The swish of cardboard costumes. The clang of cowbells. The thrumming of goatskin drums. These sounds of the Junkanoo make Arlene Nash-Ferguson’s heart soar. This musical masquerade parade is so beloved in the Bahamas that it not only dances through the streets of Nassau on Boxing Day, as is the tradition, but it’s also celebrated during the Junkanoo Summer Festival in July and August.
Nash-Ferguson is the grand dame of Junkanoo in the Bahamas. She’s the founding co-host of the weekly Junkanoo 242 radio show and author of I Come to Get Me: An Inside Look at the Junkanoo Festival. For 20 years, she has provided the world with an inside look at the festival through her organization Educulture Bahamas.
The Educulture Junkanoo Museum, located in Nassau, includes not only sponge costumes from decades past but also the requisite ramshackle “shack,” where contemporary cardboard-and-paper costumes are painstakingly pieced together. “You can’t buy a Junkanoo costume,” she says. “When you make your costume, it is part of this tremendous expression of community spirit, camaraderie and pride. That’s what makes Junkanoo such a unique experience.”
What distinguishes Junkanoo in the Bahamas? We create our own music; we don’t dance to taped music. Our musicians play the drums and bells and horns in costume and parade with us.
How old were you when you first participated in Junkanoo? I was 4. Back then, if you were from a “good” family, you didn’t participate—especially the women. But my Uncle Ivern had helped get Junkanoo reinstated in 1948. So a few years later, when I asked to Junkanoo, they thought, ‘How nice, she takes after her uncle,’ and let me join in.”
After all these years, how does it feel for you to take part in Junkanoo? It is so natural to me, as natural as breathing.
Arlene’s Nassau A-list
Debbie’s (Grant’s Town): The cracked conch at this takeaway counter is absolutely delicious.
Fish Fry (aka Arawak Cay): There is a whole slew of local eateries there that fix conch in so many different ways. I especially love the conch salad.
Old Nassau: The area is so full of history, with many beautiful historic buildings. It has such warm memories for me from my childhood.