A review of the Junkanoo Christmas parade in Nassau, Bahamas

Junk the Winter Blues at the Christmas Junkanoo

It’s Christmas time in downtown Nassau in the Bahamas. Des learns to relax, to love letting go, to go with the flow, and to roll with the rhythms of the mighty Junkanoo. 

The corps de ballet like you’ve never seen it. A troupe of dancers charms and electrifies Bay Street, Nassau.

“Dey comin’! Da varleys! Da varleys number one! Dey comin’!” shrieks the woman standing beside me (translation: “The Valley Boys are coming, and they’re the best, and they’re going to win tonight, and they’re going to whup all you Saxons and Roots and other riff-raff no-hopers”). The crowd is up and standing on the metal benches of the bleachers that have been erected along Bay Street, downtown Nassau, in the Bahamas. It’s a holy street to many of the locals, as it’s the epicentre of Junkanoo, a competitive parade of candy-coloured carnival costumes, dancing, and earth-shaking music.  It’s now the night of Christmas Day, it’s way past midnight, and the Junkanoo is in full swing.      

We’ve stood up on the benches because we’ve heard the boom of drums and horns, dulled and blurred by distance, that tells us that the next group of players (in this case, the Valley Boys) has struck up at the end of the street, and has begun its slow, jinking, jiving, dancing, shuffling march towards us. This is known, to Junkanoo junkies, as “rushing”. We’ve stood up because that sound has sent an adrenal shock of anticipation through us. We know what’s coming, and we can hardly wait.       

I’d been waiting for weeks, no, for decades, for this night. It began when I stepped up to the mark to face another English winter … and couldn’t face it. Somewhere warm for Christmas, please, oh please.  It would have to be way south of the Med to be warm enough, but I didn’t want to have to travel for 24 hours to get there. Hmmm, never been to the Caribbean. Out came the atlas. Yikes! There are a zillion islands – too many to choose between. Then I remembered the James Bond film “Thunderball”, which I first saw as a child, which was partly set in the Bahamas, which I immediately wanted to go to. In particular I remembered a scene with a chase through a carnival parade called the Junkanoo. I googled “Junkanoo”. Coincidence or what – there was a Junkanoo in Nassau on Boxing Day! That clinched it. The Bahamas it would be.       

A brass section of firemen forming up – but these firemen aim to set and stoke a fire, not put one out. Wild music, not water, comes out of those pipes.

The rest was not quite so easy. Given that the primary reason for choosing Nassau was the Junkanoo, it seemed daft to go and risk not seeing it, so I started trying to book tickets. For a couple of weeks I tried, using the official web site, and also by phone, without success. Finally I got to speak to Michael (name changed to protect the innocent) of the Junkanoo Corporation New Providence Ltd, the company I understood was in charge of ticket sales. Up to this point everybody I’d spoken to had said they couldn’t help me right away, but they’d get back to me, “don’t worry”. Then I never heard from them again.       

My conversation with Michael went like this:
Des:  Do you have any tickets for the Junkanoo?
Michael:  There are some.
Des: Can I book some with you now?
Michael: You can, but don’t worry, you don’t need to, you can book online or you can get some on the day.
Des: I am worried, because your website says that, due to overwhelming demand for seats, you have suspended online booking.
Michael: That’s true, but don’t worry, there still are some, and you can get them on the day.
Des: But I’m worried that all the tickets will be sold out by then, so can I book some with you now?
Michael (curious at this insistence): Are you here?
Des: No, I’m calling from England.
Michael (to sound of a light bulb popping on in his brain with a silent “Aha …”): Have you been to the Bahamas before?
Des: No. So, can you help me now? I’m worried because I’ve been talking to people in the Bahamas about this for days, and they never get back to me.
Michael (laughing): This is what it’s like, we’re very relaxed.
Des: In England we worry a lot. And I’m worried because I’ve discovered from your website that, while I’ve been waiting for people to get back to me, all the best seats have sold out.
Michael (laughing): This is the Bahamas!
Des (laughing the ruefully): I can tell I’m going to enjoy the Bahamas very much.
Michael (roaring with laughter): Yes, you will enjoy the Bahamas very much, because you will have to relax!       

Drummers moving off.

I did eventually manage to book two tickets on Bay Street (those in the centre, Rawson Square, had gone immediately they went on sale, apparently), and in due course we arrived in Nassau. The next challenge, for an uptight English person, was picking the tickets up before the night. Everybody was so “relaxed”, I wasn’t sure that even this was a certainty.  My fears increased when the ticket office, which I had been assured was open on Christmas Eve, stayed firmly shut all day. Then I heard that, for a fairly hefty price compared to an official ticket, the Skans Cafe (a great, cheap cafe, by the way, full of locals during the day) on Bay Street would let you sit on its flat roof during the parade. So I double booked. If Michael did not come through, at least we’d have seats somewhere.       

Finally, on Christmas Day in the morning (“I saw three ships come sailing in, come sailing in” – well, some anyway – huge, white cruise liners the size of cities), I went to the office on the quay where the cruise ships dock and – glory in excelsis – it was open. Some guys were sitting on the doorstep. “Hi, I’m Des”, I announced. “Is Michael here?”       

“Ah, the world famous Des Sandys”, replied Michael, greeting me. My constant, paranoid harassment of these guys had obviously made me notorious as the Englishman who really, really needed to chill out. Now they were acting as agents in that chilling process, being the fairy godmothers whose ministrations ensured that I, too, would go to the ball. Clutching my glass slippers, i.e. two tickets, I left that office on the quay feeling both joyful and triumphant.       

We (my wife and I) started out on the flat roof of the Skans Cafe, which overlooked the forming up area of every second group (the others formed up in a side street, and we hardly saw them at all). The Skans had the advantage of a bird’s eye perspective, useful for photographs without the heads of the crowd in the way. It also provided easy access to booze, although this proved unnecessary. We found that the Junkanoo was exciting enough by itself, and alcohol only dulled our appreciation of it. The others on the roof with us were, I believe, all foreigners like us. I think most if not all of us were new to Junkanoo.        

“Off the Shoulder” dancers. Eat your heart out, Holly Golightly.

An American girl with cheerleader tendencies kept trying to inject US-style enthusiasm, with loud calls of “yeee-ha” and “woo woo woo”, but this moved nobody. Plainly the Junkanoo had its own pace and needed no whipping up.  The English observers, meanwhile, started out doing just that, observing, as if in a box at the opera. It soon became apparent this was not the spirit of the Junkanoo either.       

We also had those tickets for the bleachers down below, so we decided to try the view and the atmosphere from there. These seats turned out to be exactly what we were looking for. As far as we could tell, everybody else in them was a local Bahamian. So much for my fear that Junkanoo was a touristified relic performed only to amuse the foreigners. Here we discovered that it’s in fact more like soccer in England or football in America, with the Boxing Day parade being like the Cup Final or Super Bowl. The crowd was wildly partisan, each fan supporting his or her favoured group, with a frenzied passion, against all comers.       

Groups of all sizes are allowed to participate. Some consisted of only a dozen or so people, mainly small children. Others were vast cohorts that would have put a progressing pharaoh to shame, as rank upon rank, and caste upon caste, marched into view and out of it, without the end appearing. Groups like the Saxons, the Valley Boys or Roots seemed hundreds strong.       

There was a regimented format to these groups that seemed to defy the anarchy of the noise and the shimmying and shaking of high energy individuals. This was the music of the big battalions, Beethoven for the Bahamas. There was surely no way those at the back of a pack could hear those at the front, and yet somehow the whole throbbed to a gigantic beat that seized your heart and shook your chest.      

The vanguards of the bigger groups were led by some masterpiece of a float, some jerry-rigged contraption of cardboard, colour and glitter, that had the mighty presence of a tank or battleship, but still looked like it would melt in any rainfall, or blow away in any breeze. This float was the signature piece for the group, and stated the theme that every other costume in the group adhered to, themes such as movies, or nations, or, my favourite, “Tings Tough! What Ya Ga Do?” (i.e. “Things are tough – what are you going to do?”), which was about trades, professions and entrepreneurial flair in the face of the recession. The biggest and the brashest floats were usually up front, but could be accompanied by several other “lead costumes”, as these man-powered floats are called.      

Bay Street bombshell – pretty terrific in pink.

Behind the floats came “off the shoulder” male dancers. “Off the shoulder” does not mean here some clingy thing that you imagine Audrey Hepburn might have worn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, but huge, high, broad costumes, mainly resting on the shoulders. Plastered with sequins, festooned with feathers, these jinked and shook like some massive, mythical cross between a peacock and an ostrich in maximum display mode. Sometimes there were also groups of tiny toddlers, costumed like the adults, accompanied by shepherding women.     

After these came the massed dancing girls, injecting charm, synchronization and an electric charge into the pulsing walls of sound. Behind them blasted the legion of horn, trumpet, trombone and tuba players, entrusted with carrying the melody. Any tune was fair game, and after a while you could detect the special sound that rock, pop, Sinatra or Christmas carols made, when played a la Junkanoo. It was like the way you realise that an apparently impenetrably accented patois is in fact English, with, at first, a recognisable word here, a word there, and then, soon, you can understand its lilts and inflections and go with the flow.     

A dancer waiting for the off ... movement burns off adrenaline.

Right behind the brass, like a living, jiving backdrop, came a phalanx of percussionists insistently shaking cowbells, and piercing the air with whistle blasts, their feathered costumes and headdresses sometimes 15 feet tall.  Behind them blew the conch shell blowers, the car horn blowers, the klaxon blowers, and the blowers of plastic horns which looked like grown-up versions of those annoying parpers that fall out Christmas crackers. Almost last, and about as far from least as you can get, there marched the massive engine-room of the brigade, the drummers, smaller drums flocking around the big bass drums, staccato rhythms dancing round a pile-driving heartbeat.       

The rearguard usually comprised another float or two. It was sad watching the backs of these final floats disappear down Bay Street, along with the diminishing roar of the music. You wanted the next group to appear immediately, to jack you even higher, before the thrill wore off, fearful that waiting would deflate you entirely.       

And so we waited for the Valley Boys. The wait was worth it.       

They arrived fronted by a glittering facade of a float, manned by a Maitre D in top-hat and tails and some pretty girls in décolleté gowns. This announced the theme: the movies. Squads of exotically outré lead dancers followed, representing films and film characters, such as “Dances with Wolves”, or “The Incredible Hulk”.       

On the second day of Christmas ... many drummers drumming.

Without knowing exactly why, we warmed to the “Varleys” dancing girls more than those we had seen before. They were led by a dance master who gyrated, endlessly energetic, in the middle of his girls, driving them through their moves. It was as if the dancing in “West Side Story” and “Fantasia” had collided with the Notting Hill Carnival, making a marvellously miscegenated mix of classical choreography, Busby Berkeley costume kitsch and African funky. The crowd adored it, and roared their approval. The bench we were standing on was made of metal, but I was afraid it would soon break. Everybody (kids, mums, old ladies, even me) was jiving up and down on it, until it began boogying by itself, and fighting back with contrary bounces.       

In a gap between songs I watched as the leader of the band readied his brass to recommence. He raised his arm above the mass of jinking costumes, and held it a moment aloft. Oh yes ... Catching the rhythm of the unceasing drums he clenched his fist and pumped the air. One. Oh my ... He pumped the air again. Two. The horns are about to … He pumped the air a third time, and, on the invisible fourth, the tubas, trumpets, trombones and other brass behind him burped a blast wave of sound over the crowd, and swung on into a song. Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes.       

“Multitudes are marching to the big bass drums”.

By the time the drums, conch shells and car horns drew level with us, we were in a frenzy of excitement. The shockwaves of sound shivered the solar plexus, the thrill of it made the hairs on the back of your neck and arms stand to attention. The beat bypassed our brains and went straight to our spines and feet, which jumped like puppets to the rolling rhythms of the drums.       

And then they were gone. As it turned out, the Valley Boys went on to win, although only a fraction ahead of their rivals, the Saxon Superstars.       

We stayed on for more, but then there was a long delay, one not due to any organizational disarray, but either to tragedy or to glory, depending on your point of view. As the end of a large group filed past us, its cocoon of sound already beginning to dissipate, we noticed a large knot of people and officials standing together further up the street. They stood for a long time, without a word to the crowd about what was happening.       

Day was by now beginning to break, and that popped-balloon, post-party sense of disappointment, that everything seemed to be ending, grew with the grey light of the false dawn. Exhausted, we decided to head home, and threaded our way through the discarded costumes and the badly parked floats back towards our hotel.       

We later heard that the knot of people was standing around a dancer who had had a heart-attack and died right there on Bay Street. A newspaper report later quoted his family, if I recall correctly, saying that he lived for Junkanoo, and that he had died doing what he loved, rushing. After sharing that excitement, that rush, for a single night, I couldn’t help feeling that there was a sense of envy to be had in that statement. Since each of us has to go, we should all be so lucky, when we go, to go quickly, in the middle of a high octane ecstasy of sound and colour, doing what we love.       

Hang on a minute, isn’t that like a line from a song in “Cabaret”? About Elsie, who died doing what she loved? To misquote Liza Minelli singing the title song:       

      What good is sitting alone in your room?
      Come hear the music play.
      Life is a Junkanoo, ol’ mon,
      Come to the Junkanoo!      

While we’re being so cheerful, let me quote another song line or two, this time from a Christmas medley I heard, which was based on a Bahamian classic, “Mama, Bake the Johnny Cake, Christmas Comin’”:       

      This time another year, I may be gone,
      In some lonesome graveyard, I may be gone.       

So stop worrying, live life, and get down to the Junkanoo. Dey comin! Dey comin!     

Note: Des went to the Junkanoo during Christmas 2008. 

Group marshalls help a young dancer get ready.

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