The thumping of drums and the blaring of horns shook my insides and rattled my eardrums upon opening the van door. The spotlights lining the gated street mimicked those that served as beacons for activity, similar to those for football under the lights in high school. As I exited the car and set foot on the pavement, our cab driver chuckled joyfully and smiled to himself. “Have a great time,” he shouted as he banged the steering wheel with his left hand to the beat of the thumping drum beats. “Let loose and dance the night away!” My heart fluttered a bit at the excitement of what was to come.
As we crossed the intersection, closed to vehicular traffic, Phil and I were greeted by the Grand Bahama Port Authority—“Happy Holidays” in neon red tube lights flashed in a conflicting rhythm to the ‘thump thumpety thump, thump thump, thump thump’ beat rising from behind the chain link fence. We bought our tickets for a mere $10 and stroud off to find a spot in the general admission seats, further away from the grand marshall and his judges, but physically closer to the action on the opposite side of the fence.
As we made our way through the street vendors, our nostrils were filled with the smell of fried conch and rice and beans mixed with the sweet stench of Bahama Mamas. We purchased dinner at one of the stands: jerk chicken and pork, mac and cheese, and rice and beans. In hindsight we purchased enough food to feed us lunch and dinner, but for $10, we had no idea how big of a portion we were getting. As we made our way through the gated entry way, we entered a different land. Light wands and noise makers whizzed past us on their way to greet their families in the grandstands, while those on the other side of the fence, staked their ‘free ground’ with bags of food, chairs, and bags. My first-world, American alertness began to fade when we saw all of the smiling faces of proud family members, and a few easily identifiable tourists, clapping, cheering, and calling to their loved ones in the carnival.
The costumes, adorned with feathers, paper mache objects, and glitter, dazzled in the street, with every movement of the participant. The dancers seamlessly transitioned from clean choreographed moves to natural stepping, clapping, and twirling—it was mesmerizing to watch how comfortable these women were.
Closely following were the musicians, mainly composed of percussionists, including cowbell players, and a brass section with trombones, tubas, and trumpets. We stayed for hours listening to the music, dancing on the bleachers, swinging our arms in the air, and smiling with the friendliest strangers.
The historical significance of Junkanoo differs between Bahamian depending on their own roots to the islands; some believe that it comes from the French phrase ‘gens inconnus’ meaning ‘unknown’ or ‘masked people’ while others think it pays homage to a man named John Canoe, a legendary West African Prince, who outwitted the English becoming a hero to his people.
However, the most widely believe origin story is that it was a slave tradition from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Today, these parades happen three times a year, the two traditional events happening on Boxing Day (December 26) and New Year’s Day (January 1). There are also events held in the summer through the tourism companies.
The biggest festival in both spectators and participants is located in Nassau on New Year’s Day, but other well-attended parades are also located in Freeport, where we visited over the new year. Dance troops from across Grand Bahama Island compete for thousands of dollars in prize money. They are judged in various categories, including dance performances, costume design, musical renditions, and float construction.
This experience connected us to this place, this culture, the people who call this nation home. No matter where we go, experiences like this prove to us one thing: we are all people, with a history. These unique, yet relatable commonalities connects us and any physical expression or manifestation of someone’s soul and being brings us together, we can relate to it, grounding us, diaperating our skin color, class, or nationality. We truly feel lucky to have experienced this tradition and celebration in our time in the Bahamas, and we look forward to experiences like this on our next international trip!