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Junka Time Is Here: The Evolution Of The Junkanoo Sound

NOELLE NICOLLS

Tribune Features Editor

nnicolls@tribunemedia.net

MUSICIANS at the Junka Shack Studio are taking Junkanoo artistry in a new direction with the latest evolution in Bahamian music.

It is the sound you hear before the trance consumes your senses on Junkanoo morning - not the full weight of the music that enraptures your soul as you experience it full force, but the tiny little sound you hear when you first approach Bay Street.

Bahamians know the sound, because it makes them quicken their pace as they weave through the crowd in search of a space to witness the open-air parade of Bahamian culture.

It is the sound that drives their senses into a frenzy, prompting them to rise to their feet and look down the street to see who comin'.

"That is the essence of Junkanoo and that is in essence Junka," said musician, producer Brent Justice, owner of the Junka Shack Studio.

Justice, who can be called a musical mad scientist, is the architect of the new Bahamian musical genre called Junka.

He decoded the Bay Street sound and broke down Junkanoo into the syntax of musicians, numbers and time signatures.

Building on the rudimentary Bay Street sound, he translated conventional Junkanoo into music fit for studio production and the international stage.

"Junka is a derivative of that open air conventional Junkanoo. It is studio produced music, played on conventional instruments. There is a lot of manipulation going on, but what is being held firm is the time signatures, which makes it different from reggae, pop, jazz or rock," said Justice.

Junka has the capacity to represent the heart and soul of Junkanoo, with just five or six musicians assembled on a set stage, using the conventional instruments (guitar, bass, keyboard, brass, drums, percussion), said Justice.

This is necessary because music of the world is played on a standard stage that is preset, he said. Everyone has the same tools to work with to represent their indigenous sound.

"Now you might have one goat skin drum up there, but no, you aren't going to have 40 goat skin drums and 60 cowbell ringers. How do you afford that? You are going to take 40 drummers around the world and try to say you are going to make a living off your music. No, we need five or six of musicians on the stage making that music happen as a band, as a Junka band," said Justice.

"That is what we are working on - Junka bands playing Junka music like you have reggae bands playing reggae music or a pop band playing pop music. That is what we are after. We want five, six guys on a stage, playing instruments that everyone knows, representing what we know in our heart as Junkanoo," he said.

More than 30 years ago, it was Bahamian recording artist Jay Mitchell who first used the word Junka, according to Justice. Mitchell released a 1984 album with the Hot Ice Band called "Junka Heat". On the Junka Records label he also released a solo album, "Junka City".

Mitchell was known as the James Brown of the Bahamas at the time. His Junkanoo-inspired, funky soul music was world renowned. However, it never became cemented as a Bahamian genre.

The word Junka deeply resonated with Justice when he first heard it, but the feeling sat dormant. In the end, the gestation period for Junka took three decades.

"When I heard the word Junka, it rang true for me, from a word, sound, power perspective. I put it down for a long time. I never really checked for it, because I was busy dealing with reggae. Then I kept hearing over and repeatedly the cry for more Bahamian music and I started to take note," said Justice.

In the course of the trials he experienced as a musician, Justice said he stumbled on the feeling a second time. This time, however, he had a greater vision: not just to be a musician or a producer, but to establish a champion Bahamian sound that could include and represent all Bahamians.

Justice spent many years playing reggae, first with the Jah Love Band, then with the Justice Band and later as a solo artist. At some point, Justice grew uncomfortable with the thought that as a Bahamian he could throw a reggae attack at the drop of a beat, but came up empty when he drew for a Bahamian song.

He said he had been deaf to the cries of Fred Ferguson and other musicians, but not because he did not support a nationalistic vision when it came to music.

"At the time, when I heard Fred Ferguson say 'play Bahamian', I was like, what Bahamian music? I could not relate to what he was talking about; there was no relationship. And I saw an enormous variation between Bahama Men, KB, Ira Storr, Funky D, Geno D, Sweet Emily, Ronny Butler, and the likes. All of them were playing what they claim is Bahamian music, and technically it is, but if you mix all of them down into one big pot there is no common sound grounding the music," said Justice.

"I consider rake n' scrape to be the strongest common energy, but even there they were all playing different variables."

In the case of Junkanoo, Justice said he was confronted with the contradiction of hearing distinctly Bahamian rhythms from the harmony of goat skin drums, cow bells and whistles, combined with music from the brass sections playing international and local gospel, hip hop, calypso, reggae and rake n' scrape covers. But there was no original melody, no lyrics and no message. Junkanoo as an art form, he said, was essentially underdeveloped as a musical form.

When Justice summed it all up, he realised that unlike Jamaica with reggae, Trinidad and Tobago with soca, the United States with hip hop, Haiti with Kompa, or West Africa and the Francophone Caribbean with Zouk, the Bahamas lacked a title champion genre.

"I slowed down on creating reggae tunes and took more time to see how the musical numbers play inside Junkanoo and reggae. I used reggae as a benchmark because I knew it. I compared Junkanoo rudiments to reggae rudiments and I found out they were totally different as far as the numbers applied," said Justice.

The musical backbone of Junka is Junkanoo. The foundation is strong enough to ground any Bahamian artist, whether they are currently playing rake n' scrape, reggae or rap, he said.

"I am going to say it loud and proud: every living artist in the Bahamas, in my opinion, will very, very easily, self-identify with this music. From when they hear this, they will marry to this. They're going to have to embrace it, and then if they don't embrace it straight on, they are going to take it home, redress it and bring it back out dressed in a different shirt," said Justice.

One of the other strengths of Junka is its musical range. Justice said calypso-style genres like rake n' scrape are known for their major chord positions. These tend to inspire feel-good, "humorous and happy songs", he said.

"On major chord positions, everyone sings happy tunes; it makes you want to sing, stomp your feet and shake your bungie. No one is taking minor chord positions and getting philosophical and reflective. If you want to deal with people's reality you need to get into minor chords and reach people with message," said Justice.

While he sees a place for all music, Justice said Junka's wide range offers great appeal for the full gamut of Bahamian musicians.

Although Junka is a fledgling musical genre "only jus' born", Justice said it will no doubt shake the world once it takes root. If Bahamian musicians bring their collective energy in a concentrated and sustained way, "in three years The Bahamas would have a genre on the top 100 charts and it will be called Junka", said Justice.

"Junka is like a young baby. It is still in diapers, with a nipple in its mouth. It still needs its mother's care. You have to handle it with kid gloves and respect it," said Justice.

He is in this for the long haul, and in time, he said, the music will mature into something widely embraced as a distinctly Bahamian and universally appealing sound.

The Junka Shack Studio is currently working on a "Best of Junka" album. It recently released Justice's Junka single "Hold On" online.

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