One of the most celebrated art forms in the Bahamas is that of junkanoo. Junkanoo has evolved to include art, dance, and music. In the area of art, many contributions have been made by artists like Antonius Roberts, John Beadle, Eddie Minnis, Jackson Burnside, John Cox, and the late Brent Malone just to name a few. These artists over the years have developed their own way of capture the celebration of junkanoo.
On Boxing Day (26 December) and New Years Day in the wee hours of the morning, thousands of Bahamians make their way to Bay Street in the heart of downtown Nassau.
Following the traditions of male secret societies of West African Poro and Egungun dancers, junkanoo is a procession that incorporates music and dance. Much like the ancestors, junkanoo festivals are celebratory in nature and at times may satirize politicians, social issues, or any other subject matter of concern to the junkanoo dancers. The use of a drum ensemble would also carry out the tradition as laid down by the ancestors.
This art form was and still is widely male dominated and in fact did not include females until Maureen DuV-alier took to Bay Street with her dance troupe shortly after the suspension of The Street Nuisance Prohibition Act which lasted from 1899 to 1954. The original music of junkanoo in the Bahamas was played with goombay goatskin drums, cowbells, conch shell horns [later replaced by bicycle horns], and whistles (Chipman, 2004). Although the music of junkanoo is reflective of a strong drumming tradition, the influence of other European instruments continues to be introduced into the music.
The earliest of such instruments was the bugle; in fact, the bugle is regarded as an original instrument used in Bahamian junkanoo music. Similar to goombay in its rhythmical variety, the music of junkanoo has been passed down by a system of training gained only by taking part in one of the many groups that participate in the parade festivals. Today, junkanoo music has been adapted to stage instruments and can be heard in the music of most contemporary Bahamian recording artists. This adaptation was strongly influenced by Tyrone Fitzgerald [a.k.a. Dr. Offfff] who entered the stage along with his group fully masked in performances.
In his recordings of junkanoo music, Dr. Offfff, for the first time, complemented the rhythm section with a complete junkanoo band along with singing of original song lyrics. Not until 1997 would there be any recording of junkanoo music by a major junkanoo group. These recordings done in 1997, 1998, and 2001 were produced by Christian Justilien and featured arrangements by both him and his brother Yonell Justilien. Influenced by Dr. Offfff, Christian set the latest of the three recordings to original song lyrics.
In an earlier recording entitled 'Religious Songs And Drums Of The Bahamas' (Folkways 1953), it is quite evident that junkanoo drumming has gone through a series of evolutions over the years. This is due in part to a failure to pass on the rich oral drumming tradition. The death of great drummers has therefore been equivalent in The Bahamas to the loss of libraries during wartime in Europe. On a positive note, however, the availability of technological resources provides an opportunity for The Bahamas to preserve its unwritten traditions.
Among the many drummers that are actively trying to keep this drumming tradition alive is John 'Chippie' Chipman of Chippie & The Boys, and Howard Bethel, drum coordinator for the National Dance School of The Bahamas and drum section leader of the Colours junkanoo organization, and Quintin 'Barabas' Woodside, leader of the Tribes junkanoo group. Unless concerted efforts are made to train and improve junkanoo musicianship, we run the risk of losing volumes of information that can positively impact not only the music of junkanoo, but also the socialization of the thousands of young men and women that participate in this most colorful music festival.
Click play to hear junkanoo music produced by
Christian Justilien -
"Gone Ta Bay" (Roots 2001)