Junkanoo — A Tru Tru Bahamian Experience

Junkanoo — A Tru Tru Bahamian Experience

Bahamians, both at home and abroad, light up when they hear the word Junkanoo, or hear the call of the cowbells and goatskin drums. It is considered by many to be the pinnacle of Bahamian culture. For those not familiar with the word, by definition, it is a street parade; but to truly grasp its realmeaning, you must experience it!

Junkanoo is held on the night of Christmas going into Boxing Day as well as New Year’s Eve into New Year’s Day. It is a little bit Carnival, Mardi Gras and Fallas all mixed into one event. 

In Nassau it takes place on Bay Street, circling around onto Shirley Street, in a loop. But the event also goes on in settlements throughout the Commonwealth.

Various groups spend the better part of the year, organizing, planning, deciding on their theme or message they wish to present and the go about creating their costumes and practicing, practicing, practicing.  The end result is a sight to behold. These are not performers who order their costumes from some online place, put them on and perform. No. These are literally works of art! Some are feats of engineering!  

And the competition to win Junkanoo is fierce. Prizes are awarded. The fans of the various groups are loyal and very proud. As the groups make their way down the street, you hear the chants, the cheers—Bahamians are not shy about proclaiming their favourite group. If you are in the crowd, and you don’t have a specific group, those around you will encourage you to pick up their chant and join them. It is fun and contagious.

The groups have names like “The Valley Boys”, “One Family”, “Saxons” and so forth. These are groups in the “A” category. There are also “B” groups (which are no less spectacular) and also “Scrapper” or now called “Fun” groups, which are really just that—fun! 

The colours, energy, rhythm and music is a riot to your senses. Many say they still hear the pulsating rhythm days afterward. The music is drums, brass and horns, cowbells, rake and scrape instruments and whistles.  The costumes are constructed from tissue paper, feathers, cardboard, paint, glitter and all sorts of trim. Dance moves are coordinated. Some giant costumes resemble floats. Some groups have actual floats. But they are still moved by hand. 

Junkanoo used to be celebrated in almost all island nations in the Caribbean region that have strong African ties. It seems to have originated in the 1800’s when those of African descent would make up costumes, mainly out of newspapers, and make a parade. It has grown from there, yet sadly, it has all but died away in most countries except the Bahamas. 

In Nassau, the event takes place at night, usually starting in the middle of the night, and going strong until late in the morning. This way, everyone avoids the worst of the heat. In some of the Family Islands, Junkanoo is less organized and generally those assembled to watch end up joining in and “rushing” along with the costumed performers.  

It also holds a place in the hearts of James Bond fans, as it was featured in one scene of “Thunderball”. Watching the Junkanoo parade in that movie you will notice a remarkable change in the elaborateness of the costumes now, compared to then. Those in the movie are more “traditional” with the layers of fringed tissue and paper—no feathers and mirrors. But the themes and the spirit remains the same!

If you are in the Bahamas around the holidays, try and experience Junkanoo. You will not be disappointed. For our guests, visitors and locals alike, at the Nassau Yacht Haven, we have a small display of costumes, photos and accessories to give you a taste of what it is all about!

Nassau Yacht Haven