Yes, Virginia, I'm still alive

... and more to the point still standing, and still able to lift my arms (albeit with some effort).

Sperrit rushed this new year in, with gold paint, newspaper fringe, carnival masks and hats. We were: 3 drums, 2 bells, a conch shell, a scraper, and a bicycle horn. We had one lead dancer and two free dancers. One person had never rushed before. I think she had a good time. I had not rushed on Bay Street in 25 years, and hadn't rushed at all since 1994. I did not die.

I'm waiting for photographs of which I approve to post them.

I apologize to all those who tried, I'm told, to catch my eye on Bay Street and in Rawson Square. I was (1) in the zone; and (2) concentrating on making it to Elizabeth without falling out and embarrassing myself. If I rush next year (which depends on whether Sperrit goes out on Boxing Day (NOT rushing) or New Year's (will be rushing) I may be far more sociable.

But hear this: I had me a good ol' time.

For the Fiftieth

Just woke up.Let me backtrack. These holidays are my fiftieth: my fiftieth Christmas, my fiftieth new year's day celebrations. Not that I have much memory of the first of either (I have photographs of both, and a very fleeting series of memories of the former, which I know I spent in Delancy Street in the upstairs apartment that now belongs to my friend Leria McKenzie, and which involves the receipt of what was then a gigantic stuffed panda bear), but the numbers won't let me lie. They are my fiftieth.Christmas 1963, Delancy Street, NassauJust so people don't get confused: I was born in March 1963, which means that the Christmas season of 1963-4 was my first. Next spring I will be fifty, ten years and four months older than our nation. This, I realize, makes me an "elder" these days. I was on Clifford Park with numerous other Bahamians at midnight on July 10, 1973, which makes me part of the independence generation, part of that group who bears responsibility for building, or not building, this nation.This is a long way of saying that this New Year's Day I will be rushing, not reporting, judging, administering or studying Junkanoo. Let me be clear. I will be rushing hardcore scrap, as I have always done. This year, for the second or third time in my life, I will be rushing in newspaper. I have been told, though I do not agree, that to rush scrap is "disrespectful" to "real" groups. It's New Year's Day, however, and this is a parade that I regard as scrap's parade, that I regard as having been hijacked from ordinary people's participation for the love of Junkanoo and of music by the big groups (don't worry, I'm not going to fight about it). I am not rushing to be pretty; I hope at some point in the parade to sound good. And not, by the way, to expire before I make it back to where we started from.So happy new year all. This year will bring changes. New years always do. I wish blessings on all my friends, allies, colleagues and sparring partner. Have a good one.

Preserving tradition in Jamaica - Jonkonnu and Christmastime

We love to believe in the uniqueness of our traditions. Well, let me correct myself. We love to believe in the uniqueness of Junkanoo. The heartbeat of a people, we've called it. Festival of The Bahamas. The cultural pinnacle of our selves, our lives, our work (I trust my priests will forgive me for this). If I were to collect up the tweets and FB status updates* I found on Junkanoo this year, I could make a book of them. And that book would be smug. And purring.We tend to forget -- or, more probably, we don't know -- that Junkanoo in the Bahamas is not unique. It is expressed uniquely, to be sure, though what the modern parade has become is a fascinating mash-up of African-American and Trinidadian elements, many of them eclipsing the traditional core (though it survives in pockets here and there). We tend to ignore the fact that our Christmas carnival (yes, I use that word advisedly) is one of several such John Canoe festivals in the so-called New World. And perhaps most of us don't know that the most studied and written-about John Canoe festival may still be Jamaica's Jonkonnu, and not ours (though that is rapidly changing).So in the interest of broadening horizons, then, a taste of what happens in Jamaica at Christmas:

Screams pierced the air like sharp knives, high above the sounds of fifes and drums and even a grater that created music for dancers in colourful costumes. Children, teenagers and even adults were sent running; they were afraid.One little boy could not manage the excitement. Scared of the men in the masks, he escaped the grasp of a guardian and ran into the arms of another, in an attempt to get away from the taunts of a dancer. There was no gruesome end to the story though, as the Kayaea Jonkonnu Group performed on the streets of downtown Kingston recently.

The group had just finished a stage performance when they took to the streets, giving many an experience they had never had before - though the tradition is more than a few decades old. Some pretended, as part of the excitement, but many in the crowd watching the festivities were genuinely afraid of the antics of the dancers who charged at them aggressively, while all the time demonstrating a variety of dance movements.

Behind the masks and the costumes, there is much happening.

via Jamaica Gleaner News - Preserving tradition - Jonkonnu dancers find it hard to remain viable

So here's my question. When does change become too much change? When do we adapt so much that we no longer recognize ourselves? I'm not sure myself; I'm tossing this idea out to provoke thought. Or not. As you wish.

*Not at all sure that these links will remain active OR visible by people who don't tweet or do facebook ...

Christmas in Nassau

is by far the biggest holiday of the year. It's not just Christmas, of course, though that's important, a time for sprucing up and family gatherings and very conspicuous consumption, but also because of Junkanoo, which happens on Boxing Day and then again on New Year's Day. If you're lucky, there's a cold snap and you can wear all your long-sleeved, northern fashions without expiring from heat prostration; and it's the one time everybody stays up all night just for the hell of it.Just thought you'd like to know. Or if you already know, thought you might like the reminder.

The Journal meets the Tridian

I work for government. That means several things. One of them was this: when it happened, I didn't feel at liberty to comment on the acquisition, in July 2007, of the Nassau Guardian by the Tribune Media Ltd.There was plenty of noise about the merger, but most of that was sound and fury, signifying nothing, as most noise in The Bahamas tends to be these days. Probably the best post about the issue can be found here. Illuminati wrote:

On the surface it looks like a rather benign business arrangement created to save the big dailies some money by combining resources and physical operations.But is it even a JOA?A true joint operating agreement (JOA) is usually formed to protect a business from failure, yet prevent monopolization within an industry by allowing each party to retain some form of separate operation. JOAs are used in the newspaper, health care, gas and oil, and other industries.In a small town, like Nassau, where the business community is basically controlled by a closely knit group, it is hard to see how such an arrangement will benefit anyone but the media moguls themselves.

Illuminati concluded:

"Leading corporations own the leading news media and their advertisers subsidize most of the rest. They decide what news and entertainment will be made available to the country; they have direct influence on the country's laws by making the majority of the massive campaign contributions that go to favored politicians; their lobbyists are permanent fixtures in legislatures. This inevitably raises suspicions of overt conspiracy. But there is none. Instead, there is something more insidious: a system of shared values within contemporary Bahamian corporate culture and corporations' power to extend that culture to the Bahamian people, inappropriate as it may be." -- with apologies to Ben Bagdikian from Media Monopoly.

Now, six months later, we appear to live in a country where freedom of the press may be a moot point. The fact is that whether the press is free or not, it appears uninclined (or unable) to carry out the kind of investigative reporting that allows for analysis and sensible discussion of those issues. Maybe that means that worries about a news monopoly (worries that, admittedly, I shared back in July) now seem specious. A gossip monopoly, perhaps, considering the tendency of too many papers these days to print first, confirm facts after. But a news monopoly?The problem is, whether the Tridian is printing news or gossip, what Illuminati quoted back in the summer is still worth considering -- that news monopolies decide what news and entertainment will be made available to the country [and] have direct influence on the country's laws by making the majority of the massive campaign contributions that go to favored politicians.But here's the interesting thing. Six months after the merger, neither the Tribune nor the Guardian is leading public opinion with regard to Junkanoo, the biggest newsmaker of any year. No. The Bahama Journal is the paper that's doing that, at least for now. Is this a sign of things to come?

Kadooment? Junkanoo?

This post by Dennis Jones about the Bajan Kadooment festival this year is interesting, specially in what it says about the similarities and differences between the two.Here's an excerpt:

We spent some time over the weekend arguing about the cultural content of Kadooment compared to Junkanoo (see link), which is a similar street event that takes place in The Bahamas (principally, in Nassau) over the Christmas and New Year period. I think every one of the Caribbean countries has strong feelings about its main people-in-the-streets event, whether Carnival, Kadooment, or Junaknoo or whatever. A lot of effort and energy is put in by all involved. In Barbados and Trinidad, for instance, costumes are mainly made for the performers to buy and wear. In The Bahamas, most performers spend a good amount of time making their own costumes (see picture of performer in Nassau).Each event has its own cultural richness, which comes from what people put into their part of the event (participating on the street or supporting from the side). It's funny, though, that the events seem to be mired in some sort of controvery each year, wherver they are held. In Nassau, one of the major controversies each year is about the judging. The festivals are also developing. Junkanoo costumes are essentially paper (now crepe) and card. Traditionalists may still feel that the event has good very far from its origins by moving from fringed newspaper, to now include beads, glitter, and feathers. If the style is to have costumes made for sale, so be it; this may give more people a chance to do what they want rather than finding scarce time to do another activity. It also creates another industry and that could be a benefit down the road (so to speak) when one thinks about ways of marketing the region's culture. Both events are now very colourful and energetic, and still manage to get a lot of people out of their homes to watch or jump each year. Junkanoo is also different in that the bands have their own music (with drums, horns and cow bells, which give the parade a very different kind of energy as the bands pass the crowds).

My Favourite New Blog

outside the linesMy brother's blog. The first Junkanoo blog I've come across. At least for now it's Junkanoo.And yeah, I'm biased. So what?It's got some great posts already, like this one:

Red, white and blueI can remember the first times I actually rushed, though. In fact I remember the year before that, when my parents thought I was too young to rush. I was three weeks shy of my sixth birthday. I was dying to rush - Adrian, my cousin, had rushed that year with his father, Uncle Johnny. Mark, Adrian’s brother, and I were still too young, though. You have to remember that junkanoo was different back then, it was rougher - or so our parents told us. I don’t think junkanoo participation was accepted among the middle classes they way it is now - none of my friends at school did it, and my other Grandmother, Grammy Lilly definitely didn’t approve. Then again, she was Brethren, so that doesn’t really say much.Anyway, that year Mark and I were still too young. Mummy and Auntie Sonja (Mark and Adrian’s Mum) made it up to us by making us costumes as well, so that the three of us could parade around in a mini junkanoo on Christmas.I remember that costume so well - just shirt and pants mind you, but still, my first junkanoo costume. Red, white and blue. Uncle Johnny rushed with the Westerners, one of the last traditional, old time groups to survive (in the old days, groups would form out of neighbourhoods - the Westerners came from the Virginia St area, by St Mary’s Church).Red, white and blue. In those days, old time junkanoo groups would come would come out with everybody wearing a pasted shirt pants and hat with horizontal stripes of the same colours. The decorative costumes were carried by individuals for the most part in those days.

And this one:

Making it to Bay

I guess what I resent most is that when we debate and argue about what is more important to junkanoo, the history or the future, because that’s what the debate is really about, we are putting the cart before the horse. The question shouldn’t be “How important is scrap to junkanoo” but rather “How important is junkanoo to scrap”.What I’m getting at is you can’t assume that just because you spend ten months preparing costumes, music, dance and performance for the parade, rushing is more important to you than if you spend ten minutes throwing together a scrap costume.The feeling is the same both ways. Scrap or big group, no matter what the cost, you’ve got to make it to Bay. I’ll tell you a story.I always thought the funniest, weirdest thing to see was a drummer rushing down Bay beating a burst drum. You don’t see it that much these days with all the Tom Toms and what-not, but in days gone by you’d be sure to see several burst drums being played in scrap and in the big groups. I could never figure it out - especially being a drummer myself - why would you continue to rush when your whole purpose for rushing - making music - was over?I didn’t get it.Until one New Years parade.

And this one:


Junkanoo Themes are a big thing these days. For last year’s parade, a special ceremony was held where group representatives announced their themes and read the synopsis, a “short” description of the theme. Well, I wasn’t there, but looking at the official record of group entries, some of these synopses were three and four pages long!Not like back in the old days when the theme was three words or less: “Arabian Nights”, “Egypt”, “Bahamian flowers”, and was taken from world geography or Bahamian nature. Nowadays, the theme alone is a few phrases long - “World Religions: Icons, symbols and practices of the major religions around the globe: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.”I especially like to see the contrast between the Boxing Day and New Year’s Day themes. The New Year’s theme always has to be more flexible. You see, on New Year’s the theme has to accommodate those costumes that are being recycled from Boxing Day. Of course everyone says they build all their costumes fresh for New Years, but … The funniest Boxing Day/New Year’s Day pairing was from the year Nelson Mandela was freed. On Boxing Day, the PIGS came with “Let my people go: free Mandela, free South Africa, free the world”. On New Years the came with “Law and Order: we done let everyone go Boxing Day, now we got to lock them back up!”

Ideas and comments from around The Bahamas on culture

... and Junkanoo:Ian Strachan on culture

Mr. Smith: When you wrote "God’s Angry Babies" which was very sympathetic to the illegal immigrant population, my information now is the significant amount of sympathy that was there before has been some what eroded by the new image of the new illegal migrant. Any impact from that group on the new Bahamian?

Mr. Strachan: I think that the history of Haitian migration in the Bahamas is a lot longer than the casual observer might imagine. Really, the connection stems back 100 years, what we have now though is a more pronounced separation in terms of living conditions between the Bahamian of the 21st Century and the Haitian peasant who is risking his life to come here, their living conditions haven’t changed much in 50-70 years.

Mr. Smith: But there is also a new Haitian.

Mr. Strachan: I think he is a new Bahamian. That’s my view.

Maurice Tynes on Junkanoo

I have not participated in the junkanoo parades for a number of years. While sitting in the bleachers and watching the parades during this period, I have not been impressed. It appears that the groups, or their leaders, are losing and may have lost their creative edge. The regurgitation of themes, the similarity of costumes from year to year and from group to group, and the seeming difficulty of groups to define or stamp a unique brand has led me to this conclusion. The management and administration of the parades need major overhaul. For one thing I do not believe that junkanoo leaders can or should head the Junkanoo Commission. There seem to be too many inherent conflicts. It appears that one or two junkanoo leaders have the arrogant view that they own and should control every aspect of the parade. I believe that the postponement of the Boxing Day Parade was a direct result and manifestation of this arrogance. How could you postpone a national cultural parade twenty-four hours before the scheduled start of that parade? A weather system could stall, dissipate or radically change direction within twenty-four hours. We do harm to our cultural development locally and internationally when we make these selfish decisions. We all appreciate the time, effort and Labor of love that go into preparing for the parades, but the spectators have as much right to ownership of junkanoo as the leaders. The Junkanoo Commission should be headed by persons who are unattached to junkanoo groups and who have knowledge of junkanoo and possess the highest integrity. We do have such persons in the Bahamas. Some of these persons may have at one time been part of a junkanoo group, but have been unattached to the group for a number of years. Junkanoo groups should be represented on the Commission but in an advisory and consultative capacity.

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.