Junkanoo. This word must be said in a hushed Holy Grail kind of way. It defines the culture of The Bahamas and commands the attention and attendance of most Bahamians.
The origin of the word Junkanoo is obscure. Some say it comes from the French “L’inconnu” (meaning ‘the unknown’), in reference to the masks worn by the paraders. Others say it’s from “John Canoe,” the name of an African tribal chief who demanded the right to celebrate with his people after being brought to the West Indies in slavery – it was about time he and the other chaps got to party properly.
It is believed that this festival began during the 16th and 17th centuries. The slaves were given a special holiday at Christmas time, when they could leave the plantations to be with their families and celebrate the holidays with African dance, music and costumes.
On Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, my boys go out and ‘rush’ with the Zulus. They are Zulus because we happen to live close to Zulu headquarters, The Shack. The Shack is where bands of Zulus expend astonishing amounts of artistic energy from about the middle of the year to the last moments on Christmas day. And where astonishing amounts of good old Kalik beer is drunk. Our Bahamian national treasure, Kalik Beer, derives its name from the noise of the cow bell, K-k-kalik, k-k-kalik, k-k-kaliking.
Of course, up on the hill are the Warriors, who compete against the Zulus, also designing and constructing costumes and huge mobile sculptures, made from cardboard boxes all covered in finely fringed, brightly colored crepe paper. I am a Warrior, because Linda, my Sugar Mill partner, is a Warrior and because Linda’s husband Captain Bob, alongside Chippy, leads the Warriors. This means our household is divided, but in that division we support Junkanoo more completely.
Captain Bob, Chippy and I stood in the Warrior Shack in 200 degree heat last week to introduce my mini Junkanoo capsule collection, which I hope brings to life the beat of the cowbell, the rumble of the drums, and that incredible, wild spectacle of color.