By ADRIAN GIBSON
THE importation of carnival – in the form of the Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival – is a mistake that can only be likened to a forced ripe dilly.
The Junkanoo Carnival lacks authenticity and, frankly, amounts to a crude attempt to link something inauthentic for the purpose of meeting the market place to authentic aspects of our native culture.
Over time, I have noticed how Bahamian culture is quickly becoming a hybrid culture that is being corroded almost daily. The food Bahamians consume, the music we often listen to and our dress code is heavily influenced by our exposure to the American way of life, whether via the medium of television, interacting with tourists or by travelling. Bahamians seem to have a voracious yearning to keep up with the Joneses – foreign countries – emulating their fashion, entertainment and various other cultural influences. It is most significant when one notes that we have seemingly discarded the cultural contributions of Bahamians for nothing less than commercialised and imported pop culture.
In short, it seems clear that we are more and more evolving into imitators as opposed to being seen as underrated originators.
I share the concerns of the cultural community about the Junkanoo Carnival; however, I disagree with the Church’s argument concerning the same.
The premise of carnival as articulated by the government is not unreasonable in the sense of trying to create a new source of revenue for our country. But, everything that has been done thus far has been botched or simply wrong and wholly mismanaged.
Carnival is already associated with other countries in the Caribbean/North and South America (Trinidad, New Orleans, Brazil, etc) and, quite honestly, it’s traditionally a festival primarily held in Catholic countries to prepare for the onset of the Lenten season. We don’t have such traditional fetes here. There wasn’t a strong Catholic tradition in The Bahamas until the 1800s and around that time the slaves usually went out during the Christmas season and celebrated junkanoo with the beating of goat skin drums, horns and so on. Today, even junkanoo – in its truest sense – is hardly recognisable.
For the most part, carnivals are held in February, with participants engaging in an all-out street party, wearing masks, tossing beads around, gyrating wildly and happily and, in some instances, showing their private parts which would in return earn the exhibitionist cheers and more bead necklaces. It is also a fete steeped in culture and music.
And so, even whilst our government seeks to rip off this carnival concept, it is not only bastardising junkanoo, but it is also debasing carnival itself. In its truest sense, any carnival should be held at least six weeks before Easter; it is that time before Lent when people could have a one last big blow, eating and drinking rich foods and living it up before engaging on a 40-day period of fasting and/or a period of atonement.
So, how then could a carnival held in May – after the Lenten period – be seen as a carnival? One could argue that the government’s proposed bacchanal is neither junkanoo nor is it a carnival. So what is it?
I’m told that were it not for a last minute compromise – where the word “junkanoo” was thrown in the title of the event – there would be no reference to junkanoo or any of the firm pillars of Bahamian culture. It is a shame and a disgrace that junkanoo, the major cultural festival of The Bahamas, yearly struggles to find sponsorship and, rather than making this function more attractive and well run, the government has chosen to bring in foreign entities, financed by the public and, even more, seek to import an international performer who is now washed up and B-rated at best. It was only after a public backlash that discussions began to centre on bringing in Barbadian-born songstress Rihanna or Beyonce (who purportedly has Bahamian ties).
Thus far, the fallout concerning the proposed fete has been so severe that members of the commission, with responsibility for planning the event, have resigned. Moreover, the Church, the Official Opposition and the cultural community have all panned the event.
Frankly, if one were to look at the subpar performance of the government concerning Junkanoo Carnival and a number of other nationally significant issues, they have shown that they can mess up a two-car funeral! Amazingly, a mere four months before the spectacle is to be unveiled to the world, the whole affair is seemingly in shambles.
The idea of participation in a street party/festival to commercialise the art form is certainly something that could happen with junkanoo.
I was discussing the proposed festival with a friend and, among other things, he said he looked at it from another angle as well, stating: “It’s great that they could sell costumes, which look great on nubile females, but are they saying that one can only participate if they small in figure? What if a heavy set person wishes to participate, how would those costumes be configured? What is the message being sent to our population, a good proportion of whom - about 70 per cent - are overweight? Is it that only slim and attractive people need apply? Does participation in the cultural event require a certain pre-qualification?”
Clearly, Prime Minister Perry Christie is himself trying to salvage this proposed carnival, openly begging the former committee members to rescind their resignations. What’s more, he has sidelined his clueless Minister of Youth, Sports and Culture, Danny Johnson, and invited Minister of Tourism Obie Wilchcombe to rescue the event. Johnson is clearly no longer involved at a critical level and, according to several reliable accounts, had not yet met with members of the junkanoo community. I am reliably informed that Mr Wilchcombe met with aggrieved junkanoo leaders yesterday.
Rather than seeking to celebrate carnival out of season, why can’t we develop our own native festival, one that is centred on a theme Bahamians could generally celebrate, where genuine passion could be felt? The Barbadians have Crop Over, which is a summer festival that attracts visitors from across the globe and, more notably, can be traced to the 1780s, when Barbados led the world in the production of sugar. Crop Over for Bajans is a genuine part of their heritage, which formerly marked the conclusion of prosperous sugar cane harvest. It is literally a colourful, extravaganza that runs over a two-month period and incorporates various elements of Barbados’ culture.
Comparably, our junkanoo carnival – in its current incarnation – seems to be a totally fabricated concept, a made-up hallmark holiday (think sweetest day in the US or Valentine’s Day) that is not anchored in anything of significance, that still baffles as to how it will positively impact the lives of ordinary people and that seems on the fast track to just flittering away.
Why are we seeking to jump on the bandwagon of the commercial successes of Brazil, Trinidad and elsewhere without the historical and cultural significance of their events? And yes, carnival may be a globally known brand but, is it ours?
For our government to even consider hiring Janet Jackson to headline the first carnival, who I’m reliably informed would have come at a cost of $1.1m for herself with an additional $800,000 for staging and production activities, we must have escaped reality. This is especially insulting when one considers the fact that government agencies/departments and associated event planners balk at paying Bahamian musical artists $1,500. Janet Jackson has not had a hit song in years so I wonder why the negotiators and persons pursuing her so gladly took leave of their senses. Certainly, even if they wish to use a visiting artist – and one has no issue with that – such a person should not be the draw but instead a supplement to the main event.
I understand Kirk Bodie’s (famously known as KB) frustrations. If we are earmarking $9m for a festival, it must be one that uplifts our people. Bahamian musicians should be featured prominently and amply paid; after all, it is these musicians who tell our stories in their folkloric approaches to recordings. How dare we exclude them and have them participate in some competition that has a Soca twist to it? Even that song competition was not authentically Bahamian!
Sadly, our identity is not as crystallised and anchored as it should be. Why have we compromised where we have come from as a people, as a nation with its own historical struggles and cultural highlights?
I note the Bahamas Christian Council’s (BCC) recent statement on the carnival, which I feel was totally inflammatory. The BCC denounced the “immodest” costumes for the planned event, saying the scant attire could lead to “fornication, promiscuity, rape, incest” and other “sins of the flesh”. While applauding the government for seeking ways to boost revenue, Christian Council President Rev Dr Ranford Patterson said it appears as though Bahamian women’s sexuality is “being overtly exploited for monetary gain”. He said that in the current atmosphere of promoting gender equality, the carnival commission should not display women as “mere objects of lust”.
I think the BCC is once again “running out” and taking it beyond the pale. Sex is not rape; rape comes from sexual violence. How do they simply lump all of this together?
I was talking to friends about the response of Bahamian men when it comes to our special lady and whether we would be keen on festival goers gyrating or dancing in a street parade with our special someone. The overwhelming response was “heck no”. A friend jokingly stated that most Bahamian men who think to attend such a parade with their ladies have already whispered their conditions for attendance in her ear. Whilst that yielded laughter, knowing Bahamian men and the thinking by some, it bears some truth and, in reality, could result in violent displays by some crazed and jealous male or female. I have found, via my interviews, that we are not as open-minded as some people in other jurisdictions where such events are held.
Although our culture is what makes us Bahamian, our creativity is buried by our knack to copy everything that’s foreign, as we have little to no appreciation or recognition for what we have already created (our architecture, our relation to the sea, our music, our dances, the original form of junkanoo, etc). Since independence, we have grossly neglected our culture.
According to former Director of Culture Nicolette Bethel, “our history has trained us to disregard and disrespect everything home-grown, and our governments have institutionalised the disrespect”. This is so true.
Our culture has to be taught. In recent years, I purchased a number of locally-written books to read to my son and to bask in the greatness of Bahamian culture. One such book is entitled “Once Below a Time: Bahamian Stories” (edited by Telcine Turner). It is one of those literary pieces that has and will expose my son to many of our folkloric stories, many versions of which I grew up listening to in Long Island.
These days, even within The Bahamas, Bahamian culture seems to have become dwarfed by Jamaican, Haitian and, even more prevalent, American customs. Frankly, The Bahamas can almost be seen as the 51st state or perhaps an extension of the Florida Keys!
With the passage of time, Bahamian culture is becoming even more suppressed and is being speedily replaced by an apparent fixation and glorification of all things foreign. When it comes to food, American fast food chains are widespread as many Bahamians seem to have acquired a taste for foreign dishes that competes with their penchant for native dishes. So, quite honestly, even Bahamian cuisine is taking a back seat to the hodgepodge of international gastronomy that has now found a home in The Bahamas.
And, let’s be honest about junkanoo, which has itself been politically exploited and viewed as a money-making scheme that is losing its cultural flair and has, first and foremost, been marketed as a tourist attraction and then seen as a cultural expression. Junkanoo, which was born during the pre-emancipation era, was a grand dance that was organised by the slaves during special holidays at Christmas that gave them an opportunity to reunite with relatives, reconnect with their African heritage and temporarily enjoy themselves while away from the laborious plantation routines. Junkanoo began as a form of passive resistance to slavery.
The sounds of rake ’n scrape are known musical expressions of Bahamian culture, developing increasingly on the heels of such great artists as Joseph Spence, Eddie Minnis and the Ancient Man. A few years ago, I recall sitting on a plane to Holland on the side of a very inquiring guy from Tennessee whose musical icon was the late Joseph Spence. Although Bahamian music is not locally treasured as it should be, this shows that genuine aspects of our culture are appreciated and revered even outside The Bahamas!
I fear that even our most original cultural aspect – our dialect – is in jeopardy of being replaced by foreign lingo, without us even thinking about it. Bahamian dialect originated from a marriage between African languages and European elements (British). It began as a communicative tool between the slaves and their masters, having an inconsistency of pronunciation (of English words) that developed over time and today serves as a distinguishing characteristic of Bahamians.
We have to cease this habit of being A-1 imitators because it demonstrates a total lack of self-esteem. As it stands, it seems that we don’t think enough of ourselves to believe that anything Bahamian could stand-up to international scrutiny.
Our self-hatred is unfortunately becoming deep rooted. We always require international validation, from our government’s choice of consultants to these so-called carnival headliners. We must do better.