We have on different occasions reviewed the masquerade tradition in the Caribbean. It is a very old and deep-rooted foundation of Caribbean culture with historical records that reach back to the seventeenth century, and is the most pervasive far-reaching and wide-ranging cultural practice known to the region. We have noted that while the social history of the region has divided it into carnival and non-carnival territories, masquerading is a staple carnivalesque tradition in both groups. In fact, it is a vital part of carnival, and the Trinidad carnival, out of its European religious origins, started with a masquerade.
In addition, we have noted that while the masquerade form that took shape in the seventeenth century was an African transplant, this tradition belongs to a range of different cultures including the Indian and the European. It has been both religious and secular, and finds itself in several forms of religious ritual, celebratory, theatrical and performance traditions right across the region. There are or have been several masquerades in carnival and there are such other forms as jab-jab and Shakespeare mas (Grenada), the mummies (St Kitts), the land ship and tuk band (Barbados), Diwali and maskarade (Guyana), Hosay (Trinidad), jonkunnu/maskarade (Jamaica) and jonkanoo (Bahamas).
Many forms are extinct and others are fading or have diminished. Where carnival forms are concerned, the main contemporary tradition is the costumed bands and these have been undergoing change for more than a decade. But while all of this is taking place, among the most interesting constants is the Bahamian jonkanoo, which has come to be the most vibrant and stable masquerade performance outside of carnival.
In a previous article we detailed the magnificence of the jonkanoo performance in Nassau on New Year’s morning of 2012 with a glance at the history of the masquerade (jonkunnu or John Canoe), different forms in Jamaica and the Bahamas. On this occasion we attempt to analyse the exhibition of themes in the costumed bands and the state of the art in a Caribbean context.
Changes have been taking place in the region’s carnival bands. While they have reached great heights and are best known within carnival in Trinidad and the Eastern Caribbean, they have also been important in non-carnival countries. Costumed bands and floats were rich in the cultural traditions of pre-Independence British Guiana. According to one source (Godfrey Chin, Nostalgias, 2007), annual appearances on the streets were dealt a blow by the race riots and the festivals ceased. But they returned for the celebration of Independence in 1966 and keen rivalry among designers resumed in Mashramani of the 1970s. But all that waned considerably for a 20 year period and has only showed some resurgence in the past three years or so.
Floats and the greatest junkunnu bands ever seen in the Caribbean were known in Jamaica, but costumed bands and design competitions were introduced into the festival to celebrate Independence in 1962 and continued annually. Bands on the road are the centrepiece of street performance on Kadooment Day in the Barbados Crop-Over, but they are not the main competitive focus of the festival. Revelry is important but costume design is less so and emphasis on complex designs, themes and concepts have declined in recent years. More bands have literally stripped down to skimpy costumes, which has been the trend Caribbean-wide, including in Guyana’s Mashramani.
This trend of females attired only in the bare essentials has become a fashion in carnivals and has been taken a step further to be not only very popular, but a design concept utilised by many designers. The most fashionable, trendy and prestigious band famous for this in Trinidad is Tribe, whose band for 2012 was Take Me To featuring a touch (a tiny touch) of ‘exotic’ cultures around the world. Such trend-setting and change are pronounced even in Trinidad where costume design is taken most seriously of all the places. Yet these changes driven by the popular culture have seen the rise of trendy developments such as Tribe and a step back by large bands exhibiting full-scale design of major themes and concepts.
The ‘Golden Age’ of Peter Minshall seems somewhat phased out as the competition is less. Minshall’s last band was The Sacred Heart in 2006, but even while he reigned, he, as a single designer, was able to dominate for more than a decade. To emphasize this waning competition among large conceptual and highly thematic designs, Minshall’s successor is Brian MacFarlane who is equally dominant. Bands like his exploration of Africa in 2010 and spectacular study of Carnival of 100 Years Ago in 2011 were very predictable runaway winners for want of serious competition. This signifies a step down from when ‘pretty mas‘ of that calibre was the norm on the road on Carnival Tuesday.
While bands are the major focus on the road in Trinidad, unlike in Mashramani, and Trinidad has the reputation of the most accomplished costume makers, it is hard to find any place where costume making is more of a serious passion than in Nassau, Bahamas. The jonkanoo tradition has seen little change over the same time period over which the popular culture engineered shifts across the Caribbean. On the contrary, popular fervour has intensified the practice, the competition and the skills of costume making in contemporary jonkanoo. Themes are pursued and both costumes and music have developed into a large, intricate and expensive industry.
The competition is keen and very demanding since each band produces two themes a year for the two separate competitions, one on Boxing Day and the other on New Year’s Day. The bands assemble by midnight on New Year’s Eve, hit the road on Bay Street, Nassau at any time during the morning and have to complete the route around the city twice by 11 o’ clock when it all winds down. Rivalry is intense and at fever pitch, driving each band to work at maximum spectacle and musical force with an orchestra of well over 100 musicians.
The best bands with the keenest popular following are Valley Boys, Saxons, One Family, Roots and Palace, and they explore a range of themes. For 2011 and 2012 these included Wetlands of the Bahamas (Valley Boys, New Year winners 2012), Wild Wild West (Valley Boys, winners New Year 2011), Candy Land (Saxons, 2011), Wings of Paradise (Saxons, 2012), The Glitz and Glamour of Fashion (One Family), Atlantis Sunrise to Sunrise (Roots), War or Peace? (Palace).
The costumes are both artistic creations and engineering feats since while the smaller ones are ‘worn’ or carried on the shoulders of masquers, the larger ones are pulled on wheels. Some are huge and require assistance, but the engineering is efficient, allowing them to be drawn through the entire route without accidents. They exhibit two other main features; some are realistic representations of theme and subject, while others are abstract depicting designers’ variations on the theme with motifs and images. The Wetlands of the Bahamas was one of a number of fairly patriotic themes glorifying the country or celebrating its wonders and tourism products. The Commonwealth of the Bahamas is made up of innumerable small islands, some tiny and uninhabited but containing wetlands which are the habitat of some of the nation’s biodiversity. These were celebrated in realistic visual images of wildlife including a range of reptiles and birds known to survive in swamplands, creeks and lagoons. There was a mixture of the frightening, the grotesque and the beautiful, the last represented by birds in colourful plumage. It was a homage to the awesome landscape, to nature and its creatures. The abstractions were more interested in the colour and spectacle.
Wild Wild West was more given to commentary, satire and some humour. It was a take-off on the American west with the films, westerns, country and western and cowboys. There were images from the movies with gun slingers and other elements befitting that environment, in addition to others which suggest that the culture of guns, violence and lawlessness was not strange to the Bahamas which was portrayed as the wild, wild west. On the other hand , Atlantis Sunrise to Sunrise combined the celebration of a famous tourism product with some social commentary. Atlantis is a well known hotel and casino on Paradise Island, a tiny island attached to Nassau that is known as the playground of the rich and famous. Pictures and images flaunt the splendours of this place of glamour and entertainment which never sleeps, being open and alive from “sunrise to sunrise.” The commentary goes further to show the place as famous but equally notorious, a place of fun, but equally of sin.
The Glitz and Glamour of Fashion surveyed what passes for fashion and the fashionable, emphasizing not only the showiness but a number of things that would not immediately come to mind as part of fashion. Its interest in the glitzy would, of course, be also self-serving since it presents opportunities for spectacle. Wings of Paradise would do the same because of its emphasis on colour, but it also had strengths in artistry on which it depended because it was one of the mostly abstract designs with a theme and motif of wings.
These add to the power of this jonkanoo parade because of the way it makes social statements. It puts as much if not more importance on the visual beauty and the design than any other Caribbean carnival whose interest is the revelry. Then, what makes it more unique is the equal emphasis and the considerable work put into the live music and dance that accompany it.