Downtown Nassau is abuzz with excitement as the calendar winds down to the most anticipated event of the year- Junkanoo! Every year, groups of Bahamians outfit themselves in handmade costumes and dance through the streets of Downtown Nassau overnight and into the morning with a grand mixture of European brass and traditional African instruments, like goatskin drums and cow bells. Prior to the Abolition of Slavery under British Rule in 1834, Junkanoo was an expression of temporary freedom in Downtown Nassau, but today it has become a cultural marker involving music, dance and international social critique, making our Bahamian Junkanoo, hosted over Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, one of the most unique and renowned festivals in The Caribbean! To make sure you feel the rush of this spectacular street festival while you’re visiting Nassau during the holidays, we’ve prepared a guide about all things Junkanoo, including how to get tickets, what to eat, and how to appreciate this boisterous expression of truly Bahamian proportions!
The History Of Junkanoo
Credit: Old Bahamas
Junkanoo is a street festival of West African origins held during Christmas time here in Nassau. A large portion of our African ancestors arrived in The Bahamas in the 1780s following the American Revolutionary War as slaves of the United Loyalists, while others arrived after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 as Liberated Africans, freed from illegal slave ships and escaped from other Caribbean Islands. During this period, Junkanoo was celebrated over the three-day holiday granted by slave owners at Christmas time. Throughout the ages, Junkanoo has been a vibrant, colourful movement that demonstrates both family and wider community bonds. Today, while still a celebration of our history, Junkanoo also serves as a medium of social critique.
In more recent history, the festival has also become an intense competition, where six major groups (Colours, Music Makers, One Family, Roots, Saxons and Valley Boys) each with thousands of members, compete against each other for prizes based on theme, choreography, costume, and music. This has encouraged Junkanoo groups to push the limits of their craft, working on gigantic styrofoam, crepe, and papier mache floats and practicing their musical selections months in advance in preparation for the big events. Junkanoo has become such an integral part of Bahamian culture, that large companies actively support various groups, donating money and supplies to help fund the spectacular floats and costumes.
When Does Junkanoo Take Place?
Credit: National Geographic
If you’re looking to experience this authentic celebration of national pride, we recommend securing tickets for the main events on December 26th (Boxing Day) and January 1st (New Year’s Day), the two traditional days of the Junkanoo festivities.
However, even if you’re not in Nassau during the holiday season, there are many other opportunities to witness this rhythmic parade throughout the year, including:
- Sample Junkanoo on Saturday evenings at 9:30pm at Marina Village (within the Atlantis Resort) on Paradise Island
- Be serenaded at local restaurants when celebrating a birthday hoorah or special occasion at downtown restaurants like Lukka Kairi on the wharf and Luciano’s on the harbourfront
- Get close to the action during our Goombay Summer Festival, where small Junkanoo groups rush through the downtown area and Arawak Cay in Nassau every Friday evening in the month of August.
- Delve further into the origins of the parade at Barabbas & The Tribe, view Junkanoo-themed art exhibitions at The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas and even make your own costumes at Educulture Museum run by cultural custodian and historian, Arlene Nash.
Note: Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival held for the first time in May 2015 is distinct from traditional Junkanoo in that it only features elements of our festival and is designed to be a multi-day experience of musical performances by contemporary artists.
Where Are The Best Spots To Watch Junkanoo?
The are a few choices when it comes to places to watch the Junkanoo Festival, all with varying vantage points and prices. Your options include:
Located along the Shirley Street and Bay Street stretches, these tall bleachers offer a fairly good view with the best spots located at Rawson Square in the heart of downtown Nassau- where judging of the groups takes place.
Ticket Price– $16-$100 depending on bleacher location
The bleachers are great but for optimal comfort and leisure we recommend hooking up with a private balcony, overlooking Bay Street. Some restaurants opt to stay open during the festival, serving alcoholic beverages and finger foods, often in package deals with your tickets! Two restaurants definitely staying open on parade nights are:
Bahama Jammers: for Bahamian favourites like Guava Chicken Wings and Bahama Mama cocktails
Where To Buy Your Tickets– #5 Colony Place, Bay Street, opposite George Street
Ticket Price– $80/admission, Email: email@example.com for more information
Lifestylez Bar & Lounge: for a scenic view and bottomless glasses of your favourite drinks!
Where To Buy Your Tickets– Bay Street and East Street at Bacardi
Ticket Prices– $35/lounge admission, $75/ lounge admission with drinks included all night, $80/exclusive balcony view, $150/exclusive balcony with seating and drinks included
You can also watch the festival for free by simply standing on the streets. We think the least crowded option for observing is on Shirley Street and Parliament Street near the Nassau Public Library. Keep in mind that because that spot is admission-free, you’ll have no seating (not to mention you’ll be at the mercy of the port-o-potties). This is only recommended if you want to view the festival for an hour or so, and therefore is not suggested for the full festival experience.
What To Expect At Junkanoo
Credit: Fest 300
With so much at stake at the event, there are a few considerations to take into account in planning your night downtown for the night of your Junkanoo experience:
How & When To Head Downtown: We recommend arriving downtown before 11:00pm because, while your tickets may designate a specific bleacher section in the stands, the seats themselves are basically a free for all. Parking is also limited to the outskirts of downtown and typically the traffic is heavy so if you have rented or own a vehicle, it might still make more sense to pre-arrange for private or taxi transportation.
When The Festival Begins: It’s safe to expect a delay in the festivities. While Junkanoo is always scheduled to start at between 12:00am-1:00am, the event usually doesn’t actually start until after 2:00am and typically runs until sun-up, around 10:00am the next day.
What To Eat And Drink: There is no shortage of food for purchase at Junkanoo! Stalls dot the streets selling finger foods like conch fritters and chicken wings and snacks like cracked conch and baked macaroni and cheese. Alcoholic beverages will not be on sale during the event because of the no glass bottle tolerance during the event but frozen drinks like virgin daiquiris are available for consumption. Remember: if you snag a seat at any of the balcony restaurants, adult-friendly drinks will be for sale, or maybe even included in your ticket!
Where To Take a Break: Balcony guests will have the luxury of private restrooms, but portable public facilities will be available for bleacher guests and those standing on the street. Another alternative would be the Ministry of Tourism Office’s public bathrooms on Parliament Street directly next to Rawson Square.
Photographer’s Tip: Junkanoo is a grand celebration of Bahamian identity and history, an expression of freedom and of national pride. It is ever-changing, so never expect to see the same float or costume twice. Our final tip is to grab a camera and record this slice of Bahamian culture, for every Junkanoo festival is a once-in-a-lifetime event!
Bonus! For Family Island Travellers
Not planning to be in Nassau over the holidays, instead visiting one of our majestic Bahamian Family Islands, like Harbour Island, Bimini, Andros, or Abaco? They too celebrate Junkanoo in their own, intimate ways! To learn more about specific parades in the islands, go to:www.myoutislands.com/bahamas-events
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