It’s just about noon on Boxing Day (December 26). The first parade of the Christmas season has just come towards its end as far as a public spectacle is concerned. The last ‘A group’ has left the main show area, Bay Street and Rawson Square. The crowd has left the temporary bleacher stands faster than hot bread leaves shelves. The tired fans are rushing towards their beds. Many have been out watching this annual spectacle for the better part of 10 or more hours. That’s a long time for any event, let alone one that is put on hours after the main dinner of the year for most people, on Christmas Day, and after a night when many were in church way past midnight. My young daughter and her mother went gleefully from our lodgings at about 1.30am. They returned home at about 8am. My wife did not make it past the sofa and hit it with a thud. She’s still pole-axed. My daughter told me she slept during the parade. She’s hanging in there. I’d decided to give the live parade a pass this year.
In the recent past, I’ve not felt the same fun as in earlier years. The groups came out late. Gaps between groups were long. The performances did not compensate for the sense of frustration that I felt. Instead, I decided to try watching it on local TV. It was not bad. It started on time–3am, later than usual because of a risk of rain earlier and to give the groups a better chance to get their pieces in position. The first group always suffer, and Saxons did. But, I was impressed by the promptness and settled in for a good show. Then, problems with the next major group emerged soon. Two hours after the parade had begun that second group was still not on the road. The ‘reasons’ started to trickle in. Maybe, BEC, the national electricity company had an outage, so the groups were having to work in the dark. Anyway, we were backing up. I forwarded myself to my bed at 5.30am.
Two hours later, I awoke and found that I’d missed only two of the remaining five major groups. The delays have become perennial.
For a change, as I was watching from home, I went online and sent out a stream of commentary about the events. I encouraged people to watch the broadcast online–it was good.
I found myself getting into the commentary, as the groups’ performances hit my ears and eyes. Most left me flat. Thankfully, the best was saved for last. The Valley Boys, often called ‘the premier group’ of Nassau’s Junkanoo, came out with a spectacular show, under the theme of ‘From China to The Bahamas’. It was a simple theme, that lent itself to a consistent approach: everything Chinese. Fabulous costumes, flouting reds and yellows. Black faces whitened to look Asiatic. Lanterns. Buddha. Chinese national flag. Ladies with fans. Wide-brimmed hats. Images of Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon. A bonus was the Prime Minister, Perry Christie, a well-known avid Valley fan, out of the streets in FULL REGALIA, rushing, dressed as a Chinese Emperor. He even immortalized his dance, the ‘Perry Shuffle’. All in good fun.
Junkanoo is a national treasure or artistic and musical inventiveness and Bahamians are fiercely proud of it. But, it looks like it’s about to outlive its current form.
The major groups are now very large (around 1,000) persons. Many costumes are very large and heavy: that’s one reason why the prospect of rain and strong winds sent ripples of fear through the organizers. The delays seem to be a constant. What to do about the parade will be a topic of conversation, at least during the Christmas Season. Many acknowledged that the ‘fun groups’ (sometimes just a handful of people, having fun, especially with a few drinks) may need to be dropped, though they have the benefit of filling gaps when bigger groups are tardy. The ‘B groups’ are not really competitive with the larger ‘A groups’, which are larger and better funded. Even the A groups are not all equally blessed. Should new funding options be considered? Should a change of format and venue be considered? The National Stadium. The PM and some of his Cabinet aired that view when interviewed during the parade. Traditionalists may bridle at ‘taking Junkanoo away from its roots’. But, things change. One Bahamian friend, who was a traditionalist, but got bored and tired of the delays, and is convinced that a stadium style could work, having seen how Brazil’s carnival now works.
I can sense the fears of the traditionalists. I’ve seen the same process at work with things that have much longer and deeper roots, for instance, the relocation of a sports stadium that has been part of a community for decades. There’s a lot of emotion invested in the location of events. Just this week, we saw the last NFL game played at Candlestick Park–a ‘baby’, built in 1960. The English soccer team I support, Queens Park Rangers, are now going forward with plans for a new stadium. I grew up in the shadows of the current stadium; I can’t visualize home games being played anywhere else but at Loftus Road (the team’s home since 1917). All of my childhood football memories from the early-1960s–glories and despair–are enshrined in that place. I have a friend who’s apartment abutted Arsenal’s former home, Highbury Stadium, and remember her anguish at plans to build a new stadium after plans had been rejected to expand Highbury. She was not even a fan, but her life had been deeply touched by where she lived and what she experienced with the football stadium and its activities just outside her kitchen window. So, I know any word about changing Junkanoo wont be taken just so.
The Junkanoo format needs to change. The groups need to accept a different kind of discipline. Spectators wont keep putting up with the current situation. If they don’t then the event will die. I wont presume the discussion, but it needs to happen. Recent history suggests that the ‘conversation’ will be painful. Some say, “let the groups decide”. But, just because that’s how many things are in the Caribbean, those who really have the power to make decision, may decide and changes go ahead anyway, and then there will be recriminations about lack of consultation and betrayal of traditions, etc.
At least, The Bahamas have their Junkanoo as a vibrant part of their national life. Jamaica is barely holding on to its version of Junkanoo–more in keeping with the earlier base of the festival: a holiday for slaves, with many trappings of African traditions and aspects of colonial experience mixed. A rump, not even matching the horse’s head that is part of the tradition. I’d get into a fight about trying to boost that tradition much sooner that mix it up with Bahamians about where they will hold their parade.