Friday, December 20, 2013

A Traditional Caribbean Jonkonoo Song & Three Contemporary Jonkanoo Videos From The Bahamas

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post provides a song example, information, comments, and video examples of Jonkanoo.

Part I of this post showcases a text (word only) version of the traditional Caribbean song "Christmus A Come" from the 1981 book Mango Spice- 44 Caribbean Songs edited by Yvonne Conolly, Gloria Cameron, and Sonia Singham (with music scores & drawings; A&C Black, London, pp.33-34). The editors' notes to this song, which are included in this post, describe "Christmus A Come" as a Jonkunnu song.

Part II of this post provides general information & comments about Jonkanoo in the Caribbean and in the United States.

Part III of this post showcases three contemporary videos of Jonkunnu celebrations from the Bahamas.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, cultural, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

(traditional Caribbean)

Christmus a come, me wan me lama,
Christmus a come, me wan me lama,
Christmus a come, me wan me deggeday,
Christmus a come, me wan me deggeday.

Pretty, pretty gal, me wan me lama,
Pretty, pretty gal, me wan me lama,
Pretty, pretty gal, me wan me deggeday,
Pretty, pretty gal, me wan me deggeday.

Not a shoe to me foot, me wan me lama,
Not a shoe to me foot, me wan me lama.
Pretty, pretty gal, me wan me deggeday,
Pretty, pretty gal, me wan me deggeday.

Not a hat to me head...

Not a bangle to me han...
"This is a Jonkannu song. Jonkannu is a Christmas festivity which dates back to the days of slavery. Processions of merrymakers, masked dancers and drummers go through the streets singing and playing fifes. The masks the dancers wear are often made to resemble the heads of cows and horses, and other characters like the Bride and Devil are mimed. During slavery, the Jonkunnu processions collected money from the onlookers to pay for their own Christmas celebrations and this song was sung to draw attention to their lack of finery and money to pay for it.


From "Masking the Spirit in the South Atlantic World: Jankunu’s Partially‐ Hidden History", Kenneth Bilby, Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College, Chicago; 2007.

Kenneth Bilby wrote that "The historical evidence strongly suggests that the Jankunu festival originated in Jamaica during the 18th century – possibly earlier. From there it seems to have spread to other English speaking colonial territories where slavery was entrenched, including British Honduras (now known as Belize) and other parts of Central America, North and South Carolina, Virginia, and the Bahamas." Bilby indicates that contemporary researchers have focused "three “clusters” of West African festival traditions: 1) the yam festival of the Mmo secret society of the Igbo peoples; 2) the Egungun masquerades of the Yoruba; and, 3) the Homowo yam festival of the Ga people (Patterson 1969 [1967]: 244‐47)" as the sources for the Jonkanoo celebrations. But "the evidence suggests that the more obviously European‐derived components of the Christmas festivities – which included “actor” characters, mumming troupes, and fife and drum bands – eventually overshadowed the more obviously African‐derived components. Those aspects of the creolized Christmas celebrations generally perceived to be of African origin were heavily stigmatized, and their suppression gradually forced them underground, while those aspects understood to be of European derivation emerged as the dominant forms....)

As a result, in Jamaica today, although its partial African origins are still acknowledged, Jankunu is almost universally understood to be a secular form of masquerading involving silent mumming by all‐male troupes to the music of fife and drum bands. Singing is never involved in these newer, now dominant forms. Investigation of the written historical sources, however, shows that Jankunu was quite different from this during its heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it flourished on slave plantations. As opposed to silent mumming backed by a fife and drum band, the older forms of Jankunu most often featured a mixed male‐female chorus, and a lead dancer wearing a large headdress in the shape of a house, together with a unique type of square or rectangular frame drum played with the hands, known as the gumbe (also sometimes spelled gumbay or goombay)"

From Jonkonnu Celebration at Bellamy Mansion , February 04, 2008
"This [Jonkanoo] festival - a unique blend of West African traditions -- used to take place between Christmas and New Year's from antebellum times through the late 19th century. Originating in enslaved communities, it included masked dancers, vibrant costumes and original songs and chants performed to the sound of bones, cows' horns, drums and triangles. The musicians' songs were in the African tradition of call and response and included sometimes irreverant songs about their masters.

The group paraded from house to house, stopping to perform and collect coins and candies from the people inside, usually their white masters. The procession concluded at their quarters where festvities continued including the serving of foods, among them sweet cakes like gingerbread. The first recorded report of Jonkonnu was in 1774 from the Caribbean, where it still thrives. Jonkonnu appeared in North America, but it was not widespread. Antebellum accounts of the festivities all come from North Carolina. There are descriptions from Edenton, Hillsborough, and Creswell, but Jonkonnu thrived longest in the Wilmington area. In her 1861 book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs, an escaped slave from Edenton, recounted the excitement that accompanied the festive holiday event and describes the colorful ragman costumes, dancing, music, and gumba box drums.”

From Junkanoo in North Carolina: An African American Celebration" by Niambi Davis, Yahoo Contributor Network
Dec 25, 2010
..."Questions of spelling and origin aside, one thing is certain - Junkanoo is African to its core.
Junkanoo is considered a Bahamian or Jamaican tradition, but two centuries ago, African-Americans in North Carolina observed a nearly identical celebration. They called it Johnkankus; and like their Caribbean counterparts, masqueraders took to the road in costumes made from colorful rags, tattered clothing, wigs and cast-off finery. They wore masks and made music from whatever could be found - bottles, bones, spoons, castanets - anything that called up the ancestral rhythm; one that survived the middle passage and thwarted every futile attempt to stamp it out. Johnkankus was a festive time, a brief respite from the day-to-day grind of life as a slave. Harriet Jacobs, author of "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself," noted that "every child rises early on Christmas morning to see the Johnkankus...These companies of a hundred each, turn out early in the morning and are allowed to go around until twelve o'clock (midnight)."

Not everyone looked forward to Johnkankus with the same excitement. According to one observer "there are grades among the slaves as in all other classes of society, and those who rank highest will not join in this species of beggary and frolick combined."Johnkankus waned in popularity after emancipation. For many African Americans, instead of a celebration of heritage, it was an unwelcome reminder of their slave past. Shortened to "konering" or "coonering," the words became synonymous with "low-class buffoonery."...

"Junkanoo is a street parade with music which occurs in many towns across The Bahamas every Boxing Day (December 26), New Year's Day and, more recently, in the summer on the island of Grand Bahama. The largest Junkanoo parade happens in Nassau, the capital. There are also Junkanoo parades in Miami in June and Key West in October, where the local black American populations have their roots in the Bahamas. In addition to being a culture dance for the Garifuna people,[1] [2] this type of dancing is also performed in Jamaica on Independence day and other historical holidays."
The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #88125 Message #1651185
Posted By: Azizi
18-Jan-06 - 05:56 PM
Thread Name: Iko Iko
Subject: RE: Iko Iko
"I'm not sure if anyone else has made a connection between the Mardi Gras Indians and the Jonkonnu {John Canoe} celebrations by 19th* century {and probably earlier} African Americans in the South. Both feature masking and promenading in the streets. Both seem to be a blend of West African, Caribbean, and English traditions.

See this description of the early Mardi Gras Indian costumes from the Grateful Dead page whose link was provided earlier:

Reg Johnsey came up with this explanation {for the reference to chicken wire in the song "Iko Iko":
"The way country people celebrated Carnivale/Mardis Gras was to make conical masks out of chicken wire and decorate them, wearing them with costumes festooned with strips of cloth. So, the references to fixing someone's chicken wire sounds like a joking threat to mess up their masks, since part of the battle was how good the costumes were."

And see this excerpt from this website:
Pulse Planet: Jonkonnu"
*I wrote 18th century" but meant "19th century". However, I've read that the earliest date that Jonkanuu is documented in the Caribbean is 1774. That said, I think that it's unlikely that Jonkonoo customs occurred in the the United States until the 19th century.
Also, visit this pancocojams post "Jonkanoo, Gombey, New Orleans Indians, & The Philadelphia Mummers Costume Traditions" and read this historical overview of Jonkanoo

Example #1: One Family 2012 New Years Day Junkanoo 1

hugomanager, Uploaded on Jan 4, 2012
"One Family" is the name of a Jonkanoo group in the Bahamas.

Example #2: Saxons 2010 Boxing Day Junkanoo 14

hugomanager Uploaded on Dec 30, 2010
"Saxons" is the name of a Jonkanoo group in the Bahamas.

Example #3: Valley Boys 2011 New Years Junkanoo 1

hugomanager, Uploaded on Jan 3, 2011
"Valley Boys" is the name of a Jonkanoo group in the Bahamas.

Thanks to the editors of Mango Spice for the words to the song "Christmus A Come" and for information about Jonkanoo.

Thanks to all those who I quoted in this post and thanks to hugomanager for publishing the featured videos of contemporary Jonkanoo parade groups in the Bahamas.

Thanks for visiting pancoocjams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. The Oxford English Dictionary entry on 'John Canoe' gives 1774 as its first known reference in print, in English:

    1774 E. Long Hist. Jamaica II. iii. iii. 424 'The masquerader..dances at every door, bellowing out John ConnĂș!'

    (That reference is taken from a book by a planter, Edward Long · ''The history of Jamaica, or, general survey of the antient and modern state of that island'' · 1774.London)

    @1818 Matthew Gregory Lewis · ''Journal of a West India proprietor, kept during a residence in the Island of Jamaica'' · 1834, London 'The John-Canoe is a Merry-Andrew..bearing upon his head a kind of pasteboard house-boat.'

    It's odd that the headdress was boat-shaped. Joseph Johnson, a black sailor who earned his living in London in the Regency period by singing in the streets, was famous for wearing a similar item: []

    1825 R. Bickell W. Indies 214 'The crowds of Slaves..making John Canoe, as they term it, according to the customs of Africa.'

    1826 A. Barclay Pract. View Slavery W. Indies 11 'One or two Joncanoe-men, smart youths, fantastically dressed.'

    The first American citation OED gives is 1844, North Carolina, describing four young white men imitating the custom:'On Christmas day..four young fellows blacked themselves & dressed up in negro clothes..& the fiddler would play & the rest dance. They acted the part of ‘John Cunners’ very well.' (This reference is in a letter from a W. Bagley, dated 18 December 1844. It was published in a book on North Carolina speech: Norman Ellsworth Eliason ''Tarheel Talk'', 1956.)

    Perhaps Jonkanoo is related to Kalabari customs? Apparently they also feature elaborate head-dresses and act out a complex cycle of dance-dramas. []

    OED won't speculate on the origins of the word, beyond stating it's from 'a West African language'.

  2. slam2011, I believe that Nigerian masquerades are a probable source for Jonkanoo celebration and costumes. I wasn't aware of the Kalabari ethnic group in Nigeria before reading your comment. Thanks for sharing that information, and the other information about Jonkanoo.

    Here's the hyperlink to the article about the Kalabaris:

    Best wishes!

    1. Thanks for the good wishes, and here's to a Happy New Year for us both!