The Past that made the Present

    Junkanoo is a festival that has been around for a long time, as early as the 1700’s. This event happens annually on a street for a whole night where different groups get together to put on a show for the audience, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day in Nassau but here in Grand Bahama it only takes place on New Year s Day. Each group has their own particular theme. Using their theme, they then start to design their own costumes. Once they have their theme and costumes, they would start practicing the music they are going to play and the dance that they will do. On that night, they would put on their costumes and perform their music and dance for the audience watching. Today we see young people come out to Junkanoo, but they don’t come to watch the groups perform they music and dance. they come out to walk around and to hang with their friends. By providing of the history of Junkanoo and all the historical events and changes Junkanoo endure. By gaining this knowledge, they may begin to show their love and appreciation to the festival known as Junkanoo.


Masked dancer, early 20th century

    Junkanoo didn’t first started in Grand Bahama, it didn’t start off with all these rules, costume materials, instruments and groups. Junkanoo is known as a West African tradition. Nobody knows how Junkanoo came about. Surprisingly, most Bahamians only know that Junkanoo got its name from an African prince that defeated the English and was known as a hero to the slaves. This man is John Canoe. Others say he was a slave that was brought to the West Indies and used Junkanoo to reconnect to his African roots and also to celebrate triumph from and during slavery. Some even say that it derives from the French word “gens inconnus”. The most common belief is that it comes from the time the Loyalist help migrated the enslaved slaves to the Bahamas.

    The slaves would have junkanoo on their two off days, December 26th and January 1st, which explains why Junkanoo takes place on those two days. Having the parade wasn’t easy at first, they  had to wait until their masters went to bed in evening to celebrate or else they would’ve received a whipping. The slaves needed something to wear while celebrating so they used any material they can find to make costumes, some materials they used were cloth, leaves, fringed paper, shrubs, bottles, and paper. Their faces were decorated with flour paste then in later years they upgraded to wire mask by placing them on sticks.

    The slaves used their creativity to make their own instruments to produce music. Junkanoo started off with conch shells, horns, and poinciana pods as instruments . With the costumes, music, and instruments everybody just paraded through the streets and had a good time because the dance was what we called “free spirited” everybody just danced how they wanted to. There was no practice or choreography but that has changed now, in the 1950’s people decided that they wanted the groups to be more uniformed when dancing so that was when a dance known as the shuffle was created and this dance is still used today by many junkanoo groups. It didn’t stop there though, we became more advanced and started to hire choreographers in the early 1980’s we even went further and called up dance agencies to help us with our dancing in the streets. Asking a few people about the dancing most of them think that we should go back to free spirit dancing.

Junkanoo was more ‘free’ back then, people just wanted to have a good time and go home but now this once precious event what was once seen as a celebration has now turned into a competitive fundraising event. It should not be that way I don’t think this was what our ancestors wanted it to be. In the 1920’s people just started to participate in Junkanoo for the money because the event became commercialized and many years later we saw groups formed. For example we saw the creation of the most well known Junkanoo group, the valley boys, along with them came the Music Makers, Saxons, Conquerors for Christ etc. Most of these groups are still alive today and are very popular here in Grand Bahama. It’s good to see the people rewarded for performances but I think it shouldn’t be that way.


Junkanoo in 1965
Peolpe in their costume walking through streets
Junkanoo during the slave time

Junkanoo in Grand Bahama

   Junkanoo arrived into Grand Bahama in the 1970s. We saw the Bahamas gained their independence in 1973. Junkanoo then became a national tradition that we celebrate on New Year’s Day. We saw the radical changes Junkanoo made. At first women weren’t allowed to participate in Junkanoo, they would only watch as the event happens. In the 1960s, women were given their opportunity to participate in Junkanoo. Another change we saw was the material used to make costumes. During slavery, slaves made their costumes out of shrubs, leaves, stones, bottles and paper. In the present today, the material they use to make their costumes now are aluminum rods, crepe paper, contact cement and cardboard. The instruments used today are different from the instruments used back then. Brass instruments came about in 1976 and this was when we were introduced to the trombone, saxophone, and trumpet which are very popular junkanoo instruments. Today, we also see the cowbells, horns, whistles, tubas and the rake and scrape. We also saw rules and regulations were made such as the height limit which allowed costumes to be no higher than 11 feet.We saw in the 1980s, Junior Junkanoo was evolved. This is when school get together to compete against other schools. Today, Junkanoo has come a far way from where it first started.  It was first an African tradition practice by slaves and now it’s a cultural aspect to Grand Bahama.

Junior Junkanoo in Grand Bahama
Group known as the Swingers in grand Bahama