Colourful festival harkens back to old traditions

the bahamas ministry of tourism


Above, a Junkanoo participant is outfitted in the traditional medley of bright colours.

As the waves lap lazily against the white sands of Nassau, the city streets of the Bahamas’ capital are currently abuzz with historical insights and musical rhythms during the Junkanoo Summer Festival. Thumping drums, piercing whistles, and clanging cowbells bring the city to life every Saturday evening from now until the end of July as groups of Bahamians “rush” or parade the city streets, dancing to the beats of traditional music as the crowds can’t help wanting to join in. But it’s the costumes made of cardboard and crepe paper, carefully crafted into big bursts of colourful head and shoulder pieces that truly steal the show.

Historically, this large boisterous parade known as a Junkanoo Rush-Out is celebrated on Boxing Day and again on New Year’s Day and dates back to the time of slavery in the Bahamas. “(The slaves) would have those days off and their festivity was to dance in the way that they did from their heritage, from Africa, using drums and cowbells,” says Janet Johnson, director of product development and events strategy with the Ministry of Tourism.

The name Junkanoo is said to be derived from a celebrated African slave named John Connu. Another theory is the name comes from the fact the slaves would take junk (cardboard and paper) and turn it into something new (a costume).

“Earlier costumes were made from sponges, seaweed, or whatever else (the slaves) could find,” says Alecca Ramsey of the Educulture Junkanoo museum.

Although the Boxing Day and New Year’s Junkanoos are larger and more popular, the summer edition is meant to bring out the festive spirit of the nation. “We want to make it so when you hear the name Junkanoo, you immediately think of the Bahamas,” Johnson says.

This is, in part, why the Ministry of Tourism has taken the summer festival from a one-day event into a two-month extravaganza.

the bahamas ministry of tourism

Above left, musicians parade during Junkanoo. Above right, the colourful festival place in downtown Nassau.

Every Saturday, as the bright costumes and bold music culminate just west of downtown Nassau at Arawak Cay after rushing the city streets, the area turns into a flurry of activity with arts and crafts kiosks, native food exhibits, and demonstrations by experienced rock-oven bakers. The one caveat is remembering to bring a rain jacket in case the rainy season tries to dampen the festivities.

But before sampling the local delicacies at Arawak Cay, Johnson recommends eyeing some of the local artists on the newly-added Festival Arts tour, which takes participants through the National Art Gallery, showing them how Bahamian art has evolved, and then into the homes and galleries of select local artists who are willing explain the works of their craft.

“We want to be able to share the richness of our culture with the tourists that come here,” says Johnson about the festival.

Sundays bring festival participants back to the National Art Gallery for the Royal Poinciana Tea Party, featuring a Bahamian fashion show, literary readings, book signings, and a sampling of herbal and local bush teas. Even better than the tea is the fact the proceeds from the party go toward local charities in the Bahamas.

Historical sites along Bay Street include the Senate, left, and the British Colonial Hilton.

While Sundays are the time to relax with a cup of tea in the Bahamas, weekdays are the time to explore. From Tuesday to Friday, the main road in Nassau, Bay Street, is transformed into a virtual history lesson for A Walk Through History. The street, well-known for its shopping and dining treasures, is divided into six important periods of Bahamian history, taking pedestrians from the age of discovery with explorer Christopher Columbus and the Lucayan tribe, who inhabited the island when Columbus landed there in 1492, straight through to the World Wars, and the start of the Bahamas tourist industry. Such important figures from the Bahamas’ past — the country’s first governor, Woodes Rogers, and pirate Calico Jack — are resurrected as period actors, bringing these characters to life. The stores along this main drag are also drawn into the action with in-store exhibits of the Bahamas’ past, proving shopping can, at times, be educational.

So while some tourists may stay stick to their beach chair, the savvy ones will instead take in the rich culture of this Caribbean country.

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