One of the most infuriating and insidious ideas that I have heard bandied about in the wake of this weekend’s mega-party aka Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival is the idea that carnival is the natural evolution of Junkanoo. It’s the kind of statement that reveals the depth of the ignorance about ourselves that we as a society have cultivated; and the general (could it be stunned?) silence on the part of the Junkanoo community suggests to me that even the junkanoos themselves don’t know the difference. People are happily burbling on about carnival being Junkanoo’s next incarnation, about us “all being Africans, right?”, about how carnival is the next stage in the development of Bahamian culture.
They couldn’t be more wrong.
First, a little history. We all know the story of Columbus. But we may not all still be so aware of consequences of the engine he set in motion: the expansion of Europe into all of the spaces of the world, the depopulation of the islands of the Caribbean, the repopulation of them with a motley crew of Europeans in the first instance, Africans in the second, and after the enslavement of those Africans, East Indians and people of Chinese descent. The age of European empires changed the population and the cultures of our region in ways we need to understand if we want to talk about Junkanoo and Carnival in the same breath.
Just about one hundred and fifty years after Columbus came to the Bahamas, the islands were settled by a different set of Europeans. These people called themselves the Eleutherian Adventurers; they were republican, Protestant and British. There are few other Caribbean islands which have this distinction. Most of the other islands now part of the formerly British West Indies have a Catholic influence in their histories, as many English-speaking Caribbean countries (including Trinidad) changed hands from the French and/or the Spanish to the British. This part of our imperial history is critical to understanding where the differences between Junkanoo and Carnival lie.
We live in a postcolonial world, and so we may no longer be aware of the critical impressions made on our territories by the European powers of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries; but those impressions, established over four hundred years, resonate today and cannot be overlooked. There were three major imperial powers that held control over the Caribbean region, and their influence continues even today in the languages we speak, the social structures we inherit, and—importantly—in the cultural practices we celebrate. The major ones were Spain, France, and Great Britain. Spain and France both held indigenous celebrations that they identified as carnivals. These celebrations had pagan roots, and they were linked with the spring and with Easter or Lent, and they were all practised in a similar way: they celebrated fertility, sexuality and the disruption of the regular social order by dancing in the streets for several days at a time, by putting on masks and costumes, and by turning society upside down. These were European celebrations, and the French and Spanish settlers took them with them to their Caribbean colonies.
For those who are interested, this is where the Catholic carnivals got their names. Most of these festivals are linked with the weekend directly preceding Lent (the forty days of fasting that leads up to Easter). The Catholic method of preparing for Lent, during which meat was not eaten, sex was shunned, and parties were cancelled in preparation for the death and resurrection of Christ, was to indulge in all of those sins and vices they would not be having for the next six weeks. This in itself traces back to earlier Roman and Greek spring festivals, and it is from these that the Trini term “bacchanal” comes; it refers to the Roman name for their god of parties and wine, Bacchus. The word “carnival” also comes from the Latin carne (meat) and vale (farewell); and the other name given to this time, Mardi Gras, is the French for “Fat Tuesday”, indicating that on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the tradition was to indulge in as many sweet things as one could.
The British, on the other hand, having broken with the Catholic Church some time before they began to assemble their overseas empire, had done away with this habit. By the time they became an imperial power, the British were focussing their attention on Christmas as the main holiday in their Christian calendar. Easter was celebrated, and Lent observed, but the revelry associated with the pre-Lenten season was not a central part of the British customs by the time they moved into the Caribbean. The settlers’ great feast took place at Christmas.
As the European empires grew—as they began to build them, let us be frank, on the backs of the forced labour of millions of kidnapped and enslaved Africans—these differences became entrenched. What was more, they were passed onto the people they enslaved. The Africans, too, had festivals and rituals that did similar things with costumes and role reversals that the Europeans did. They were able to recognize an opportunity to celebrate them in the Carnivals of the Catholic New World. Because the Africans came from many different places and because they were stripped of their languages and most of their cultural heritage by the systematic cruelties of the new slave societies, it is not as easy for us to identify what those rituals were as it is for us to name the practices of the Europeans. Still; even the enslaved Africans were given one or two days off a year. But with a difference.
In the Catholic empire, the masters celebrated their carnivals as they had done in their homes in Europe. The Africans were given the same holidays as the masters took, and because the carnival traditions, especially those in France and Spain, involved servants playing masters and masters playing servants, those Africans may have even been encouraged to take part in the carnivals. Carnival as we know it today grew out of these cross-participations, out of this joining together of the Africans and the Europeans for these few days. Throughout the period of slavery, Carnival was celebrated by both groups, often together. In the Americas, the carnivals that grew and flourished—those that took place in New Orleans, in Rio de Janeiro, and in Port of Spain, Trinidad—were influenced in music, dance and costuming by the Africans, but cannot be called African in origin. Rather, they became what anthropologists and folklorists refer to as syncretistic celebrations. Syncretism is the word we give to an activity that combines African and European elements, often in such a way that the African is hidden, but still influential. Carnival/carnaval/Mardi Gras are syncretic festivals.
In the British empire, however, things were different. The enslaved people were given three days’ holiday at Christmas. Rather than joining the masters in a big fete (the word is French, and it means festival or party), the enslaved celebrated in their own, African-based way. For whatever reason (we do not know the origin of the word, but the myth of the slave who started the festival is almost certainly a fabrication) these celebrations, which appeared across the British Americas, were called jankunu—or, to use the British spelling which was used until the end of the twentieth century, John Canoe. They were also called masqueraders and gombeys. They came out at Christmas; they had very particular characters and dances; and they were performed almost exclusively to percussive instruments—drums, bells, and scrapers. Whistles and shells added different levels to the rhythms, but the masquerades are almost always percussive.
The jankunu festivals of the New World, then, are not syncretic festivals, as was Carnival. They are African in character; they are linked with Christmas, not with Lent, and they are products of the British presence in the Caribbean. They also tend to be far more serious, even frightening, events than Carnival tends to be. There are definite similarities between the jankunu festivals and the carnivals: the masks, the costumes and the dancing are among them, and are all linked to a strong African aesthetic. But there the similarity stops. In almost every case, Carnival took place in conjunction with the European masters, and jankunu took place in isolation from them.
The one exception during slavery was Jamaica, the richest sugar colony, where the Europeans splurged at Christmas and mounted a series of events as part of their jonkonnu festivals that suggested that the Jamaican planters were familiar with the Mardi Gras balls of New Orleans. It is partly because of Jamaica’s centrality as a sugar island that jonkonnu was first described there; but the fact that it was first recorded in writing in Jamaica should not be assumed to mean that what we called Junkanoo began there and travelled to the rest of the Caribbean. It makes more sense to see Junkanoo as a simultaneous resurrection of West African kono (harvest) festivals across the Americas, and this would help to explain the occurrence throughout the jankunu new world of figures of animals, cowbells, and the like, while in Carnival many of the carnival characters have connections with European figures.
What is also important to recognize is that in almost every territory where jankunu was celebrated—except The Bahamas and Belize—jankunu has all but disappeared. The John Kuners of the Carolinas are gone altogether. The Gombeys of Bermuda are struggling to survive. In Jamaica, the jonkonnu figures appear at Christmas but they do not attract a whole lot of attention. In the southern Caribbean, the Christmas masqueraders appear, but they do not get the same focus or merit the same admiration as the carnivals that take place in those same territories. Only in Belize, where what we call jankunu is practised as a central part of being Garifuna (indigenous Belizean), is it flourishing. And in The Bahamas, of course, where its evolution into a major street festival that can rival and even out-perform Carnival has yet to be wholly explained.
And so: our Junkanoo may not be indigenous, but it is certainly unique. It alone of all the jankunu festivals has not only survived, but grown, and moreover has become a fundamental marker of Bahamian identity. For some scholars, like Ken Bilby who gave what we used to call John Canoe the name that I’ve been using throughout, what we have done to Junkanoo is to move it from its core roots in African spiritual ancestral connections by engaging in a conscious hybridization of our own. But the fact remains that our Junkanoo is the one of all the John Canoes in the Americas to have grown stronger and to flourish.
Until now, perhaps.
So where do we get the idea that there is no difference between Junkanoo and Carnival, that Carnival is an “evolution” of Junkanoo? The late twentieth century, which is the period of independence, has been a time in which Junkanoo artists and practitioners sought eagerly to make connections with others who were doing similar things throughout the Americas. Because of the African contributions to all these festivals, the visual aspects of Mardi Gras, Trinidad Carnival and Junkanoo have many connections, and during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Junkanoo leaders and participants travelled throughout the Catholic world learning and borrowing and adopting and fuelling innovation in our Junkanoo parade. But until now, we never mixed up the two festivals. Until now we understood that we could borrow aesthetic and structural elements, we could learn from one another, but we did not have to think that one was the junior of the other.
Until now, we have understood what Vola Francis himself has always observed, that Junkanoo is a spirit. There is more truth in that statement than perhaps even he understood; for the John Canoe festivals are almost certainly derived from the African practices of connecting with the ancestors. This is why our festival is linked with the nighttime, and why severing that link must be considered with caution. Rather than coming from the European habit of saying goodbye to the flesh, our tradition comes from the African practice of honouring the ancestors. And so there is still something transformative and spiritual in the Junkanoo that we practice. (People will argue with me that there is something transformative about Carnival too, and they will be right, but bear with me here.) As Gus Cooper was always fond of saying, there were two fundamental and critical elements that separated Carnival and Junkanoo. The first was that Junkanoo participants make their own costumes. They do not buy them. The process of making them is a critical one, and one that is linked deeply and ancestrally with this invocation of a spirit. It is an African spirit, and it is something that has nourished us from our beginnings. It cannot be replaced by the purchasing of a feathered costume, a commodity. That is play-acting; what our Junkanoo still does is akin to worship.
And the second one is that Junkanoo performers play their own music, live, on their feet, and dance while they do so. They do not have canned music played for them; they make their own music. This custom, that of making one’s own costume and playing one’s own music, is fundamental to the Junkanoo world; it is part, too, of what links Junkanoo to its African, rather than its European, roots. And Junkanoo music is a serious thing. Traditional Junkanoo instruments (which do NOT include horns, sorry) have always been both musical instruments and weapons of war. Before there was a competition there were physical confrontations on the street. That these confrontations were ritualized, often musicalized, is immaterial. Carnival today privileges its elements of play. Junkanoo still, as always, privileges the rhetoric of war.
Now we may not like these differences. We may want to ignore them, or to downplay them, or to wish them away. Nevertheless, they are there. Junkanoo and Carnival are not the same thing. One is not an evolution of the other. They come from different roots, although they look similar on the surface, and they convey different meanings. Our society may well have room for both of them. But let us have no more discussions that try to pretend that they are one and the same. They are, most emphatically, not.