For spectators and participants, the rhythmic tum tum of the goatskin drum rushing past in a Junkanoo parade has a magnetic appeal. The drums “rumble in ya belly,” as we say in the Bahamas, like a defibrillator jumpstarting your sense of jubilation. I started “rushing” Junkanoo as a child; the night before the parade our house was always buzz with activity as we finished gluing the fringed strips of crepe paper onto our old clothes. After midnight in the dark of the early morning, we would make our way to Bay Street and line up with other Junkanoos, waiting for the drums rumble, the percussion bands to sound off and the rush to begin.
Junkanoo is the Bahamas’ signature cultural festival: The spectacle is in the flamboyance of the costumes, the intoxicating nature of the music and the sequencing of the performances. Our other festivals are often overshadowed by the popularity of Junkanoo, but they create an equally appealing reason to visit the islands of the Bahamas.
Cat Island Rake and Scrape
The soundtrack for your getaway to Cat Island will be percussion-rich Rake and Scrape. This traditional Bahamian music is created with homemade instruments: a screwdriver scraping across the jagged edge of a workman’s saw, a washtub raked with a spiny brush, and the ever-present goatskin drum. Rooms are scarce in Cat Island during the festival, which takes place in the first weekend of June; book far advance for a weekend of food, spirits and Bahamian music.
You must squeeze and weave through the crowd as it packs up downtown Nassau for a front-row seat to Junkanoo. The main streets are closed to car traffic and lined with bleachers, so that spectators can watch as Junkanoo groups dance through town in colorful bejeweled costumes to the pulsating tum tum of the goatskin drum. The marvelous parade happens only two days a year in its full assembly: after midnight on Boxing Day, and on New Year’s morning. Smaller versions of the event take place throughout the year at cultural festivals, hotel events and private functions.
Junkanoo Summer Festival
Spectators can grab a whistle and experience the thrill of Junkanoo in the summertime at this downtown Nassau street party. Every Friday and Saturday in July, masqueraders armed with bugles, cowbells and goatskin drums dance along the harborfront and through the town displaying the colorful fun and flavor of the Bahamas. Junkanoo is at the heart of this summer festival, but arts and craft and Bahamian gastronomy are also highlighted.
National Family Island Regatta
While the term “regatta” usually connotes sailing competitions in other parts of the world, in the Bahamas it primarily refers to the concerts and food festivals that go along with the traditional Bahamian celebrations of boat building and sloop sailing. The National Family Island Regatta in George Town, Exuma is the largest of them all, with sailing races all day and lively entertainment in the festival village at night.
Eleuthera All That Jazz Festival
The annual Jazz festival in Eleuthera gathers together prestigious international musicians and Bahamian Jazz artists for a weekend of staccato rhythms and improvised melodies. Performances take place at multiple venues in George Town: Under an open air pavilion at the Leon Levy Nature Preserve, surrounded by the smells of fragrant native woods and flowering plants; on the steps of The Haynes Library overlooking the harbor; and across the island.