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Jonkunnu still scaring out the living daylights


The Marcus Garvey Jonkunnu Band displays some dance moves at the Ranny Williams Entertainment Centre, St. Andrew, on Sunday. - Winston Sill

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.

JONKUNNU'S ROOTS

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.

INSTILLING FEAR

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.

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