The most vibrant masquerade tradition in the Caribbean

The Trinidad Carnival is often called “the greatest show on earth” even though the Rio Carnival in Brazil might have claim to that title.  But game and worthy challenge might come from smaller, less known quarters, viz the junkanoo festival in the Bahamas.

We have already mentioned in these pages that there are Christmas-time traditions which have evolved in the Caribbean during the Christmas season and around the New Year arising out of African roots, European influence, and the history of the territories.  Carnival itself is one of these, causing Trinidad and Tobago, as well as most of the Eastern Caribbean to be carnival countries.  Other Caribbean territories, such as Guyana, Barbados, Jamaica, Belize and the Bahamas are not among them, but the entire region has strong carnivalesque traditions and their major festivals and most common forms of traditional theatre are carnivalesque types of street theatre.

The largest and most widely distributed of these forms is the masquerade tradition common to the whole region, but taking different shapes in each territory.  While the general carnivalesque forms have European, African and Indian origins, the major root of masquerade (maskarade) is African.  It comes from West Africa with known derivations from the Egungun of the Yoruba and the Kalabari tradition (Igbo or Ijo) from the Rivers States of Nigeria.  These ancient roots are religious ritual and include the visit of the ancestors, dancers wearing the masks of gods, deities and ancestral spirits.  The forms as they evolved in the Caribbean are described by Kamau Brathwaite who stresses the spiritual roots, and Sylvia Wynter who provides the most thorough study including the evolution of local secular social elements and both French and English influences.

Maskarade, first known in the Caribbean in the 17th century, reached its grandest heights in Jamaica (19th to early 20th centuries) while the same form developed in Guyana.  Both the Jamaican and Bahamian versions are also known as junkanoo, but the performance in the Bahamas is different.  The origins of that name are not really known, although some sources locate it rather vaguely in the name of an enslaved African king John Canoe.  A more likely source is gens inconnus (French for ‘unknown people‘) because of the African tradition in which the dancers who wear the spiritual masks were members of a secret society, and while masked and dancing, were not supposed to be identified or known.  However, the religious, spiritual practice became gradually less known in the Caribbean and junkanoo evolved several local social elements.

Junkanoo Festival, Nassau Bahamas (Internet photo)

In the Bahamas this festival is performed twice annually on Bay Street in Nassau, on Boxing Day, December 26, and again a week later on New Year‘s Day.  In each case it tunes up the night before, so that the forces assemble on Christmas night and begin performing in the wee hours of the morning on Boxing Day, then again on New Year’s Eve night, taking to the road between 1 and 2 am New Year’s morning.  The street parades will continue until about 11 am in each case.

Several bands take to the streets in a spectacular exhibition that is only surpassed today by carnival.  But it can be argued about which is more beautiful, skilful or demanding.  Each band presents a theme which is some topical issue, social or political commentary or satire, or just a concept.  Costumes are designed, built and paraded to expound on the theme.  Some of the most prominent themes over the past two years include The Wild Wild West (the movies, contemporary behaviour and gun crimes); The Glitz and Glamour of Fashion (the extent, influence and extravagance of the contemporary fashion industry);  The Wetlands of the Bahamas (a thorough study of the animals and plant life in the swampy areas, potential tourism product);  Atlantis: Paradise Island (the famous tourist entertainment centre, the pleasures of the rich and famous); Wings of Paradise; Food Oh Glorious Food; Candyland and War or Peace.

The costumes and floats are complex, intricately designed, often realistic, colourful and spectacular, the main pieces being much larger than the average King or Queen costume in Trinidad.  The largest of them are engineering feats and it is amazing what one man can carry along the route.  The largest are pushed by a small team of men who are also costumed.  There is usually a main large piece depicting the overall theme followed by a king, a queen and many other individual pieces exhibiting some aspects of the theme.  There are also dancers, a virtual troupe of dancing girls performing neat choreographies, and an extremely heavy musical section.  The bands are driven by the music with the very distinct junkanoo / gumbay rhythm, and the choreography is built around it.

The main dance carried by all the masqueraders is a move called rushing, stemming from the energetic style and tempo of the travelling steps.  To ‘rush‘ with a band is to play/perform with it, and to go ‘rushing‘ is the word adopted to mean participating in jonkanoo.

The large bands contain hundreds of masquers each, and are so elaborate that they travel with technical engineers – mechanics and repair men equipped to patch up floats and individual costumes along the way.

They are so extensive they have directors and musical conductors for the various sections to control teamwork, movement and harmony.

The musical section outstretches any collection of musicians in any performance anywhere.  Each band has an ensemble of well over 100, including an unbelievable horn section with an assortment of bugles, trumpets, trombones, cornets, tubas, euphoniums, souzaphones and shells, together numbering in excess of 60 in one band.

These are accompanied by a team of 30 to 50 drummers with a variety of instruments.  There are gumbay (or goombay) drums with lead cutting drums, rhythm drums and bass.  Many are goat skins over a barrel; most of the bass drums are so large they are actually huge oil drums with synthetic skins which are tuned by ‘firing‘ (heating by a large fire).  The percussion is healthily enhanced by a group of up to 30 with cowbells, scrapers, shak-shaks and other items.

One important element of masquerade found in the junkanoo tradition is the fierce rivalry among the competitors.  There are leading bands that compete annually with the best of them – Valley Boys, Saxons, One Family, and Roots.  There are several others and the most prominent ones have mass followings with popular allegiance, loyalties and support akin to those that follow political parties.  So vociferous is the rivalry that some small hitch caused no winners to be announced in the New Year‘s Day 2011 competition while the issues were being clarified (and pacified) for nearly a year.

Junkanoo in Nassau is a massive and costly industry with serious costume building, demanding high level skills.  The main competing bands have to produce two different designs of two different themes each year for the two separate competitions of Boxing Day and New Year.  On the day itself performance is physically demanding since the morning is nine or ten hours long and each band has to make two laps around the circuit of streets.  They have to return for a second lap to be judged on Bay Street.

Bahamian junkanoo is way behind carnival as a national cultural form, since no large-scale national culture has developed around it as in Trinidad.  There is little evidence of the same degree of tourism pull or numbers of arrivals.  Unlike the spread of carnival it is mainly confined to the two days of competition and has no other forms or events built around it.  But it may be equal in spectacle involving very serious costume building, and it is the most vibrant masquerade tradition presently in the Caribbean.  It is not threatened by extinction or diminished as is the case elsewhere, or faded out or extinct as in St Lucia, Trinidad (the many masquerades that used to be in carnival 100 years ago) and Guyana.

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