Junkanoo Carries That Weight

There is a ruckus at the back gate of the Six Pack Shack on Prison Lane. In a few hours, a record crowd of 60,000 people will assemble in downtown Nassau to see who will win top prize in a competition the Bahamian Minister of Youth, Sports, & Culture calls the "primary expression of national identity": the Junkanoo Parade. Every holiday season the inhabitants of these islands otherwise devoted to tourism compete among themselves to see who can turn out the most marchers, build the most beautiful costumes, perform the most breathtaking dances, and make the most noise to a steady beat with drums and bells. On Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) and again on New Year's Day, the parade begins in the dead of night and goes on well into the morning, until the last of several thousand costumed revelers has completed the circuit down Bay Street, up Shirley, then back down Bay Street again. In the humble neighborhoods locals call "over the hill," literally divided by a steep slope from Nassau's tourist sector, each of the competing junkanoo groups jealously guards secret shacks where costume builders work furiously to earn "bragging rights" for the coming year. In the Six Pack Shack, a battalion of 25 armed with glue guns scurries to make this the first Boxing Day victory for the upstart junkanoo group, One Family. In 1993 a group of prominent professionals broke off from perennial junkanoo champions, the Saxons, to pursue a mission that marches far beyond the parade route. One Family hopes to turn the common cause of junkanoo into a lasting community that will unite all Bahamians, from the most exalted to the most humble.

Suddenly the snipping and pasting comes to a halt. Feathers and tiny mirrors fall by the wayside as shack leader Bubbles (known to the outside world as Trevor Decosta) shouts down One Family choreographer Rolie Fresh: "We don't want him in this yard, no!" A gold-toothed cabaret dancer at a tourist resort on Paradise Island, Fresh calls Bubbles's bluff and crosses the yard. Like a man walking the wrong way around a circus carousel, Fresh brushes past the wire-framed antelopes, crepe-paper-maned lions, and cardboard-tusked elephants that cram the outdoor work tables and overflow the two worn wooden structures of the Six Pack Shack. The choreographer has come to Prison Lane to check on the final decorations his corps of 35 teenage girls is pasting on its cardboard skirts and headdresses. Bubbles had the idea of converting the old dentist's office of Jackson Burnside II, the father of One Family founders Stan and Jackson Burnside III, into a hub where the female dancers could be inspired by the Six Pack builders to better complete their own costumes. A self-taught artist, Bubbles makes his living designing junkanoo year-round. When he compares his own training with that of One Family artists, architects, and engineers with university degrees, he says, "I assess my skill to be a gift from God."

For this parade One Family selected the theme "Africa's Gift to the Bahamas." Back when these islands off the Florida coast were still a British colony, the slaveholders granted a three-day respite to enslaved laborers at Christmastime. The West Africans stole into the night for a masquerade that may have drawn its name from a powerful African ruler and slave trader known to the British as John Canoe. The first "jun-kanoos" re-created the lost majesty of the Congo and the Gold Coast with drums made from barrels, bells borrowed from cows, and costumes improvised from twigs, leaves, and scraps of paper. Now a $400,000 item in the government budget, the parade runs corporate sponsors hundreds of thousands of dollars more each year. Designer Jonathan Adderly estimates that One Family spends $10,000 on crepe paper alone. In the main shack down East Street from the Six Pack Shack, Adderly banters with a young drummer who wants more feathers for his hat. "Two for five dollars," complains Adderly, counting the cost in lively Bahamian dialect as he hands the delighted youth pairs of fluffy white plumes. Such lavish expense is evident in the lead costume, titled "The Origin of Junkanoo," sitting at the center of the shack. Two African trumpeters mounted on zebra-back flank a life-size drummer, all bedecked in tunics of bright orange, green, yellow, pink, and blue. Behind these heralds, on an elaborate throne, sits a king, headless for the moment because even the high ceiling of the main shack cannot accommodate his full regal stature. The "costume" measures twelve feet by seventeen feet and weighs 350 pounds. The Official Junkanoo Handbook stipulates that all costumes must be "carried by one person only." A team of six or seven Bahamian Herculeses will take turns hauling the mobile monument a yard or two at a time. Another group of 60 junkanoos will carry "off-the-shoulder" costumes, which weigh between 100 and 200 pounds, the entire length of the parade. "When you're on Bay Street, you get hyper," Adderly explains. "It's just natural strength. It's adrenaline."

Adrenaline surges in bulk a few blocks west on Taylor Street, at the Davis Shack behind the home of 76-year-old Geraldine Davis. Out back her son Bernard Davis sees to the finishing touches on "The Woodcarver," the second lead costume. "With a costume this big," he sighs, "you never finish." In the yard between the house and shack, young men in their teens spray bright blue, red, and yellow circles on homemade bass drums. Tightly clenching a can of paint, Vernon Rolle stretches his tattoo into a Rorschach blotch across his bulging bicep. Rolle's powerful arms justify his position as director of the bass section even though his junkanoo career began just three years ago. "We don't have a lot of older guys beating bass," Rolle points out. "They need plenty endurance for that." Judged on both volume and synchronization, the music resounds with 50 bass drummers and equal numbers beating tom tom, clanging bells, and blowing fog horns. "The music is raw music," Davis observes. "And when you get out on Bay Street, you get a totally different sound. Music comes off the buildings. It pulsates."

Around 5:00 a.m. on the east end of Bay, One Family finally begins to "roll" -- to shift the boom of the bass into double-time. The dancers in the red zone wow the crowd with what Rolie Fresh calls the "split in the middle." The Ram Heads and the Spear & Shield dancers part ways as Fresh's twelve-year old daughter, Rhonda, tosses flower petals before the feet of the advancing African Queens. Close behind, the dancers in the yellow zone strike a warrior's pose, then rotate at the waist, drawing arcs from Heaven to Earth with their white feathered headdresses. At the very back, behind hundreds of fantastically costumed musicians, little girls seven and eight years old dance circles around "The Origin of Junkanoo" every time the giants who carry the massive costume stop to switch shifts. "It's over," declares a policeman from the sidewalk, not needing confirmation from the judges' tally. "One Family has it won."

A few hours later, in the heat of the sun, the Davis Shack hosts a sleepless celebration. The opulence of the costumes now piled against the wall contrasts sharply with the dilapidated buildings and mangy dogs roaming along Taylor Street. "Most of us grew up in the ghetto," says co-founder Rory Saunders. "We didn't want our involvement with the people still here to end with the parade." Junkanoo groups today carry on a tradition inherited from the mutual aid societies of West Africa at the time of the slave trade. Watching a group of neighborhood children beat drums in the dust, Episcopalian minister Father Tyrone McKenzie reflects on One Family's mission, "We have a summer camp for kids. We get involved in issues of teen pregnancy and substance abuse. And when a member dies, we give him a junkanoo funeral."

For 23-year-old Leonardo Godet, who has rushed junkanoo since he was 4 years old, the prospect of a crepe-paper coffin looms all too large. In the thrill of triumph, Godet could find no one to help him take off his seven foot by seven foot costume. He slid out while leaning against the wall. Collapsed on the ground, he describes his burden: "Starting off it's light. But taking it all that distance and bouncing up and down.... It's a strain on your back and your shoulders. We have a saying, though: If you love something, let it kill you."

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Celeste Fraser Delgado