By Richard Kent
Every country in the world has its own particular way of celebrating the New Year, but nowhere in there anything stranger and more stirring than the Junkanoos - the masked, costumed natives who in the Bahama Islands greet each New Year with a frantic mixture of barbaric dancing, music and uninhibited "self-expression."
Traditionally this wild explosion of animal spirits was a Christmas festival, and from three o'clock in the morning until daylight the streets of Nassau, that pleasant sub-tropical town which the capital of the Bahamas, shook with the frenzied stamp of feet as thousands of natives whirled, ran, and jumped in the darkness, their weird antics only partly visible in the pale, smoky glare or the old-fashioned oil-lamps lining the pavements. But the celebration was transferred to New Year's Day when the Church authorities on the island protested that the Junkanoos not only disturbed their Christmas services but also provided a distinctly pagan counter-attraction to which many islanders were all too susceptible.
To see the Junkanoos in action is a "must" for every visitor to the Bahamas, for the festival is one of the most fantastic survivals of heathen ceremonial in the world, with its roots sunk deep in Africa. African rhythms and tribal customs were brought to the islands by the Negro slaves imported two centuries ago to work the pineapple and cotton plantations, and although the Junkanoos of today are a hundred odd years from slavery, and several generation of their ancestors were born in the Bahamas, the New Year Festivities in Nassau still have a close affinity with the tribal dances of Africa. There are the same stamping, stalking, hip-shaking movements, the same intricately woven dance patterns, the same motif of sound monotonously repeated but never failing to stimulate the most phlegmatic spectator with a curiously fundamental stirring of the emotions. And the smart thing in Nassau it to go to a New Year's Eve dinner and ball at one of the island's many luxury hotels and then go down to Bay Street, the principal thoroughfare, to watch the masqueraders.
The celebration reaches its climax around four in the morning, when Bay Street has become a seething river of colour and noise, the wheeling, shouting crowds weaving their complicated dance, bending double until their faces reach their knees, flailing the air with hooked arms and turning and whirling with feverish agility and speed.
From each outlying native village the Junkanoos stream into the town until the heaving mass of masqueraders are seen writhing like serpents in a snake-pit in the lime-green light of the street lamps shining through the almond trees on the pavements. Some arrive singly, others in groups of three or four, still others in loosely organised bands of twenty or thirty. And as the street fills, the Junkanoos begin the swift, twitching movement which is half dance, half rapid, nervous walk. Up and down the street they surge with frenetic energy, turn, and roar back again. Then, without any noticeable organisation, the mob splits into two groups, which, standing a hundred yards apart, lurch towards each other in a series of intricate marches and counter-marches until they finally mingle in wild confusion.
This is repeated until the pace slackens through sheer exhaustion and the Junkanoos stand limply motionless, the stillness broken only by an occasional flurry of drum-beats or the pathetic murmur of a single cow-bell. Then they start all over again, and the entire performance is repeated until the eerie light of the sub-tropical dawn suddenly seeps along the street, and the Junkanoos begin drifting back to the villages.
It is a spine-chilling experience to stand on the pavement in Bay Street and watch the Junkanoos at the height of their frenzy. The costumes alone are worth going a long way to see, for in addition to such figures as harlequins, clowns, soldiers, sailors, and knights in shining armour, there are dogs, cats, bulls, goats, gruesomely realistic skeletons and monstrously ill-shaped horned figures obviously inspired by some tribal memory of Africa.
The Devil is always represented by at least one sprightly sinister figure in red or black, his long, forked tail draped casually over one arm. By comparison, what has come to be regarded as the conventional costume of the Junkanoo is almost humdrum. This is a billowing one-piece outfit of brightly patterned cotton, shaped like a boiler suit and topped off by a tall dunces's cap, which is completely covered with long, narrow strips of coloured tissue paper which flutter like ostrich feathers at the slightest movement.
Every Junkanoo carries a tin horn a yard long, painted blue or green or gold, a home-made goatskin drum, or a cow-bell, while another traditional noise-maker is an empty jam tin contained a handful of pebbles, which adds its own distinctive note to the primitive symphony.
Grotesque masks of papier maché, or of painted wire mesh - which are cooler, facilitate breathing, and are somehow more sinister than ordinary masks - are an essential part of every Junkanoo's equipment, for anonymity is, of course, indispensable. And fireworks are also an important ingredient of the festivities, and the pop and sizzle of rockets, the sudden flare of roman candles, and the splutter and bang of giant fire-crackers add a piquant flavour to the proceedings, impregnating the air with the tart, surprisingly attractive odour of gunpowder.
The native police force, officered by Englishmen, always turns out in strength to be ready for things getting out of hand, the chief danger being an occasional sudden fight in which razors, broken whisky bottles, and the raw, sharp edge of a conch shell are favourite weapons. I have seen a razor flash in the darkness as a Junkanoo's arm swept upward in a cruel arc and curved swiftly down to bury itself in another Junkanoo's back. And one year a masquerader, inflamed by the cheap, red rum he had used to fortify himself before and during the festival, bit off another Junkanoo's ear.
The business of controlling this jamboree is also complicated by the fact that each year there is at least one Junkanoo wearing an accurate copy of the police commandant's uniform, complete with cork helmet, white gloves, and sword, so that in the half light no one can be certain who are genuine police officers and who are masqueraders.
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