January 2, 2015

Freedom Festival: Bahamian Celebration Junkanoo Has Deep History

Junkanoo Parade

The Bahamas are a place where people from all over the world retreat to for a portion of paradise.  While most jet there for fun in the sun, basking on the beaches and a swim in their wonderful waters; most don’t take time to recognize a native tradition steeped in African heritage called Junkanoo.

Jawn Murray in Junkanoo headdress

Junkanoo is a Bahamian parade that celebrates freedom.  Started way back around the 16th Century by African slaves that were given three days off during the Christmas season to fellowship with their family.  Their jubilee would begin on December 26 once they finished working for their masters and lasted all night and into the day.  If that wasn’t enough, the party would resume again on New Year’s Day shortly after the stroke of midnight lasted from sun up nearly until the sun down again.

Slaves would make intricate costumes in the likeness of ancestral deities made of sea sponges, crepe paper, card board, tissue paper, feathers and straw. The music was made by beating a goat skin drum, using a conk shell for a horn and playing cow bells, evoking the sounds of the African tribal music.

There are variations of the origins of Junkanoo, but the most likely explanation is that the word has French origins and means “the unknown people,” which refers to people wearing disguises. When Bahamians are dressed in their Junkanoo costumes, many are unrecognizable. traveled to Nassau, Bahamas recently and visited the Educulture Bahamas Ltd. facility run by Arlene Nash Ferguson, a former educator who now teaches tourist (as well as locals) about the history of Junkanoo.

Nassau, Bahamas

Ferguson’s description of Bahamians approach to Junkanoo would back up the idea of the name’s French origin.

“They don’t say I come to get my costume, they say I come to get me! They suddenly have a name,” she explained about how participants feel once completely immersed in their Junkanoo costume.

The elaborate nature of the costumes—all made by hand only and limited to only the previously mentioned items—Ferguson believes the creativity displayed sets Bahamians a part from everyone else in the world.

Outside of Educulture Bahamas

“It spawned the genius of our people. That’s when they have my time to shine,” she offered.

In addition to people creating costumes, Junkanoo has taught many locals how to become musicians. “It is statistically impossible to have 10 Bahamians in a room and one not be a drummer,” laughed Ferguson.

The music of Junkanoo is the driving force for an expanded Junkanoo celebration set to debut in The Bahamas.  This spring, the celebration of Junkanoo will be married with the tradition of the Caribbean Carnival during the first annual Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival.  Taking place May 7 – 9, 2015, the first-time event will both help drive culture and commerce for The Bahamas.  Ferguson shared that 28 new companies will form as a result of this new initiative.

Check out photos from’s visit to the Educulture Bahamas Ltd. museum below.


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