Posting, or not (a Junkanoo meditation)

This is just was supposed to be a brief post. I'm surprised that the last post I made was last Friday! I hope those of you who check here regularly had a good Christmas.I began a post on Junkanoo, which I thought was good this year, once the general chaos that surrounded the change of date because of "weather", but it was getting so long I decided to move it to Word and rework it as an essay. The strange thing about it is that the post seems to be a little long for that purpose, Essays on Life averaging around 1,000, and the post looking like it wants to stretch out to 1,500. Nevertheless. I need an essay, so that's it.But that's not ready, so here's this one for size. This year's Junkanoo stirred a little excitement in me for the first time in a long, long time. I'm someone who has not only been attending Junkanoo off and on all my life, but who has rushed and judged and worked as an administrator and had a brother and cousins and uncles who were Junkanoo fanatics. But the last time I was truly excited by what I could see as innovation on the parades were the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the off-the-shoulder dancers were evolving into major elements of Junkanoo, when 3-D costumes were blowing people's minds, before tricks were able to hide the sloppy pasting of costumes and when choreographed dance was only just beginning to slide into the parade.I am one of those Junkanoo aficionados who disliked much of what happened in the 1990s, starting with the moving of brass from the periphery of the parades to the centre, the speeding up of the rhythm so that drummers were required to do no more than imitate drum machines, and the centrality of tricks. Some stuff I did appreciate were the emphasis on cowbells, and the development of a whole new way of cowbelling — the one musical development that I regarded as evolution rather than selling out — and the accompanying development of the beller costumes. And what I really did respect about the 1990s was the development of groups other than the Valley and the Saxons — because the 1980s were really a two-group show for most of the time.But anybody who knows me well will know that I have been saying for a long time — in my head it's almost ten years, but I may have been articulating it only for about five or six, since the turn of the millennium — that Junkanoo is going through a creative and organizational slump. The great leaders and innovators, the people who created this new parade are growing old, losing energy and struggling with internal politics, and not creating what they were, and the younger generation didn't seem to be having the same audacity and breadth of vision. People were content with playing it safe, it seemed; those people who were innovating and pushing boundaries often found themselves at the peripheries of their groups because the groups and the fans wanted victory, not creativity, and the judging system, and the philosophy behind it — which is more of a philosophy of popularity and mass appeal than one that empasizes quality and innovation — was extremely conservative.But this year, something changed.There have been clues to what's been happening for years. The major radicals in Junkanoo over the last 10 years have been the members of the B group category, many of whom have an entirely different agenda from the A groups, and who, having nothing really to lose, have introduced many concepts to the parade that have caught on and revolutionized the A groups' presentations.The musicians who dropped out of the parade at the end of the 1990s because the music of Junkanoo had been relegated to the back seat by the major leaders, have been extremely critical of what has happened to Junkanoo music for some time, as have I. Most of the Junkanoo leaders are visual artists, not musicians, and for some time it's been common to make the absurd claim that trained musicians are not capable of judging Junkanoo music, which is entirely different from all other music in the world.The main criticisms that musicians responded with stemmed from two primary sources. One (which I have often argued) is that what makes Junkanoo unique in among carnivals and street parades in general is that it is a music which is at its core a rhythmic conversation. The central instrument is the drum, and the secondary instrument is the cowbell. Everything else is an embellishment. Melody is not a primary part of Junkanoo music, which is only right, given the very direct connection Junkanoo has with West African music, where the primary impulse is usually rhythm, and where melody is secondary.The other (related to the first, but not necessarily in agreement with it at all times) is that musical identity is measured not only in rhythm but in tempo and emphasis, in harmonic progressions and in melodic choices. The core Junkanoo beat is rhythmically similar to the Brazilian samba — which didn't surprise me when I first heard about it, because I know the strong Yoruba tradition in both countries. However, Junkanoo is a slower beat, and the rhythmic emphasis falls in a different place. In samba it falls on an off-beat; in Junkanoo it falls on the downbeat. This is what gives samba its swing and what gives Junkanoo its strong marching impetus. The speeding up of the rhythm in the 1990s, and its relegation to support of tunes rather than its placing at the core of the celebration, eroded the distinction between Junkanoo and samba and threatened the very survival of the unique Junkanoo beat. (Here I'm talking about the basic beat, not the variations that once marked the different stages of a Junkanoo participation, or the adaptations that distinguished the different Junkanoo groups and let you know who was coming by the rhythm alone. That is a different complaint altogether.)Anyway, coupled with this speeding-up was an empasis on the bass drum, which is a relatively new innovation in the city parades, and a real one (adopted from the Fox Hill Congoes, who have always had a strong bass core to their music, as opposed to the city groups, who relied far more on the tenor drums). Those people who were new to Junkanoo and were learning to beat in the real-fast days and who sometimes couldn't master the more complex lead rhythms were often assigned to play the bass beat, which is primarily a two-note beat. In true Junkanoo music it's supposed to sound like the words "da FOOT", with the emphasis on FOOT, and a nice short clipped "da". But many of the bass drummers are young people who listen to a whole lot of hip-hop and so they are playing an entirely different rhythm, one which they've learned from abroad. And so the rhythmic base of Junkanoo, once again, was in danger of being lost.And the introduction of melody into the parade and its newfound centrality was a decidedly mixed blessing. For some reason I won't go into here or now, current generations of Bahamians seem to have lost the ability to distinguish tunefulness in melody. In other words, there's a massive tolerance for music that is horribly out of tune; and Junkanoo is the worst offender. What is overlooked is that for many people, music that is played out of tune is physically painful (I'm one of them, but thank heaven my pain is minimal, and out-of-tune notes just make me screw up my face and want to stick my fingers in my ears). I have known individuals, though, who have to leave a room when they hear notes that are not right because their heads hurt or their stomachs turn. For years, brass players in Junkanoo appear to have simply begun blowing their instrument, without bothering to make certain that their horns were in tune with everybody else's, with the result that the music was often painfully off. (It still is at many of the tourist events, which is one reason I avoid Cafe Johnny Canoe on Friday nights).Finally, and this is a criticism raised by those people who understand not only Junkanoo as a so-called cultural expression but also in its historical context as a channel of social protest, 99% of Junkanoo has sold out. It doesn't criticize anything any more, but rather perpetuates a shallow and complacent view of society and the world that emphasizes the pretty and the whiteman friendly and that doesn't offend anybody at any time. There's plenty of prettiness, of tune-choosing and colour-matching, but little to no observation of social ills, no interpretation of Bahamian society to its audience, no showing of ourselves to ourselves, no critique, no edge. Sting is the obvious exception, as were the P.I.G.S. before them, but even Sting is growing vanilla. The difference between the Toters and the Civil Servant song is wide.This year?Let me say this. This Boxing Day, most of my criticisms melted away.The rhythms were tighter, and more obviously Junkanoo. The speed of Junkanoo music has slowed down considerably, and drummers are once again able to do more than beat four strokes. The best of them are being given the scope to provide the rhythmic variation that adds texture to the music, and fewer of the bass drum players are playing hip-hop rhythms, though some of them still are falling into that trap. And almost every A group had a horn section that was at least in tune, and that had sensibly arranged music. Finally, it seemed to me, brass had found a fit with Junkanoo, rather than the other way around.The costumes were more thoughtful, better finished, and better executed parade-wide than they have been for a long time. The themes seemed to have been more carefully selected, and their interpretation was worth waiting for; each group provided something actually to think about. And of course, this year, the younger groups not only came into their own, but they were recognized for having done so by the judges at long last.The only thing that still holds true is that Junkanoo has very little edge. It's still a celebration of prettiness, a hailing of all the icing in the society, but with no critique of the recipe that made the cake. The Music Makers, who were the group one looked to for the social commentary back in The Day (when their theme Law, Order and Discipline hit the streets back in the early 1980s, they were taking a risk, because they were satirizing the rhetoric of a government in which corruption was rampant, and which was in the process of being exposed), went safe, providing history without critique.But you can't have everything. At least this year I can say that what I saw in Junkanoo was art as well as sport.We've come a long way; we're climbing out of the canyon, and we're heading for a mountaintop.I hope it's not too soon to rejoice.