In Jamaica Jonkunoo is one of the oldest dance forms and traditional Christmas celebrations. It was typically performed on the three holidays allowed to the enslaved Africans in the English-speaking Caribbean – Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, although these days vary according to each author.
One source states that the name is based on John Konny, a West African tribal chief who rebelled against the Dutch settlers in the 1720s. He was enslaved but became a folk hero. The British also refers the name to “John Canoe,” thus the influence of some dance steps and English elements mixed with African traditions.
There are three main components to Jonkunoo: music, dance, and costume.
The costumed characters are accompanied by musicians who play well-known traditional songs on the bamboo fife, bass and rattling drums, shakas and graters.
The more popular steps of the dance included jigs and polkas, open cut out, one drop and marching tune, among others.
A Jonkunoo band is made up of several characters, most commonly they include the King and Queen, Cow Head, Horse Head, Pitchy Patchy, Red Indians and Belly Woman.
Modern Jonkunoo bands are rarely as large as they were in the 19th century. However, their skillful and energetic performances still manage to entertain, or terrify, audiences of all ages.
All participants wear masks. This is a novel kind of mask, made of very fine mesh-wire (to allow the performer to breathe), with features painted onto it in color. The essence of this masquerade is the disguise of the players, and recognition by the public of the characters whom they represent.
All are dressed in costume, and, according to traditional knowledge they all used to be men, with local variations according to each group.
It should be noted at this time that a year-long program was recently launched by the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sports to revive interest in this “fading, centuries-old, traditional” Jamaican folk form.
Info & Notes Compiled from various sources by UJAA MPR
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