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JONKONNU MASQUERADE IN JAMAICA

 

Jonkonoo Maquerade Band

Jonkonnu (John Canoe) is a band of masqueraders who usually perform in towns and villages at Christmas time. In Jamaica, this type of celebration took the form of masked dancing, acting processions and revelry. Jonkonnu or John Canoe has a very long tradition as a folk festival in Jamaica. The Jonkonnu customs dates back as far as the days of slavery, but at that time the bands were very large and elaborate which was an important element in Christmas carnivals.

The slaves indulged in this custom as a part of their principal holiday custom. Jonkonnu became identified with Christmas festivities because Christmas was the only major holiday for the slaves. The Jonkonnu masquerade was noted as the earliest traditional dance of African descent still to be found in Jamaica.

It is believed that Jonkonnu practices had their origins in West African secret societies but has evolved. This evolution was mainly through the influences of the European masquerade tradition and the addition of distinct Creole elements in the post emancipation period. What resulted in the heyday of Jonkonnu was an African rhythmic drumming and European costume, plus some dramatic content.

The ancient art form declined rapidly in the mid 1800s, and in 1841 the mayor of Kingston banned Jonkonnu Parades. This was as a result of the frequent clashes between revelers and the police. Jonkonnu became almost non-existent, with the exception of the rural areas which were excluded from the ban. However, Jonkonnu was revitalized around 1951 when the Daily Gleaner sponsored a Jonkonnu competition and the level of participation showed that Jonkonnu masquerade tradition was still alive.

The essence of masquerade is the disguise of the players but the recognition by the public whom they represented. Jonkonnu troupes all were male; the participants wore wire screen masks, headwraps, headdresses, and danced to the fife and drum. Their entourage consisted of named characters who, in most cases could be distinguished by their costumes. Characters varied from place to place, and in style and presentation, and also there were certain characters which a Jonkonnu band had to have, according to evidence from the 1952 revival of Jonkonnu.

Traditional Jamaican Jonkonnu featured costumed characters including, Pitchy-Patchy, Masquerade queen, Ku-Ku or Actor Boy, Warrior, Devil, Belly woman, Policeman, Babu the East Indian and Cowhead or Horse head. Over the years the core characters have changed, variations have occurred, and new characters have been added to the performing ensemble.
· Pitch – Patchy or Paul Pry in multi-coloured rags, shakes the rags and body telling crowd to make way. It is believed that Pitchy - Patchy's contact with Jack in the Green aided his survival by bringing Pitchy-Patchy from the bush to the lawns and streets.

  • Masquerade Queen wears a crown and veils face; also John Crow feathers and Jamaica beads.
  • King and Queen wear costumes of shiny material and crown of cardboard covered with silver paper. The Queen was generally dressed in white with a white veil completely covering her face.
  • Ku-Ku or Actor Boy character dresses elaborately and carries a house on his head.
  • Warrior wears the tallest head dress and carries hatchet and sword. The dance consists of great leaps crossing his sword and hatchet over the head.
  • Devil
    Devil dressed in all black pants and shirt, mesh wire mask of tarred black mask with cow tail beard and moustache, prances and capers. He wears a bell in place of a tail moving constantly with pelvic motions making the bell ring. He also carries a two pronged fork.
  • Belly woman – a man dressed as a pregnant woman with out-size stomach which slips as he dances, in jigging steps. Her antics, especially her ability to make her belly move in time to the music, are designed to amuse the onlookers.
  • Policeman - costumed as a real policeman. Usually this mock policeman would be added to keep onlookers in order.
  • Babu the East Indian - his role was inspired by the immigration of East Indian indentured servants into Jamaica. Babu represented the East Indian Cowhead. He is usually dressed in white, wearing a loose fitting over blouse and knee length wrapped pants. He danced with a jig step, using hatchets and bows and arrows in exciting gestures.
  • The Cowhead or Horse Head character wore a complete costume of horns and skins; also a cloth tail is tied to the dancer's backside. Cow Head did characteristic motions of butting with the body bent low, while Horse Head, with the head of the animal placed so that the player's own head was not seen, galloped and kicked like a real horse

 

Jonkonno Musicians

The Jonkonnu band always included a musical band consisting of one or more drums, a bamboo fife, cow horn or conk shell and often a grater scraped with a fork. In some parts of the island, the tambourine is used not only for shaking but also to produce a groaning sound.

Jonkonnu musicians
Today the Jonkonnu festival is still celebrated in Jamaica. Wynter notes that, the celebrations steadily decrease in effectiveness and meaning but with the revival of Jonkonnu as a folk dance entry in national festival it gives new lease of life and official acceptance.

References

Barnett, Sheila. "Jonkonnu - Pitchy Patchy" Jamaica Journal 13 (1980): 19-32
Baxter, Ivy. The Arts of an Island: The Development of the Culture and of the Folk and Creative
Arts in Jamaica 1494 - 1962 (Independence). Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press,
1970.
Bettelheim, Judith, "The Jonkonnu Festival: It's Relation to Caribbean and African
Masquerades". Jamaica Journal 10:2, 3 &4 1976: 20-27
- - -. "The Afro Jamaican Jonkonnu Festival: Playing the Forces and Operating the Cloth - Vol.
1." Diss. Yale University, 1979.
Ryman, Cheryl. "Jonkonnu: A Neo-African Form part 1" Jamaica Journal 17.1 (1984): 13-27
Senior, Olive. Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. Kingston: Twin Guinep Publishers,
2003.
Wynter, Silvia. "Jonkonnu in Jamaica: Towards the Interpretation of Folk Dance as a Cultural
Process" Jamaica Journal 4.2 (1980): 34-48

December 2011.


 

 


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