top of page
BE MOTB Banner.png


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.


Goombay is music and dance associated with the goombay drums. The goombay drum is a goatskin drum held between the legs and played with the hands. The music of goombay is similar to that of the calypso from Trinidad, where song lyricists tell stories of the everyday and extraordinary events in the local community, and the music is simple in its chord progression. These songs are rich in historical content. For instance, Blind Blake, one of our premier goombay singers, sang about King Edward leaving his throne for “love, love alone”.

The Bahamas at the time being a British colony would have been greatly influenced by what went on in England. It is said that King Edward did in fact visit The Bahamas and on one occasion requested Blind Blake to perform "love, love alone." Although this made Blake uncomfortable, it is said that King Edward was quite pleased with Blake's song.

Two other artists that stand out among the many Bahamian greats are George Symonette and Charlie Adamson. Their style of goombay composition has faded away and given way to a more popular and modern style that can be found in the music of artists like KB, Geno D, Dry Bread, Phil Stubbs, Ira Storr, Sweet Emily, and quite a few of our younger artists. On that same note, goombay drummers such as John 'Chippie' Chipman continue to keep the tradition of goombay drumming alive in The Bahamas.

Highly rhythmical, the patterns in goombay drumming are similar in complexity to jazz improvisation. The 'licks' as they are called in jazz literature, are of an oral tradition, passed on from generation to generation. With as many sounds as the spoken word, the task of notating these complex rhythms is quite arduous. With just one drum, the goombay drummer is able to play many different timbres and incorporate a wide range of dynamics, thus making it almost impossible to notate with the current European notation symbols.

Under the UBP [United Bahamian Party] government, a Development Board was founded in 1937, which paved the way for the expansion of the tourism industry. With this expansion, the industry instead of catering to visitors for only three months out of the year, welcomed tourists to our shores year round. Sir Stafford Sands, chairman, lawyer and financier, provided a platform for musicians to travel the world to invite these guests to the Bahamas. The sound of goombay music was the vehicle used as a major attraction.  It was then that goombay music gained popularity both in and outside of the Bahamas.

Most worthy of mention also are composers Alice Simms, Freddie Lewis (brother of Eloise Lewis), and Charles Lofthouse, who were all major contributors to goombay music. Many of the songs recorded by Blind BlakeGeorge Symonette, and other musicians were in fact composed by one of these three.

In listening to the various styles of Bahamian music, the music of goombay lends itself to a wider variety of rhythmic nuances, tempos, and meter variations. The goombay artist of the past incorporated the goombay beat in ballads, waltzes, calypsos, and big band jazz, among other styles. Although the goombay style of playing music has lost its popularity in the Bahamas, this is believed by many – the author included—to be the true dance music of the Bahamas.


The Goombay DrumPercentie Brother
00:00 / 01:39


It is unclear as to the origin of the term Rake 'n' Scrape. Some claim that it was popular radio personality and veteran media executive Charles Carter that gave this style of playing its name upon his visit to Cat Island. Mr. Carter, however, contends that the name existed long before his visit to Cat Island in the early seventies. One thing that we know for sure is that his radio broadcast of the music throughout the Bahamas brought much needed attention to the music known as rake 'n' scrape. 

Musicians beating on the goombay drum and scraping a carpenters saw and playing melodious tunes on the concertina were not only recorded as having roots in Cat Island, but in other Family Islands [islands other than the city of Nassau] as well. According to Franklyn 'Count Bernadino' Ellis, a top Bahamian entertainer, he witnessed this style of music being performed on the island of Abaco as a child (Ellis 2004) where they called it simply "African music". Rake 'n' scrape music is reported to have its roots in Cat Island, but evidence shows that that music was being developed in various islands simultaneously.

Today, Rake 'n' Scrape music is almost identical to 'rip saw' music of the Turks and Caicos Islands (a territory off the southernmost island of The Bahamas), which chose to remain under British rule when the Bahamas sought independence in 1973. During the 20's, 30's, and 40's, there was an intermingling of the two cultures, i.e. the Bahamas and the Turks & Caicos cultures, which shared their traditions of music, story telling, ring games, and other cultural art forms. Among the shared cultural traits is the music of rake 'n' scrape. It is a futile exercise to debate as to the true origin of this music, but it is safe to say that many of the islands of the Caribbean because of movement of contract workers in the early days, shared and enriched each other’s cultures. 

The music is more popular in the Family Islands. This may be due in part to the lack of more expensive instruments but is also attributed to a desire to preserve traditions begun in yesteryear. 

Traditionally, rake 'n' scrape music is used to accompany the Bahamian Quadrille and the Heel and Toe Polka dances. Slaves all over the Western Hemisphere were able to create instruments with whatever was available to them. With these instruments they would mimic sounds that they were accustomed in their homeland. The saw, for instance creates sounds that can be compared to like instruments such as the Nigerian wood block guiro and the cabasa without the nuances in pitch. Not only does it produce the scraping sound that can be done on many other percussion instruments in Latin American, African, Indian, and Caribbean cultures, to name a few, the wobbly sound created by the bending, hitting, and scraping of the saw introduces unexplainable harmonic textures. 

The use of scraping sticks was quite common in West African music. This adaptation found its way in American Negro folk music with the use of the washboard.

Keeping the music alive in the Bahamas are musicians like Chippie & The Boys, Ed Moxey, and countless Rake 'n' Scrape bands throughout the Family Islands of the Bahamas.

In 1994, the Bahamas was hosted in the Festival of American Folklife in Washington D.C.

This celebration of the diverse cultures of the world brought a large contingent of Bahamian musicians, storytellers, and other culturalists to the National Mall in Washington. That trip led to a subsequent recording done in Nassau in 1995. Kayla Edwards and Fred Ferguson were both instrumental in making this project a success.

The excerpt below is one of the artists featured in this recording. Thomas Cartwright & The Boys plays "Jimmy Bend A Tree While It's Young."

Note that the saw, a very important element in rake 'n' scrape music keeps the rhythm together as it wobbles up and down in pitch.


Rake and ScrapeFrank Penn
00:00 / 02:31
Rake n Scrape


Roman Catholics and Protestants made up a large number of the early settlers.  With them, they brought the music of their particular churches. Hymnals, which were quite popular by the time of discovery, were widely used for congregational singing. Today, the most common religious groups in The Bahamas are Protestants, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics along with other smaller denominations.

The religious services of the Roman Catholic and Anglican (also known as Episcopalian) church follow a more formal format even today. Alternatively, the religious services of the Baptists, Church of God, and other Protestants made use of hymnals to sing anthems. The use of these hymnals gained popularity in the early part of the 1900's. 

Musical instruments were also used to accompany the lively singing that went on in the religious services. In the absence of musical instruments, foot stomping and hand clapping were utilized to add rhythm and feeling to the music. In the 1950's recording entitled 'Religious Songs And Drums Of The Bahamas', the Church of God congregation in Nassau can be heard clapping and singing in a style that is still prevalent even today. 

Edmund Moxey, a notable musician in his own right and one who is featured in this work, recalls witnessing this same style of hand clapping in Coopers Town, Abaco in the early 50's. The hand clapping rhythms in this example is quite intricate, demonstrating the mastery of the ability to keep steady time on the up beat in a sixteenth note pattern.


Hand ClappingChurch of God
00:00 / 00:38


During what was known as a period of ‘seasoning’, newly arrived Africans were placed with slave families who taught them the proper way to behave and interact on the plantations that were scattered all over these islands. Those slaves already familiar with the ways of their masters used this opportunity to learn about the various tribes and their traditions. This process enhanced their own knowledge about Africa. 

The slave masters soon banned the drumming traditions that “made the voyage”, as they felt threatened by the large gatherings that resulted when such traditions were displayed. However, this ban did not suppress these drumming practices. African instruments such as shakers, marimbas, and various types of drums remain unchanged over the many years of their existence. Although we have no evidence that such instruments were brought to The Bahamas by slaves, we do see replicas that serve the same function as the original instruments from Africa. 

One tradition that survived and can be traced back as early as the eighteenth century in Jamaica is John Canoe [also referred to as Junkanoo, John Cani, or Jonkannu]. This masked dance would have been an integral part of African ceremonies and processions. (Claypole, Robottom 2001). This practice is said to have been a part of ceremonies conducted by powerful male secret societies of West African Poro and Egungun dancers. We can find traces of these ceremonies even today in places such as Jamaica, Belize, and certain parts of the United States.

In addition, slaves that came from the Southern United States would have been influenced by music of the slave masters in that region. Negro Spirituals and blues music found its way into the work songs sung by slaves on plantations throughout the Bahamas. Remnants of these songs can be heard in sound recordings entitled "Mary Come Join Our Religion" (Lomax 1935).


"AMONG OTHER THINGS, historians search for origins. But if we take history to mean stories about the past that can be supported by fact, the origins of music will always be elusive" (Crawford 2001). The music and dance of Indians that were indigenous to these islands will always be one of speculation. Music, much like dance, is older than the practice of notation that has been adopted by Western civilization, or the techniques of audio and video recording that are now carried out routinely. It is therefore impossible to truly know the characteristics of the music made by the native Indians that lived in these islands.

However, areito is one of the traditional and ritualistic dances accompanied by song that is said to have been practiced by the Indians that settled these Bahama Islands. This same practice is said to have been found in Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, and Santo Domingo, perhaps indicating that the Indians were quite a social people, trading within the region with other tribes such as the Caribs and Siboneyes. 

The song and dance of the areito seems similar to that of the ring dance that is still done by children here in the Bahamas. "The religious ceremonies that took place at gatherings and festivals were accompanied by music and dance. In the arieto people would sing and dance, in a circle with their arms intertwined, to the sound of a drum. One member, either a man or a woman, guided the group" (Sanjuro, 1986). Similarly to the ring dance, the singing would be in choral fashion and be accompanied by the drum as found in early practice of ring and fire dance in the Bahamas.

The music and dance of these natives were passed on to subsequent generations through these ritualistic practices. Therefore, the survival of the music in its truest form could have only lived through the life of the people themselves. Herein lies the dilemma. 

In 1492 when Christopher Columbus arrived in The Bahamas, the peaceful natives that readily accepted him were brutally extinguished from an estimated 300,000 in 1492 to about 500 in 1550 (Claypole, Robottom 2001). These deaths were not only attributed by the wars that ensued for control of these Islands by the Spaniards, but in large part to smallpox and other diseases that they brought with them. 

These events therefore leave us only to speculate as to the nuances that might have been a part of the musical and ritualistic practices of these particular natives. In addition, the study and preservation of Indian music by Western scholars have only uncovered rare and anecdotal evidence. Therefore, we can only conclude that there must have been some close resemblance in the music of the natives to those few tribes that survived in other parts of the Americas. 

Below is a copy of an areito that survived over the years and is secured in the National Archives of Cuba. Its origin is unclear, but the use of our musical system gives us a glimpse of the past.

Music of the Church
Music of the Slaves
Indigenous Music
bottom of page