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Junkanoo: Behind the Scenes with the Valley Boys

Judith Brisson | Canada, Bahamas

Dancer festooned with feathers, beads, sequence, and an elaborate headdress that took up to a year to create, Boxing Day parade, 2016.

The world-renowned festival, Junkanoo (Bahamas), has its roots in the time of the British slave trade, where the three days free from work were celebrated with around-the-clock processions, dancing and music. With its origins in West Africa's masked dances, today's celebrants fashion costumes, floats and masks out of humble materials: cardboard, wire, paint, crepe paper, glue and glitter to create a glorious extravaganza of colour, whose wearers weave elaborate choreographies in competitive groups led by floats and marching bands. The infectious music gets the crowds on their feet and permeates the downtown core of Nassau from midnight until well past dawn. As part of this photo essay, I had the opportunity to visit and photograph inside the "shack" of one of Nassau's most important Junkanoo crews: the Valley Boys. The exact location of each construction site is a closely-guarded secret so that the public presentation of themes, floats and costumes is kept a surprise until the very nights of Junkanoo, December 26th and January 1st at 12am sharp.

Many thanks to the Valley Boys and the gracious people of the Bahamas

I was captivated by the transformation of Yoruba, Igbo and other West African masked spiritual traditions, having survived the middle passage and the inhumanity of slavery, into the festive contemporary pageantry of Junkanoo. Having studied West African dance myself, I recognised the fluid and cadenced  moves of the dancers, as they pulsed to the syncopated rhythms of a variety of brass instruments and drums fashioned out of recycled barrels. There was a palpable joy. both in the procession and the stands of spectators, as no one was immune to the spirit of the occasion. To me it seemed a testament to the power of the human spirit to rise up and create beauty with art, despite the origination of this tradition in the abomination of the slave trade.


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