john canoe

Jamaican Christmas ::  The John Canoe or Jonkonnu has a very long tradition as a folk festival, incorporating both African and European forms. The ‘Jonkonnu’ Festival is secular in nature and its performance at Christmas time is merely historical.  It was conceived as a festive opportunity afforded the slave class by the planter class, as Christmas was one of the few periods when the slaves were relieved of their duties. Hence, Christmas formed an appropriate season for festivities as all normal business activity on the island was halted by official decree and all males were called up for military service, augmenting the population in the larger towns.  Therefore, ample opportunity was given to the slaves to show off their talents to the spectators who had also been given time off from work.

Traditional Jonkonnu most often includes as core participants, the cow head, the horsehead, the devil, the different categories of warriors and Indians, as well as a character known as Pitchy-Patchy. The more popular characters are quite worthy of further mention as their presence in the festival evoked an admixture of fear and excitement in onlookers.

Jonkonnu

Jonkonnu’s origins not clear. There are several schools of thought on this. For instance, Richard Allsopp suggests that Jonkonnu is more likely related to the Yoruba word Jonkoliko, one elevated as a figure for fun or disgrace. This seems more logical, especially since many of the Jonkonnu masks in Jamaica were similar to the annual Yoruba masquerade festival. 

During both the Xmas season and August Crop Over, Africans in Jamaica, Antigua and other places, performed the Joncanoe or John Canoe. Using elaborate head dresses and masks, enslaved persons performed this ritual as part of their statement about the relationship between the spirit world and social living. It is said to have had its origins at Axim, a major slave trading port on the Gold Coast.

The Antigua Junkanoo or Jonkonnu was mostly a Xmas spectacle. In St. Vincent blacks also celebrated Crop Over and Xmas with Junkanoo festivals. 

In the Bahamas, Junkanoo has become established black arts and culture by the late eighteenth century and was associated with Xmas when ‘Negroes have been seen beating their tambourines and dancing the whole day’.

The festival seems to be generally a merger of African and European influences and forms part of the festivities at Christmas time. Some of the instruments used to make music have an African influence like the cow horns, gombay and rattles. There are Jonkonnu bands where persons dress as particular characters, like the Queen and or a flower girl. Some of these characters imitated the planters’ style. Others like the wild Indian pay homage to the colonial oppression that Amerindians endured. 

There is also masking involved in this rural activity. Sandra Richardson speaking about Jonkonnu notes that the performances were done to appease the plantocracy and to earn money; it afforded them mobility by going from plantation to plantation. This might have been a cover for rebellious activity and colonial mimicry. Cloaking/claiming the other festival performers created costumes that speak to the potency of creolisation, play out tensions in society, introduced a cultural genre into a larger performance and maintained survival in a repressive society.

House servants danced the style of the plantocracy, not imitating their masters but it was an appropriately recognizable form to create a commentary on their terms. Style commentary related in dress, choice of fabrics and patterns; they took Eurocentric dress and created their own. The costumes displayed an Afro-Caribbean aesthetic. 

Street performers were aware of newspaper reports and, political and royal people were imitated.