Abaco Life Magazine

Abaco Life, An Island Magazine


Junkanoo on Abaco

By Mirella Santillo

The beat is mesmerizing, and the drums “thump in your heart!” says one nine-year-old girl on Green Turtle Cay. Add the metallic rhythm of cow bells and the resulting sound almost shouts “ Junkanoo,” a traditional holiday event that is part carnival, part dance, part music, and all celebration. The vibrant colours of The Bahamas and Abaco — the azure of the sky, the Junkanoo in Abaco Bahamasturquoise of the sea, the bright yellow of the sun and the exploding red and orange of the many tropical flowers — come alive during this parade and celebration, when revelers, decorated in crepe-papered headdresses and bright costumes, twist, turn and gyrate in the streets.
Nearly two centuries have gone by since the abolition of slavery in the Bahamas, but Junkanoo, in which African folklore mingles with Christian customs, remains. While its exact origins are vague and still debated, it is said that plantation workers created their own holiday and celebration by dressing up and playing makeshift musical instruments. Legend has it that a slave named John Canoe originated the idea, hence the name Junkanoo. Others claim that it was a sympathetic and lenient plantation owner who allowed his slaves to celebrate Christmas and New Years in their own particular way. Still others hold that the name derives from the French L’inconnu, or “the unknown,” for the masks that are worn. Like many Bahamian stories, everyone has his or her own version. But the important part is that it is still very much alive today for our enjoyment.
The Bahamas Development Board began to capitalize on Junkanoo in the 1920s, and when December 26 was added to the holiday calendar as Boxing Day, Junkanoo celebrations were scheduled on three specific days: Christmas, Boxing Day, and New Years Day. The event begin to emerge as entertainment in Nassau in the 1940s, with various sponsored groups competing for prizes. It attracted more tourists as it evolved, reaching its present popularity in the 1970s. Over the years, the costumes and the music became more elaborate, and competitions were held on Boxing Day and on New Year’s Day, with substantial prizes were offered to the winners by prominent business people, who also sponsored their favorite groups. A three-hour parade on Bay Street in the sixties has now become an all-night event, when Saxons, Valley boys, One Family and many more groups revel through the streets of Nassau until the wee hours of the morning.
On Abaco, Junkanoo suffered ups and downs due to lack of sponsorship funds, and consequent lack of interest and commitment. Organizers had to buy their own instruments and costume materials, so interest waned - except on Green Turtle Cay. As far back as people can remember, there has always been some form of Junkanoo celebration on New Year’s Day in New Plymouth. In the 1930s, according to Ivy Roberts, curator at the Albert Lowe Museum, the celebration was called “Old Skin,” getting rid of what was “Old” and turning to the “New.” This was soon replaced by “Bunce,” a tribute to the memory of Phineas Bunce, a trustee of former colonial Governor Woodes Roger.
“Bunce” was a pirate who had turned trickster, at least for this event. He wore a scary costume and mask as he was pushed through the streets in a wheelbarrow, covered with a sack or tarpaulin. Participants following along would go from door to door, or among the crowd, asking for money. When enough money was collected, Bunce would jump out of the wheelbarrow, scaring the children and dancing with the spectators. James Saunders, a resident of Green Turtle Cay and one of the organizers of the parade for 25 years, said: “I had my turn in the wheelbarrow once. The money collected was used to buy candies or toys for the children.” He and his wife recall one occasion when Bunce was carried in a coffin, on top of the wheelbarrow. “Everybody scattered when he jumped out!”
he remembers.
The costumes were simple then, and men often wore masks and dressed up as women. Karen McIntosh, a longtime Green Turtle Cay resident and Junkanoo afficionado, explains that when Bahamas Police Corporal Smith moved to Green Turtle Cay from Nassau in 1968, “he brought the parade to the next level,” she said, “introducing more elaborate costumes. When I moved to New Plymouth, in 1971, the whole town was making its own parade. The residents would follow a few people with drums and cow bells through the settlement. It was like a street party.”
Thirty-five years later, New Plymouth is still the place to be on New Year’s Day. Preparing for Junkanoo in Green Turtle Cay always involved the whole community. Second home owners planned their Christmas vacation around the event and helped the residents make the costumes, often bringing the material with them from the states.
Last year, I was fortunate enough to be part of the preparations that preceded the parade: dressing up and making up my 2 1/2 year-old granddaughter, Makayla, for what would be her very first Junkanoo. Her costume had been made by one of her relatives, Floyd Johnson, the leader of the “Green Turtle Cay Rockers,” who was also the costume-maker for most of the men in the group. Makayla wore a yellow skirt with sequins, a hat with turquoise feathers and shoes to match. A couple of hours before the parade, we all gathered at Karen McIntosh’s house.
There, the girls and the women taking part in the parade, including Karen and her daughter, put on their costumes. With her colored paints, Karen applied make-up to the marchers one at a time, transforming them into butterflies, whiskered beings, flowers and fairies, all of which conformed to the “Garden Party” theme. Eyes were lined with white, blue or pink paint. Mouths turned bright red, and more than an hour later, everyone packed into vehicles to meet the boys and men at Amy Roberts Primary School, where paraders and helpers were busy with the final touches. The drummers were heating their drums, drawing the skins tight, and the younger boys were being dressed by their fathers, whose huge, brightly-coloured costumes lay around, too heavy and cumbersome to be put on in advance. Cow bells were distributed and finally, by 3:30 pm, with the little ones leading the way, the parade marched down New Plymouth’s Parliament Street, already lined with expectant bystanders.
One of the drummers, 14-year-old D.J. McIntosh, has taken part in Junkanoo since he was a toddler. For the last three years, he has been in the Saturday Summer Parade at the Green Turtle Cay Club as well as in Junior Junkanoo in Marsh Harbour. “I like being part of Junkanoo,” he says. “I hope to be a group leader when I’m older.”
Junior Junkanoo is now in its third year on Abaco and involves every school that wishes to participate. Last year’s parade was nearly cancelled in the aftermath of two hurricanes. And even though the neophytes “rushed” on Don Mc Kay Boulevard as planned, the young participants could not offer their best performance. As an incentive to keep the children motivated, the Youth Coordinator for Abaco, Ishmael Morley, organized a Junkanoo workshop during the summer to teach the students how to make costumes. Young Tyler Davis and R.J. Fox posed proudly for me, wearing the skirts and hats they had just finished making.
Even though the government contributes funds for supplies such as glue, crepe paper, glitter and “seed money,” there is never enough material, as more and more children enroll. Teachers offer their time as volunteers to help them with costumes, and members of the senior groups are assigned to each school to help with cutting, pasting, music and dance. In 2005, the preparations started a couple of weeks after the beginning of the school year. Jeffrey Victor, a teacher at Central Abaco Primary School, started in mid-October. “With 110 children in my group,” he said, “I started pasting costumes then in order to be ready for the Christmas Parade.” His theme for this year’s Junkanoo was “Family life: weddings.”
At Abaco Central High, a substantial number of teachers, students and parents also started cutting and pasting early. Denise Gadsby, the music teacher and leader of that Junkanoo group, turned her classroom into a kind of “work shack.” There, with Colon Curry, the leader of the Spring City Rockers, they oversaw costume making and the music part of the parade . Their theme was “All things bright and beautiful,” and plenty of bright, huge flowers were scattered about the “shack.”
Chairman of the Junkanoo Committee, Anthony Davis, expressed hope that this year’s Junior Parade would be “as good or better than the first one,” and because of the efforts and enthusiasm of the people involved, his wish was granted.
By October the senior groups had also started their practice. There are five registered groups on Abaco: the Green Turtle Cay Rockers, the Spring City Rockers, the Dundas Town Supreme Dancers, the Fox Town L.A. Conquerors, and the Murphy Town Mo-Town Shockers. The “seed money” provided by the Ministry of Youth and Culture since 2000 and the creation of a Junkanoo Committee has helped revive old groups as well as create new ones with more structure. One is the Mo-Town Shockers, put together in 2004 by Gilbert Davis and Ricardo Brown. There are now about 30 participants in this group, but Davis said he hoped to recruit more before the end of the year. Practice started in the fall, and drums from Murphy Town could be heard quite a distance away on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.
Junkanoo Committee leader Anthony Davis, a former Valley Boy, would like to see more dedication and involvement from group members: “There is more to Junkanoo than last minute pasting,” he explained. “To achieve results there has to be commitment throughout the year. We should start by having an early conclave to speak about financing and ways to raise money, such as setting up Junkanoo practice with a fish fry in the various communities. Also we should set up an early date for inter-island Junkanoo competition, to awaken enthusiasm.”
With more funds, better costumes could be created and more musical instruments purchased. According to group leaders Floyd Johnson and Colon Curry, it takes anywhere from $ 8,000 to $11,000 to set up a parade, depending on the number of participants.
Davis also thinks Abaco groups have to prove themselves before demanding sponsorship. “The Nassau groups had to show what they could do before they got sponsors, but Abaco wants the fruits before the labor!” he asserts. He cites three local groups which have been very successful over the years because of their perseverance and dedication: The Green Turtle Cay Rockers, The Spring City Rockers and the Little Abaco group, The L.A. Conquerors.
Spring City Rockers leader Colon Curry is a true Junkanoo veteran. He started in Nassau as a teenager, performing with the well known Saxons. When he moved to Grand Bahama, he joined the Harbour Boys, and finally became the Spring City Rockers’ leader 15 years ago. Over the years, the group performed many times at the Great Abaco Beach Resort and The Treasure Cay Resort and Marina. “For years,” said Curry, “we used to be the only ones to perform on the main island, although we sometimes joined the Green Turtle Cay New Year’s Day Parade.” For the last three years, there has been more sponsorship, he explained. Pasting and practicing started at the end of last October, and as a practice rehearsal and a fund raiser, the group performed at the Christmas Bazaar. Their theme for 2005 encompassed “all aspects of having fun”, from cartoon watching to fishing and boating. His group now comprises approximately 100 people.
Curry shares Davis’ hopes for Junkanoo on Abaco: “Statistics show that it is the main tourist event in this country, and we should make sure it stays alive.”

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©  Jim Kerr, Abaco Life Magazine
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