a society have cultivated; and the general (could it be stunned?) silence on the part of the Junkanoo community suggests to me that even the junkanoo participants themselves don’t know the difference. Gus Cooper is dead, after all, and Vola Francis is complicit in the introduction of Carnival to our shores, so those people who knew and who underlined the difference all my lifetime are silent now. People are happily burbling on about carnival being Junkanoo’s next incarnation, about us “all being Africans, right?”, about how carnival is the next stage in the development of Bahamian culture.
So gather round, children. I’m going to tell you a story. If you don’t want to accept it, that’s fine by me; but I assure you that the story I am going to tell is supported by the kinds of facts you can, if you want, check for yourselves. You can check them if you like by visiting the Bahamas Archives and digging through the newspapers on an annual basis around Christmastime (as I have done); you can follow up with visits to the American Library of Congress that documents these things, or by going to the Trinidad National Museum and examining the Carnival display there; or by going to New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro to read what they have to say; or you could do a little digging on the web to find out what Carnival is (but don’t trust a thing that the internet has to say about Junkanoo). Just don’t take for granted that what someone told you in primary school or on the radio has a modicum of truth. It’s probably fiction of the highest order.
First, a little history. We all know the story of Columbus. But we may not all still be so aware of consequences of the engine he set in motion: the expansion of Europe into all of the spaces of the world, the depopulation of the islands of the Caribbean, the repopulation of them with a motley crew of Europeans in the first instance, Africans in the second, and after the enslavement of those Africans, East Indians and people of Chinese descent. The age of European empires changed the population and the cultures of our region in ways we need to understand if we want to talk about Junkanoo and Carnival in the same breath.
Just about one hundred and fifty years after Columbus came to the Bahamas and introduced slavery and diseases that reduced the population of the Lucayans he met here to a fragment of their original size, the islands were settled by a different set of Europeans. These people called themselves the Eleutheran Adventurers, and unlike Columbus, who represented the Mediterranean, Catholic world, the settlers of The Bahamas were from the very inception Protestant and British. There are few other Caribbean islands which have this distinction. Bermuda is one; Barbados another; but most of the other islands had a Catholic presence in their histories, and many English speaking Caribbean countries (including Trinidad) changed hands from the Catholic French or Spanish to the British. This part of our imperial history is critical to understanding where the differences between Junkanoo and Carnival lie.
Now, a word about empires. We live in a postcolonial world, and so we may no longer be aware of the critical impressions made on our territories by the European powers of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries; but those impressions, established over four hundred years, resonate today and cannot be overlooked. There were three major imperial powers that held control over the Caribbean region, and their influence continues even today in the languages we speak, the social structures we inherit, and—importantly—in the cultural practices we celebrate. The major ones were Spain, France, and Great Britain. Now. Spain and France both held indigenous celebrations that they identified as carnivals. These celebrations had pagan roots, and they were linked with the spring and with Easter or Lent, and they were all practised in a similar way: they celebrated fertility, sexuality and the disruption of the regular social order by dancing in the streets for several days at a time, by putting on masks and costumes, and by turning society upside down. These were European celebrations, and the French, Spanish and Dutch settlers took them with them to their Caribbean colonies.
For those who are interested, this is where the Catholic carnivals got their names. Most of these festivals are linked with the weekend directly preceding Lent (the forty days of fasting that leads up to Easter). The Catholic method of preparing for Lent, during which meat was not eaten, sex was shunned, and parties were cancelled in preparation for the death and resurrection of Christ, was to indulge in all of those sins and vices they would not be having for the next six weeks. The word “carnival” comes from the Latin carne (meat) and vale (farewell); and the other name given to this time, Mardi Gras, is the French for “Fat Tuesday”, indicating that on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the tradition was to indulge in as many sweet things as one could.
The British, on the other hand, having broken with the Catholic church some time before they began to assemble their empire, had done away with this habit. Perhaps in an effort to set themselves apart from the Europeans and to esure that they were no longer governed by the Catholic Popes, the British were beginning to focus their attention on Christmas as the main holiday in their Christian calendar. Easter was celebrated, and Lent observed, but the revelry associated with the pre-Lenten season was not part of the British customs by the time they moved into the Caribbean. The settlers’ great feast took place at Christmas.
As the European empires grew—as they began to build them, let us be frank, on the backs of the forced labour of millions of kidnapped and enslaved Africans—these differences became entrenched. What was more, they were passed onto the people they enslaved. And here is the critical point. The Africans, too, had festivals and rituals that did similar things with costumes and role reversals that the Europeans did; but because the Africans came from many different places and because they were stripped of their languages and most of their cultural heritage by the systematic cruelties of the new slave societies, it is not as easy for us to identify what those rituals were as it is for us to name the practices of the Europeans. Still; even the enslaved Africans were given one or two days off a year. But with a difference.
In the Catholic empire, the masters celebrated their carnivals as they had done in their homes in Europe. The Africans were given the same holidays as the masters took, and because the carnival traditions, especially those in France and Spain, involved servants playing masters and masters playing servants, those Africans may have even been encouraged to take part in the carnivals. Whatever. Carnival as we know it today grew out of these cross-participations, out of this joining together of the Africans and the Europeans for these few days. Throughout the period of slavery, Carnival was celebrated by both. In the Americas, the carnivals that grew and flourished—those that took place in New Orleans, in Rio de Janeiro, and in Port of Spain, Trinidad—were influenced in music, dance and costuming by the Africans, but were not African in origin. Rather, they became what anthropologists and folklorists refer to as syncretistic celebrations. Syncretism is the word we give to an activity that combines African and European elements in such a way that the African is sometimes hidden, but still influential. The languages we speak in the Caribbean are products of this syncretism; many of the Caribbean religions—shango, santeria, vodoun—are similarly syncretistic with Roman Catholicism; and carnival/carnaval/Mardi Gras are syncretic festivals.
In the British empire, however, things were different. The enslaved people were given three days’ holiday at Christmas. Rather than joining the masters in a big fete (the word is French, and it means festival or party), the enslaved celebrated in their own, African-based way. For whatever reason (we do not know the origin of the word, but the myth of the slave who started the festival is almost certainly a fabrication) these celebrations, which appeared across the British Americas, were called jankunu—or, to use the British spelling which was used until the end of the twentieth century, John Canoe. They were also called masqueraders and gombeys. They came out at Christmas; they had very particular characters and dances; and they were performed almost exclusively to percussive instruments—drums, bells, and scrapers. Whistles and shells added different levels to the rhythms, but the masquerades are almost always percussive.
The jankunu festivals of the New World, then, are not syncretic festivals, as Carnival. They are African in character; they are linked with Christmas, not with Lent, and they are products of the British presence in the Caribbean. They also tend to be far more serious, even frightening, events than Carnival tends to be. There are definite similaries between the jankunu festivals and the carnivals: the masks, the costumes and the dancing are among them, but there the similarity stops. In almost every case, Carnival took place in conjunction with the European masters, and jankunu took place in isolation from them.
The one exception during slavery was Jamaica, the richest sugar colony, where the Europeans splurged at Christmas and mounted a series of events as part of their jonkonnu festivals that suggested that the Jamaican planters were familiar with the Mardi Gras balls of New Orleans. It is partly because of Jamaica’s centrality as a sugar island that jonkonnu was first described there; but the fact that it was first recorded in writing in Jamaica should not be assumed to mean that what we called Junkanoo began there and travelled to the rest of the Caribbean. It makes more sense to see Junkanoo as a simultaneous resurrection of West African kono (harvest) festivals across the Americas, and this would help to explain the occurrence throughout the jankunu new world of figures of animals, cowbells, and the like, while in Carnival many of the carnival characters have connections with European figures.
What is also important to recognize is that in almost every territory where jankunu was celebrated—except The Bahamas and Belize—jankunu has all but disappeared. The John Kuners of the Carolinas are gone altogether. The Gombeys of Bermuda are struggling to survive. In Jamaica, the jonkonnu figures appear at Christmas but they do not attract a whole lot of attention. In the southern Caribbean, the Christmas masqueraders appear, but they do not get the same focus or merit the same admiration as the carnivals that take place in those same territories. Only in Belize, where what we call jankunu is practised as a central part of being Garifuna (or Black Carib), is it flourishing. And in The Bahamas, of course, where its evolution into a major street festival that can rival and even defeat Carnival has yet to be wholly explained.
And so: our Junkanoo may not be indigenous, but it is certainly unique. It alone of all the jankunu festivals has not only survived, but grown, and moreover has become a fundamental marker of Bahamian identity. (People from the Turks and Caicos might claim that their Junkanoo has also survived, but I would argue that their Junkanoo and our Junkanoo are part and parcel of the same phenomenon.) For some scholars, like Ken Bilby who gave what we used to call John Canoe the name that I’ve been using throughout, what we have done to Junkanoo is to move it from its core roots in African spiritual ancestral connections by engaging in a conscious hybridization of our own. But the fact remains that our Junkanoo is the one of all the John Canoes in the Americas to have grown stronger and to flourish.
Until now, perhaps.
So where do we get the idea that there is no difference between Junkanoo and Carnival, that Carnival is an “evolution” of Junkanoo? The late twentieth century, which is the period of independence, has been a time in which Junkanoo artists and practitioners sought eagerly to make connections with others who were doing similar things throughout the Americas. Because of the African contributions to all these festivals, the visual aspects of Mardi Gras, Trinidad Carnival and Junkanoo have many connections, and during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Junkanoo leaders and participants travelled throughout the Catholic world learning and borrowing and adopting and fuelling innovation in the Junkanoo parade. But until now, we never mixed up the two festivals. Until now we understood that we could borrow aesthetic and structural elements, we could learn from one another, but we did not have to think that one was the junior of the other.
Until now, we have understood what Vola Francis himself has always observed, that Junkanoo is a spirit. There is more truth in that statement than he understood; for the John Canoe festivals, unlike Carnival, are almost certainly derived from the African practices of connecting with the ancestors. This is why our festival is linked with the nighttime, and why severing that link may also be dangerous. Rather than coming from the European habit of saying goodbye to the flesh, there is something transformative and spiritual in the Junkanoo that we practice. (People will argue with me that there is something transformative about Carnival too, and they will be right, but bear with me here.) As Gus Cooper was always fond of saying), there were two fundamental and critical elements that separated Carnival and Junkanoo. The first was that Junkanoo participants make their own costumes. They do not buy them. The process of making them is a critical one, and one that is linked deeply and ancestrally with this invocation of a spirit. It is an African spirit, and it is something that has nourished us from our beginnings. It cannot be replaced by the purchasing of a feathered costume, a commodity. That is play-acting; what Junkanoo does is akin to worship.
And the second one is that Junkanoo performers play their own music, live, on their feet, and dance while they do so. They do not have canned music played for them; they make their own music. This custom, that of making one’s own costume and playing one’s own music, is fundamental to the Junkanoo world; it is part, too, of what links Junkanoo to its African, rather than its European, roots. And Junkanoo music is a serious thing. Traditional Junkanoo instruments (which do NOT include horns, sorry) have always been both musical instruments and weapons of war. Before there was a competition there were physical confrontations on the street. That these confrontations were ritualized, often musicalized, is immaterial. Carnival has always privileged its elements of play. Junkanoo has always privileved the rhetoric of war.
Now we may not like these differences. We may want to ignore them, or to downplay them, or to wish them away. Nevertheless, they are there. Junkanoo and Carnival are not the same thing. One is not an evolution of the other. They come from different roots, although they look similar on the surface, and they convey different meanings. Our society may well have room for both of them. But let us have no more discussions that try to pretend that they are one and the same. They are, most emphatically, not.
First things first.
Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival is over, and it was a rip-roaring success. As happened in Grand Bahama, in Nassau thousands and thousands of people thronged the festival site, hungry for the new experience, and for the first time ever The Bahamas entered the twenty-first century world of festivals, productions and events. For the first time ever, too, the government of The Bahamas understood and supported the need for real economic investment in bringing something like this off; the committee that was appointed brought local financial and production expertise to the table and ensured that the execution of the event would be top-class; Bahamians and international performers were hosted on the same stage and that stage was beamed to the world; and at long, long last the Fort Charlotte/Arawak Cay arena has been turned into the kind of festival village that has long been dreamed about.
Throughout the world, the twenty-first century has brought with it a hunger for the festival experience, and, together with tourism, the cultural economy is one of the fastest growing economic sectors in the world. To say we have been slow to capitalize on that is to understate the reality. There are many festivals throughout The Bahamas. They have been happening for years, but none of them have been able to tap into the global economy the way Junkanoo Carnival was able to for many reasons. They are run like petty shops; they are overly politicized; they rely too much on government handouts rather than focussing on economic generation; they are poorly advertised; they are treated like backyard get-togethers rather than businesses. This homecoming culture, as one might call it, has not taken advantage of any of the things that the twenty-first century has to offer with regard to linking culture and tourism and participating wholly in the global cultural economy. Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival has changed that game entirely.
In the months leading up to this event, many people asked me for my opinion of Junkanoo Carnival, and wondered if I would speak publicly and critically about it. I did not. I didn’t join the chorus of people criticizing the concept for the simple reason that I fundamentally agree with the need—economically and socially—to shift the government’s focus and investment from old, mid-twentieth century economic activity to the cultural industries. I fought for an event like this when I served as Director of Culture. The festival model that was put in place here is in many ways a mirror image the festival model that was put forward by Keith Nurse in 2004 when he was engaged to lead a task force on the transformation of CARIFESTA. It’s something you will hear me talk about if you download and listen to the podcasts on CARIFESTA, which were produced back in 2008 when we were hosting and not-hosting the festival. Those of us who fought for the inauguration of a festival culture in The Bahamas have all been vindicated. I could not oppose what I fundamentally support.
But I have always resisted the linking of this transition from homecoming culture to festival culture with the name and form of Carnival. I have always believed, and continue to believe, that we missed a major, major opportunity to put the whole of Bahamian culture squarely on the world stage by choosing to make our mega-festival in the image of the Trinidad carnival rather than studying the ways in which Carnival were monetized and working out how we could do that with Junkanoo.
I am not convinced by many of the reasons spouted to justify spending money to bring in Trinidadian consultants to produce a cookie-cutter event. No one has yet explained to me to my satisfaction why it was necessary to import a Trini-style Carnival (when we could have turned to Brazil, whose Carnaval is even bigger and more lucrative than Trinidad’s, and whose production is far closer than to what exists in Junkanoo today) rather than investing in the time and energy required to make Junkanoo the centre of the experience. Now I have worked with Junkanoo for almost all of my adult life, and I know as well as anyone who has done so how unbelieveably difficult it is to work with the Junkanoo community; how obstructive that community can be; how unreasonably protective they are of their vision of Junkanoo; how ignorant many of them are of the history and significance of what they do; how petty their differences; how slow they are to change. Any one of these arguments would have brought agreement from me; but I still would have demanded that the new festival at least consider ways in which our own aesthetic and traditions could be honoured, rather than supplanted by those of another territory. But the ease with which our leaders were able simply to import a ready-made festival was troubling, to say the least.
The whole process behind this festival revealed, once again, how deeply people who sit in positions of authority in our country distrust what is ours, how ready we are to push aside what is vibrant and indigenous when it is unformed and messy in honour of what is foreign and nicely packaged. What we did with the festival itself is akin to what we do with our houses, our fruit, and, in general, our national development. We build Florida boxes that hug the ground, have no cross-ventilation, and which bake in the heat and flood in the rains, when he have a perfectly good vernacular architecture that developed to handle our environment. We buy mangoes and avocadoes and bananas and oranges with “Dole” and “Sunkist” and other US stickers on them when the same fruit are growing in our back yards and on our islands; and we have come to regard the solution to all of our local issues as being the outsourcing the problem area to the most convenient foreign direct investor.
Countries don’t grow by outsourcing. Corporations may do so, but citizens are not commodities. And cultural expressions are not interchangeable. What is most troubling about the whole exercise is the narrative that has emerged, that local expressions of culture cannot be monetized, that Junkanoo cannot be improved, that Junkanoo has “served its purpose” and needs to move over to make room for Carnival. This discussion, this argument, which I have seen flourish on Facebook in too many places to be believed, is part of the reason I am weighing in on this now, after the fact.
Let me be quite clear here. I do not believe for one moment that the reason this weekend was successful was because we were celebrating Carnival and not Junkanoo. The greatest success took place at Da Cultural Village. Even though many people took part in, and enjoyed, the Road Fever, the real achievement lay in the hosting, the production, and the presentation of the concerts on Fort Charlotte and Arawak Cay. The real value of the mega-festival lay in the promotion of Bahamian music, and in the development of our event management skills. It was connected also to the recognition/admission/understanding, at long last, that we exist as part of a wider pan-Caribbean world and that our music has a place alongside it on the global stage. The success that was achieved lay in the marriage of industrial standard production values—and international-style expenditure to achieve those values—rather than in any shift to the celebration of Carnival. Let us keep that in mind as we carry this discussion forward.
But let me be equally clear. The most disturbing thing that has come out of the weekend has been the fact that we have now set the carnival in opposition to what is ours—and that to do so, we have spouted the most arrant nonsense about carnival, Junkanoo, and what they mean to us. I have seen people try to argue that Carnival and Junkanoo are basically the same thing. I have seen people suggest that for us to move on from Junkanoo to Carnival is some sort of inevitable cultural evolution, in complete ignorance of the cultural evolution that has got Junkanoo to where it is today. Rather than incorporating the Carnival as a celebration of our Caribbean connections, which we could have done to the same effect, we have set up an opposition that pits Junkanoo against Carnival.
Finally, here is my deepest concern of all. Much has been made of the fact that a study that I oversaw has found that Junkanoo does not turn a profit. People who have never looked at that study, who have clearly never even heard me explain what that study did and showed have been all over the airwaves using that study to justify why we should invest in Carnival and not in Junkanoo. We have bought into the idea that Carnival is an economic engine for development and Junkanoo is a drain on the public purse. I will go into far more detail about that study in a later post, but let me just say this: Carnival could not have happened the way it did this year without the participation of the Junkanoo community; their artistic and costuming expertise was hard at work in many of the Carnival companies. Many designers and builders participated in Carnival as a means of making money out of the event, as a means of turning what they do every year for love and the nourishing of their spirits into a means of making a living because they have not been afforded the opportunity to make that living out of Junkanoo. Whether Carnival offered them the economic returns that it promised has yet to be seen. For me, the real value of this event will lie in its ability not only to allow at long last the chance for musicians, dancers and producers to make a living doing what they love, but also to bolster the growth of Junkanoo, a festival that we Bahamians have already developed. And that success still remains to be seen.
“Again we have diluted ourselves into believing the myth that Capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard word and sacrifice. The fact is that Capitalism was build on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, both here and abroad.”— “The Three Evils of Society,” 1967