When Dan and I were planning our trip, we went back and forth a bit about whether we planned to get off the ship at the Bahamas or not. Ultimately, we decided to book Disney’s Nassau Forts and Junkanoo Tour … and I’m really super glad we did! This week, we’ll take a closer look at the Junkanoo Museum …
Junkanoo is a series of street carnivals featuring costumes, dance and music inspired by a different theme each time. Preparations for the Boxing Day, New Year’s Day and summertime Junkanoo events take months and bring together men and women from all different walks of life.
The story of Junkanoo is absolutely fascinating: It was founded in the late 1700s by slaves, who were brought to the Bahamas to work. Each year, they got only three days “off,” always right around Christmas. They used that time to recreate the festivals and rituals from their homeland, and this grew into Junkanoo. Because they were slaves, they didn’t have money to spend, so they created their costumes and instruments from scraps leftover from their lives.
Sponge costumes were incredibly popular in the early 1900s, when the sponge industry was booming—at one point, nearly 1/3 of Bahamians worked the sponge trade! In the late 1930s, though, the many of the sponge beds in the Bahamas were destroyed by fungus. Nowadays, the sponge that is caught is sold as an export or to tourists, and so it’s no longer used by the locals to make costumes.
Scavenged scraps of cloth also used to be a popular fabric, but in modern times, cloth isn’t allowed in the parades. In fact, other than paper, straw is the only material allowed in Junkanoo parades. Straw weaving has a rich tradition in Bahamian culture because families brought their own patterns and techniques with them from Africa.
Paper has always been the main source of costuming material—which is sort of ironic, since in the early days of Junkanoo, the performers were forbidden to learn how to read or write. In the early 20th century, newspaper was the most common costume material, but tissue paper was also quite popular. We heard stories about performers whose tissue-paper costumes caught on fire! In the 50s and 60s, performers made the switch to crepe paper—it’s more durable, colorful and easier to work with, and today, it’s the most popular material.
Their instruments have historically also been made from “scraps.” They made drums with goatskin, used cowbells they found on the island and repurposed conch shells as horns. Today, they’ve added whistles, cow-skin drums, real horns and other brass instruments.
The museum is actually based out of Ivern House, a home built in 1959 on a parcel of land that’s been in the Ferguson family for centuries. In the “back” of the house, there’s an actual Junkanoo workshop, where members of the One Family group construct their costumes! The museum also hosts costume-making classes for local kids and tourists. We played some drums and learned about how, practically, the costumes are constructed. It was a blast.
We even got to try on some of the costumes. Which was kind of the greatest.
I would absolutely, positively love to revisit the museum to take a class or work on one of the One Family’s floats. And, even better, I’d love to visit the island during one of the Junkanoo festivals. But for now, maybe we’ll work on a nice photo collage of the museum for our living room …
Have you ever experienced Junkanoo culture? Tell me about it in the comments below!