AFTER YEARS of inactivity, Jonkunnu bands from around the island marked their return with a brilliant display through the streets of Kingston on Sunday.
Jonkunnu (also spelt Jonkonnu, John Canoe, John Konno and John Canou) can be traced back to the 'free' time given to slaves during the Christmas holidays. Jonkunnu performances occurred between Christmas and New Year as the slaves celebrated their freedom with dances and festivals.
Some say Jonkunnu was a West African celebration in honour of a revered chief. Others say Jonkunnu originated in West African secret societies and still others point to the European tradition of masking.
However it began, Jonkonnu has joined the tradition of masquerades from Africa with those of a European nature and British mimes.
The traditional set of Jonkonnu characters included the horned 'Cow Head', 'Policeman', 'Horse Head', 'Wild Indian', 'Devil', 'Belly-woman', 'Pitchy-Patchy' and sometimes a 'Bride' and 'House Head', who carried an image of a great house on his head.
The costumes varied according to different areas for example, fancy dress bands were said to come more from St. Elizabeth, Westmoreland and Hanover. Yet all were bright, elaborate and colourful.
Although Jamaica is credited with the longest running tradition of Jonkunnu, today these mysterious bands with their gigantic costumes appear more as entertainment at cultural events than at random along our streets. On Sunday, the bands marked their return at this time of year by being a part of the Jonkunnu Mento Festival put on by the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC). The groups present for the festival marched from the Marketplace on Constant Spring Road to the Ranny Williams Entertainment Centre.
They were unusual enough to catch the attention of onlookers.
Between Half-Way Tree and the Ranny Williams Entertainment Centre, traffic slowed as the bands from Westmoreland, St. Ann, St. Mary, St. Elizabeth and Kingston caught the attention of onlookers, some of whom were witnessing a Jonkunnu parade for the first time.
At Devon House, frightened children clutched their mothers as the characters such as the 'Devil', the 'Pitchy Patchy' and the 'Horse Head' approached them in menacing fashion. One little girl, who seemed puzzled by the spectacles, screamed and ran behind her mother when the 'Devil' from the Grange Hill Jonkunnu band came within a foot of her.
Motorists paused to catch glimpses of a piece of Jamaica's culture long thought to be dead. Some adults commented that they had not seen such a scene for years. One motorist driving a white Toyota Hiace minivan, dipped into his pocket to contribute to the Marcus Garvey Jonkunnu band from St. Ann after he was approached by the 'Devil' of the group.
Rain threatened to put a damper on the groups' performances at the Ranny Williams Entertainment Centre, St. Andrew, causing a minor delay to the day's programme. However, the display continued when the rain had subsided.
If the children were frightened earlier on, later it was the time for the adults to feel the same at the Ranny Williams Centre. The 'Horse Head' characters of the various groups, each in possession a whip, kept the audience gathered in the performing area constantly moving as they playfully flashed their whips.
The well attended festival ended with the Mento Band competition and the Jonkunnu competition for schools.
THOUGH THESE images from the very popular The Christmas Song do not relate to a Jamaican Christmas, they and their ilk are becoming more popular marks of the Yuletide season locally. Snowmen, snowflakes and Santa Claus are all popular figures. So too are the icicle lights, which mimic snow and icicle dangling from eaves in countries, which actually have a winter. As such, it seems as though Christmas in Jamaica is becoming increasingly Eurocentric.
While the Poinsettia (and the less popularly known Snow of the Mountain) have remained, local Christmas traditions seem to be dying. The most prominent of these is the Jonkunnu tradition which just a few years ago seemed to be on the brink of death. While Jonkunnu bands remained in a few very rural areas, they had been all but lost in urban Jamaica.
Hazel Campbell recalls her experience of Jonkunnu on the website geocities.com/shandycan/culture_notes.html.
She remarks: "The cry 'Jonkunnu a come!' or the music heralding their approach always created excitement, as people poured out of their houses to line the street to watch the masqueraders dancing, cavorting, entertaining before passing a container around for contributions. Children, big and small, and even adults would run away screaming as Devil jabbed at them with his fork, Horsehead snapped at their heels or Cowhead tried to butt those in his path. Of course, both drums and players would be 'sweetened' with white rum."
In the past, Jonkunnu bands did not merely perform, they also collected money. Marva, a 30-something-year-old, remembers that the Jonkunnu used to collect money from the bystanders when she was a child.
She recalls an incident where her mother gave a band member too much money. Marva recalls: "Him say, Jonkunnu no gi' back change, an run gawn wid Mama money."
Many older Jamaicans have various stories of their experiences with the Jonkunnu band. One of the major memories, however, is fright.
It is a feeling which transcends generations, as several children showed last Sunday at the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission's (JCDC) Jonkunnu Food Festival on the grounds of the Ranny Williams Entertainment Centre in St. Andrew. Several of the children were quite frightened by the characters, especially Devil and Horsehead.
A boy of around 10 years was confronted by Horsehead and decided to face him bravely. He looked up at the character somewhat askance with an expression which suggested "yuh expecting to frighten me?" However when the jaws snapped a few inches from his head, the boy decided to change his tactics and run for cover.
The parents attending seemed to have no worries about their children being traumatised by their first encounter with Jonkunnu. Audrey Robinson noted that she rather appreciated the festival.
One of the aspects she enjoyed was that it gave her a chance to socialise with her children. The other was that it kept her in touch with the culture she knew growing up. "When you born and grow in the country like me, it's (the Jonkunnu parade) very pleasant," she said.
A brief walk through Emancipation Park this Yuletide season will acquaint or re-acquaint one with the characters who make up a Jonkunnu band. Displayed in effigy are Pitchy-Patchy, Horsehead, Belly Woman, Jack In the Green, Houseboat, and The Sailor. Other characters that can make up a band are Cowhead, Actor Boy, Bushdoctor, Amerinidian and the Devil. These characters combine European and African elements.
The spelling Jonkunnu (or variations thereof) raises many questions, as does the origins of the name of the masquerade. At various times the word is spelt Jonkunnu, Jonkunoo, John Canou or John Konno. How the name is spelt and the belief about its origins are sometimes related. There are some who suggest the correct spelling is John Canoe and this comes from the belief that it is named after a slave master who was particularly kind to his employees, and so the masquerade was named after him.
In History of Jamaica (as quoted on the website talawa.demon.co.uk/maskarade.htm), Edward Long points out that the name is possibly derived from John Conny, a celebrated Cabaceras, or head of a tribe, in Tres Puntus, Axim. One thing which is clear, however, is the reason Jonkunnu takes place at Christmas. Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's were the only days the slaves had free and thus were used liberally.
It must be recognised that the Jonkunnu band was about more than scaring people or drinking rum. The march through the streets was a carnivalesque expression of freedom. Additionally, the participants wore masks because during the Jonkunnu they took extreme liberties with the island's ruling class. The European elements was not merely mimicry; it was mockery.
The site talawa.demon. co.uk/maskarade.htm contains the following entry from Peter Marsden's An Account of the Island of Jamaica: "At Christmas the slaves are allowed three days holiday, during which time they are quite at liberty, and have herrings, flour and rum. They dance minuets... imitating the motion and steps of the English but with a degree of affection that renders the whole truly laughable and ridiculous... A gentleman some years ago was murdered here by his slaves, purely because he obliged them to work on the days appointed for holidays."
Though its political significance have long been muted, Jonkunnu retains some relevance for the Jamaican public if only to be one of the focal points as globalisation continues to force-feed receiving countries the dominant cultures of the world.
The distinctive drum and fife may yet play on in defiance of time.